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High hopes – San Jose medicinal marijuana delivery expands despite legal battle

By Dean Schaffer | 9 Nov 2010

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Surrounded by his collective's marijuana, Cronin pauses for a moment of reflection at his new desk. (Photo: Dean Schaffer)

In a flash, 7-year-old Clinton Cronin realized that these handcuffs didn’t come off like the plastic toys he usually played with. In line for lunch at his school cafeteria, in a dramatic act of defiance that would earn the respect of any grade-school activist, Cronin had cuffed himself to the line’s railing to protest the unspeakably unpalatable food.

His mother Susan, a lifelong animal rights activist, recalls the incident with a mix of amusement and admiration. “He always thought differently,” she says. “I guess he figured he could get their attention.”

Cronin’s father was the chief prosecuting attorney in New Jersey, and Cronin had mistaken the real handcuffs in his father’s briefcase for the toys he often played with at home; he once even cuffed his grandfather to his rocking chair. “At least the toy handcuffs were easy to break,” Susan says.

When school administrators realized that liberating the young agitator from his own stunt would not be as easy as they had hoped, the principal called Cronin’s home for the keys.“That’s Clint,” his mother says simply.

Flash forward two decades, past community college in Texas and lucrative tech work in the Silicon Valley, and Cronin has found himself in another tangle with real handcuffs. And, this time, real consequences, too. His best friend in California was arrested on Sept. 30 for felony possession and distribution of marijuana. And Cronin thinks it should have been him instead.

*          *          *

A self-described “pasty, boring white dude,” Cronin left his six-figure job as a Silicon Valley systems engineer to launch his own start-up—not designing software, but delivering medicinal marijuana.

Even in the world of medicinal marijuana, Cronin is a bit of a mystery. He prides himself on his quick deliveries, but he’s always late to our interviews. He operates a dispensary, but he doesn’t drink or smoke cigarettes, and he rarely “medicates.” He’s quiet, but he can crack up a table of his friends with a well-timed joke. He says he barely sleeps, but he drinks Caffeine-Free Diet Pepsi instead of coffee. Even more curious, he devotes almost all of his time to a medicinal marijuana business that’s bleeding him dry and, given the unpredictable nature of enforcement, could result in his arrest any day now—but he doesn’t mind.

With medicinal marijuana, however, contradictions are par for the course, and the rules always seem to be in flux. In October 2009, U.S. Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden stirred things up with an unexpected memo—federal attorneys would not prosecute those “whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

Clinton Cronin's older brother Wayne celebrates NorCal Natural Collective's storefront opening on Oct. 19.

In California, where voters legalized medicinal cannabis in 1996, the memo essentially gave dispensaries the green light and triggered an explosion of storefronts and delivery services in Santa Clara County, says Lauren Vazquez, director of the Silicon Valley chapter of the medicinal marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.

In the past year, medicinal marijuana has practically taken over the classifieds of the Bay Area’s alternative newspaper, the Metro, according to Santa Clara Chief of Police Stephen D. Lodge. A year ago, he says, an issue of the Metro might have had one such ad; an issue from last month has 40 dispensary ads, plus six ads for groups that provide growers’ permits or medicinal evaluations for prescriptions.

Cronin, now 27, began using medicinal marijuana as a painkiller after undergoing elbow surgery in 2006. Last April, fed up with a lack of professionalism among the delivery services he used, Cronin decided to start his own delivery service—the Northern California Natural Collective.

According to Cronin, the collective complies with all state laws: it screens new patients and verifies their medicinal referral before serving them. Like any other business, the collective charges sales tax on every transaction, and even takes credit cards—Cronin cites pizza delivery as a loose model for its convenience and reliability.

But unlike pizza parlors, dispensaries must be non-profit. Cronin jokes, “We’re such a non-profit we’re all broke!” No stranger to business, Cronin sees the collective as a start-up like any other, only without the promise of a huge financial payout. He works as a volunteer, without pay, sometimes up to 12 hours a day—a devotion which perhaps echoes his mother’s activism. Cronin does it because he loves it and believes in his mission, “providing safe access to patients.” His older brother Wayne calls him “a great humanitarian.” Like many of his patients, he sees marijuana as a clean, safe, organic alternative to pain pills. Lofty ideals aside, Cronin relishes the collective as a welcome change from an office job. “I hate cubicles so much that I’d rather not get paid and be in fear of going to jail than work in one,” he jokes.

At first glance, the storefront's interior could be a jewelry shop. Cronin and his friends redesigned the retail space on their own.

Lately, he’s been expanding. On Oct. 19, the collective opened a storefront dispensary at 973 Park Ave., a lazy two-lane street in San Jose, next to a Spanish billboard and a sex shop. Cronin and his staff of volunteers—all family and friends—converted the empty retail space on their own to save money. (But they did hire outside help for the store’s high-tech security system. “The panic buttons are the coolest feature,” Cronin says with a grin.)

Inside the unmarked exterior and past the plain waiting area, the dispensary’s main room feels like a small jewelry shop, arranged to draw patients’ attention to display cases filled not with necklaces and rings but glass jars of marijuana strains labeled with names like “Blue Dream” and “MK Ultra.” Amid the pervasive smell of fresh pot, against the backdrop of a huge California flag that adorns one of the otherwise drab beige walls, Cronin’s volunteers sound like they could be salespeople anywhere—“What are you looking for today, ma’am?” they ask one patient. “What price range are you looking at?”

Cronin hopes the storefront will allow him to reach more patients and provide a safe environment for his staff, whom he will start paying if this step forward is successful. Most of all, however, “We want to be a part of the community,” he says. He plans to clean up the graffiti that peppers the surrounding blocks (“It’s just ugly”), and he’s proud of the store. “We’ve come this far, and now it’s tangible,” he says, “a place that wasn’t there before we started.”

*          *          *

Sept. 30 seemed like any other day for Cronin, with delivery orders filtering in throughout the day. Mark, who asked that his real name be omitted for fear of losing his job, took a call in the afternoon, and the woman on the line provided the necessary background information, which all checked out. She said she was “between housing,” he recalls, so she was staying at an extended stay hotel. The order seemed fairly routine, so Mark left to deliver it himself.

Hours later, when Mark hadn’t returned, Cronin started to worry. “I called friends, but no one knew where he was at,” he says. “I called hospitals and jails, thought maybe he was hurt.” Finally, as he lay in bed trying to sleep late at night, Cronin got a phone call saying Mark had been arrested and was in jail in San Jose. After telling his wife and calling his lawyer, Cronin rushed to the courthouse and stayed there until 3 a.m., bouncing back and forth between the jail and the bail bonds offices.

The collective stores marijuana in jars like this one, which indicate the name and composition of the strain inside.

When he finally spoke to Mark that night, Mark told him what had happened. When he arrived at the hotel, the patient began filling out all the standard paperwork. But then things became increasingly odd. “She stopped signing things and then asked, ‘Oh, before I pay for the product, can I see it?’ So I handed it to her,” Mark remembers. He grabbed his camera phone to take a picture of her identification and registration card, the last step of the registration process. But before he could finish, he says, “she interrupted me again.” When he tried once more to photograph her identification, “the police just broke down the door, came in and handcuffed me,” he says. “It was a pure set-up.”

Immediately after the police handcuffed him, Mark says, “they went in my pockets, they took all my keys, they went out to my car, they ransacked my car and actually did damage to it.” In the meantime, a team of three officers interviewed Mark, formally placed him under arrest and then read him his Miranda rights. “It was a horrible experience,” he says.

The district attorney has filed felony-level drug charges against some of the other 21 delivery agents also arrested that day as part of a sting operation called “Up in Smoke.” Mark has not yet been charged with anything; he will go to court on Dec. 9 for an arraignment.

The storefront sells a variety of different strains, like "MK Ultra" and "Blue Dream."

Police and medicinal advocates disagree over how California law applies to delivery services. “If you’re going to provide to someone, you have to be their caregiver,” Police Chief Lodge says. Citing a 2008 California Supreme Court decision, he says that services that deliver to strangers don’t qualify as caregivers—“That’s just a dope deal.” Cronin and Vazquez counter that the law allows patients to deliver to other patients, provided they belong to a legitimate collective. Cronin insists his collective follows the state attorney general’s rules and is optimistic about Mark’s case, even if he can’t help feeling guilty about the arrest. “I’m the captain,” he says. “If the ship is going down, I’m the one who should go down with it. But it’s not going down. We’re gonna fight, and we’re gonna win.”

For Cronin, the whole ordeal has been like a “big shot to the stomach,” one that will probably change his approach to local marijuana politics. “I’ve been moderately quiet over the last few months,” he says. “The next few months you’ll see a louder side of me—apparently I need to. If you’re gonna put my best friend in jail for something ridiculous, I’m gonna say something about it.”

As dispensary politics continue to heat up in the wake of Proposition 19′s failure, it’s a safe bet that Cronin isn’t just blowing smoke.

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