The recent arrest of Charles Lynch, the former owner of Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers San Luis Obispo County's only (and now-defunct) medical marijuana dispensary apparently hasn't discouraged others from plans to open similar businesses.
"It won't really deter me because the threat has always been there," said Ken Estes, who owns several medical marijuana dispensaries around the state.
He said that he hopes to open a cannabis co-op in Shell Beach, and plans to begin the process next month.
And a local man who's already begun the process of opening an establishment in Templeton shares Estes' feeling on the matter.
"We've known since the day we started this there is danger associated with this, but we'll continue to move forward," said Kent Connella. "I feel it's unfair to the people of California that their medicine is not being provided."
On July 17, Lynch was charged with violating federal law for allegedly distributing copious amounts of marijuana. Though he says he was following the guidelines of Proposition 215, the state act that gives patients and caregivers the green light when it comes to providing and using medicinal marijuana, he was ultimately nailed by the federal judicial hammer.
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Sergeant Brian Hascall alleged that Lynch was also making excessive profits though he hasn't been charged on any such count under state law.
Money does matter. Estes said that he believes, in general, money is at the root of the downfall of most dispensaries.
"I talked with my attorneys, and they say I can make $100,000 a year and not much more. So that's what I do, and I put all the money back into the business," Estes said. "If you're ultimately all about the profit and money, you'll get caught up."
Estes himself has been forced to close down a handful of dispensaries in areas such as Hayward, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego. He's been on the receiving end of moratoriums, cease-and-desist orders, and arrests. He's paid thousands of dollars in attorney's fees and has spent years in legal battles. He said that in a 2000 action, police confiscated 1,200 cannabis plants, nearly five pounds of marijuana, and $12,000. Despite it all, he's still on the go.
"They take your money, and then they drop it," Estes said of his experiences with law enforcement agencies dealing with his dispensaries. "There's a compassionate side to the courts and a mean-spirited side of the court. I go to the court and explain it's medicine and they see me in a wheelchair and the juries believe in it. They are the compassionate ones. But there's a lot of people that have chosen a hatred for marijuana over the love and compassion."
Rick Neufeld, a sergeant for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department, said the media and supporters of medical marijuana have presented the drug in the best possible light, which has ultimately misled the public concerning what's really on the books.
"People really haven't read the law," he said. "They are just going by what the spin doctors say because that's what they want to hear.
"If you read the law, it says nothing about selling marijuana," Neufeld continued. "There's no such thing as a dispensary. I would call it a retail medical marijuana store. If another one pops up, we are going to do whatever it takes to enforce the law."
The law concerning medical marijuana is still a little hazy, especially where state and federal laws conflict. Many dispensary owners and employees are viewed as nothing more than "drug traffickers," according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Still, county senior planner Bill Robeson said that Lynch's recent arrest doesn't make the planning department more worried about issuing a permit for a medical marijuana dispensary in SLO County.
"We have adopted ordinance text that sets regulations and performance standards for medical marijuana dispensaries," he said. "We still have to continue to use those regulations to review permits for medical marijuana dispensaries. It seems like there is a need to obtain medical marijuana in a safe and legal way here."
According to Robeson, the biggest challenge involving opening a SLO County cannabis co-op is the apprehension of the communities in which such a business is being considered.
"The main fear is that these places attract criminal activity," he said.
But his discussions with other county officials tend to reveal the opposite effect.
"I've seen and talked to some other jurisdictions in Northern California, in places like Berkeley and San Francisco, and they let me know that a lot of dispensaries have been running without any major problems," he said.
"No one wants to keep someone that is genuinely ill from using medical marijuana," Neufeld said. "If it really helps them, then I don't think that in California you're going to get prosecuted. The problem is that many people that have or are getting medical marijuana cards aren't really sick. They figured out a way to manipulate the system for their own benefit."
Not everyone agrees. Recently, local physician Dr. Atsuko Rees of HealthWorks in San Luis Obispo began issuing prescriptions for medical marijuana.
Rees estimates that she sees about a half-dozen patients a week seeking a medically approved recommendation for cannabis. Most of her patients, she said, are 50 to 60 years old and are dealing with serious illnesses such as chronic pain, insomnia, nausea, and problems associated with eating.
Rees said that the biggest misconception about medical marijuana is that it's highly addictive.
"I think people who have never dealt with this are afraid of it because they think it is addictive like narcotics, but it's not," she said. "I think alcohol and cigarettes are a lot more addictive."
She said that a local dispensary is necessary and would be very beneficial because it would help the many people who can't drive to Buellton in Santa Barbara County, home of what's currently the nearest medicinal marijuana dispensary.
In an effort to help bring SLO County's marijuana-seeking patients their medicine in a timelier manner, Estes said
he's willing to make many personal sacrifices.
"Someone needs to step up like me and say they are willing to put their freedom, money, and time on the line in order to keep pushing this issue," Estes said. "I'm going to step up to the system and do whatever it takes even if I have to go to jail. I'm here for the long term."
Estes' mind is made up: He or someone like him will open another SLO County medical marijuana dispensary, regardless of the potential repercussions.
"Hang on. Relief is coming. If it's not me, it's going to be someone else," Estes said. "Medical marijuana is not going to go away."
Staff Writer Kai Beech can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.