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Weed on Wheels – inside a medicinal marijuana delivery service

By Dean Schaffer | 25 Oct 2010

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In a typical day, Clinton Cronin's collective makes about a dozen deliveries of medicinal marijuana, like the sample pictured above. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

Clinton Cronin rings the doorbell. “Delivery!” he calls, for the 10th time today. When the door opens, Cronin accepts two $20 bills, refuses a tip and hands over not a pizza, but a sealed medicine bottle containing an eighth of an ounce of medicinal marijuana.

On average, Cronin’s organization—the Northern California Natural Collective—makes about a dozen deliveries like this one each day, in a region ranging from southern San Jose to San Mateo County. Since its April opening, the Collective has delivered marijuana to more than 1,000 patients. Unless a customer is a new patient, requiring a formal approval process, Cronin and his drivers usually deliver orders within an hour, and, yes, the Collective takes credit cards.

“If you’re calling for delivery, it’s gotta be like the pizza guy,” Clinton said.

A patient himself, Cronin turned to cannabis as an alternative to painkillers after undergoing elbow surgery. He used delivery services but was not always satisfied. “They were like the cable guy,” he said, “with a four-hour window when I just had to wait around for them to come.” Often they did not charge sales tax, a common sign of illegal activity, and his suspicions motivated him to start his own service.

Cronin explains that the Collective is licensed by the state and strictly abides by the California attorney general’s guidelines, which means he verifies each patient’s driver’s license and medicinal marijuana referral, in addition to charging sales tax on every transaction. The Collective even accepts credit cards.

The NorCal Natural Collective opened a physical storefront in San Jose on Oct. 19. It houses several display cases like this one to showcase its marijuana. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

Like all other registered dispensaries, Cronin’s is non-profit—a requirement of state law—and, like many other dispensary operators, Cronin does not draw a salary for his efforts, despite his 12-hour workdays. “It’s like any start-up,” he said. “You wear many hats.” In mid-October, he opened a physical storefront in San Jose in a nondescript building next to a leather sex shop. He hopes the store will provide a safer environment for his employees, allow him to reach more patients, and perhaps pay himself and his few staff members a modest salary.

Although Cronin is relatively new to the game, delivery services first developed in the legal gray areas that emerged in 1996 when California voters passed Proposition 215 and legalized medicinal cannabis. Lauren Vazquez, Silicon Valley chapter director of the medicinal marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, says that both storefronts and delivery services became more common when Senate Bill 420 passed in 2004, protecting patient-to-patient distribution.

Since October 2009, delivery services have sprouted up across the Valley, which Vazquez attributes to the Obama administration’s announcement that month that it would defer to state marijuana laws.  Santa Clara Police Chief Stephen Lodge said, before then, an average issue of the Metro—an alternative San Francisco newspaper—would feature perhaps a single small ad for a delivery service. These days, he said, the ads can fill a dozen pages per issue. A recent police investigation found more than 40 services in Santa Clara County alone.

Legal cannabis delivery services aren’t unique to California, but they’re far more widespread here than in other states that have legalized medicinal marijuana. Weedmaps.com, an online listing of marijuana dispensaries, lists nine in Nevada, 15 in Colorado and just one in Oregon, but literally hundreds in California, clustered mostly in the Bay Area and around Los Angeles.

"Blue Dream," a strain of medicinal marijuana pictured above, is just one of several varieties offered by Cronin's collective. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

It’s easy to joke that cannabis delivery services are the perfect match for the stereotypical marijuana user—stoned, lethargic customers too lazy to turn off the lava lamp and head out to a dispensary—but such services actually fill a humanitarian niche, according to Jonathan Lustig, operator of the Seventh Heaven delivery service in Mountain View. He stressed that these services help patients who are too infirm to drive to a storefront or even leave home.

But not everyone sees marijuana delivery as a mission of mercy. On Sept. 30, the Santa Clara County Special Enforcement Team conducted “Up in Smoke,” a sting operation named after the Cheech and Chong stoner classic. Agents posing as patients placed orders for delivery and, according to Lodge, seized more than 25 pounds of marijuana and arrested 22 deliverymen, including one of Cronin’s drivers. Charges ranged from transporting marijuana to possession with the intention to sell.

Some of the alleged violations were blatant. “One guy was supposed to show up with a quarter ounce,” Lodge said, “and he showed up with seven pounds,” far above the possession limit. Other dispensaries, however, have protested the arrests, fueling controversy over who may provide marijuana legally to patients. Lodge said that, under California law, “if you’re going to provide marijuana to someone, you have to be their caregiver,” which the state Supreme Court defined in People v. Mentch (2008) as an individual who has “consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health, or safety” of a patient. In the sting, Lodge said, “Undercover guys would call delivery services randomly,” and the services “would agree to deliver to someone they had never met before.” Lodge mentions that some dispensaries followed the law and refused to deliver to a stranger.

Clinton Cronin participated at an Oct. 14 protest of the "Up in Smoke" arrests in front of the San Jose Terraine courthouse. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

Cronin and other advocates, however, argue that despite the Mentch ruling on caregivers, California law does not prohibit patients from supplying fellow patients, provided they all belong to a formal, regulated association of patients. As its name implies, the Northern California Natural Collective is one such association of patients, some of whom grow their own marijuana as allowed by state law. When one patient has extra, the Collective buys it and gives it to other patients in exchange for a fair donation. “All the Collective does is get medicine from the people who can produce it to the people who can’t,” said Cronin, though he acknowledges that not all delivery services understand or operate by the fine points of the law.

The San Jose district attorney’s office has not yet filed charges against any of the 22 suspects, but the coming weeks may prove to be a showdown between law enforcement and medicinal advocates that shapes the future of Cronin’s business. Against the looming backdrop of November’s vote on Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana, he can only hope the courts deliver some good news.

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