It’s just like “Breaking Bad” — not easy dealing pot legally in Orange County

CALIFORNIA: Yoga Girl has just woken up from a nap.

The smile on her face suggests it’s postcoital. Slender and pale with an upturned nose, she has long, curly hair swept over her shoulder. She wears a pair of tight yoga-style gray sweatpants and an indigo-colored top. Her boyfriend, who is shirtless with black slacks, is a handsome, tanned teenager with a slicked-back blond mane and an uncanny resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio.

Yoga Girl is a college freshman from Los Angeles who grew up in Newport Beach and has just moved back home for the summer, renting an apartment a few blocks from the beach. She’s counting out twenty dollar bills on a coffee table while her boyfriend stretches out on a futon.

“Here you go,” she says. “That’s my ID card. Do you have change for $200?”

Standing next to the coffee table is someone I’ve known for years who prefers, for the purposes of this book, to be identified only as “Racer X.”

He’s a short, wiry surfer with a crew cut, tattoos on his arms, and a briefcase full of manila envelopes, each of which contains from one to six airtight, plastic containers full of medical marijuana. The girl has just shown him her State of California Medical Marijuana Identification Card (she’d read her ID number to Racer X’s boss over the phone an hour or so earlier), and Racer X has just handed her an envelope containing a quarter-ounce of pot, half of which is Lavender Kush—at seventy-five dollars per eighth, one of the luxury strains available to medical marijuana smokers—and half of which is Northern Kush, which is also seventy-five dollars per eighth-ounce.

Racer X is a part-time driver for one of some two dozen cannabis clubs in Orange County that offer members door-to-door marijuana delivery services. His day job involves stocking groceries at a local supermarket chain. He’s been a recreational marijuana smoker for years, typically toking up early in the morning before hitting the waves on his days off or in the evenings after work. He bought his pot from a dealer and fellow surfer whom we’ll call “the Big Kahuna.”

For years, the Big Kahuna had made a decent living selling pot to customers such as Racer X. But as his client base aged, got married, had kids, and smoked less weed, he began to worry about finding a real job. It didn’t help that hundreds of marijuana dispensaries had since opened their doors in Los Angeles, offering high-quality marijuana to anyone with a doctor’s note. After the Orange County Board of Supervisors, following several similar votes by their colleagues elsewhere around the state, voted in July 2007 to allow county residents to apply for state medical-marijuana ID cards, the Big Kahuna formed a legally registered nonprofit cooperative that would supply medical marijuana to members of the “club.” He attended classes held by the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (better known by its acronym, NORML) and learned how to operate within the somewhat fuzzy boundaries established in state law for the operation of such collectives.

The Big Kahuna created a website for his club—the name of which he asked not to be revealed—and advertised on various marijuana websites, such as www.weedmaps.com and www.weedtracker.com; Yoga Girl found the club through one of the two sites.

“I think it was Weedmaps,” she says.

“We just looked for the closest one in our ZIP code,” her boyfriend chimes in.

“Yeah, that’s how we found you,” says Yoga Girl, who adds that she discovered Weedmaps through her sorority sisters in Los Angeles. There was a cannabis dispensary conveniently located down the street from her dormitory. “Now that I’m down here for the summer, I didn’t want to drive up to L.A.,” she says. “For safety reasons, too. If you have enough money for a card, having it delivered to you is definitely the way to go. You know, why not?”

I ask her what symptom she has that allows her to smoke marijuana. Yoga Girl pauses for a moment. “Uh, migraines?” she finally ventures. “I use it as a, um, sleep aid. Yeah.”

“Does it work?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah; yeah, it does,” she says, giggling.

Racer X laughs with delight as he zips up his briefcase and nods at the door. He’s in a rush to make it to his next delivery on schedule. “Oh, yeah,” Racer X exclaims, waving good-bye to Yoga Girl. “Weed works, baby!”

* * *

An hour earlier on this breezy summer day in 2009, I’m sitting with Racer X and the Big Kahuna in a small room inside a two-bedroom house in Newport Beach. It’s the Big Kahuna’s home office, headquarters of his six-year-old cannabis club, which he opened up to new members in November 2008. An American flag hangs on the wall, and stacks of large, airtight plastic bins fill one of the room’s corners, all of them stuffed with one of nineteen strains of marijuana with gloriously hyperbolic handles and descriptions such as Skywalker (a “tractor beam to Super Spacey!”) and Sour Diesel (“Good luck shutting up; Ramble alert!”). Two computers, one of which is cranking alternative rock via Pandora, a free online music station, take up a wraparound desk in another corner of the room. Several open containers of marijuana lay on the few available flat surfaces.

As usual, the Big Kahuna is sitting shirtless in his chair, flexing his large forearms around a giant glass bong. He takes a deep hit from the device and exhales powerfully into a one-inch-thick plastic tube that he has rigged to a spot in the wall near an air-conditioning unit. “That stuff can go outside,” he explains, nodding at the smoke. “I don’t care. It’s legal.”

Just then, his cell phone rings. The Big Kahuna spends the next twenty minutes explaining the various benefits of different strains of marijuana to a repeat customer who agrees to buy a quarter-ounce of a sativa strain. “There are two major groups of cannabis: indica and sativa,” he tells me after hanging up. “Most of the weed coming into California and being grown in California in the past twenty years was all indica because people wanted to get stoned and sit on the couch. But if you give that indica to patients who are in pain, in misery, already in a bad place, it takes them down and makes them depressed and suicidal. Sativa is an upper, like coffee. It kills the pain and leaves the patient awake and aware and motivated instead of mellow.”

The person who just called has ordered a few eighths of a sativa strain, the Big Kahuna explains. “This guy has a metal rod inserted in his back, and it’s fused to his spine. He’s been on painkillers for ten years and is trying to get off them. He’s a regular customer. This is his third or fourth time. He orders from us every couple of weeks.”

A former pot dealer who spent time in jail after being set up by a large-scale pot mover who turned out to be an informant for the local police department of this affluent coastal suburban town, the Big Kahuna is an expert in what is legal and what is not so legal when it comes to medical marijuana. He’s determined to stay on the legal side of things—unlike, he asserts, the hundreds of L.A. cannabis dispensaries that have opened in the past several years, many of which have been subjected to raids by both state and federal law-enforcement authorities.
“These dispensaries offer everything,” he explains. “Food, drink, tinctures, concentrates like hashish, and all that stuff isn’t outlined in the law.”

The law in question, State Bill 420, which was enacted in 2008 to regulate medical marijuana, only allows dispensaries and clubs to grow and provide to their members dried cannabis. For that reason, the Big Kahuna tells me, he can only obtain marijuana from members of his club, all of whom must live in Orange County. He can’t buy pot from growers, say, in Los Angeles or Northern California. He can deliver the locally grown pot to as many members of the club who live in Orange County as he wishes, so long as he has each member sign a form designating him as their primary caregiver. According to California NORML, there are nearly 150 delivery services throughout the state, most of them in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The Big Kahuna tells me that the big L.A. dispensaries are also delivering marijuana to customers in Orange County, despite SB420 stating that designated caregivers can’t cross county lines. “It’s the Wild West up in L.A.,” he complains. “They are getting busted because they are bringing five pounds of weed in the back door and selling it out the front door, whereas we don’t do more than an ounce, which is what a [single] person could truly consume.” While the Big Kahuna acknowledges that half of his club’s members “just want to get high,” he says the other half is made up of legitimate patients.

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