Addict (drugaddict) wrote,

California now has more than two hundred thousand physician-sanctioned pot users and hundreds of dis

Dr. Kush
How medical marijuana is transforming the pot industry.
by David Samuels

California now has more than two hundred thousand physician-sanctioned pot users and hundreds of dispensaries.

the Tibetan prayer flags suspended on a string over the sleeping body of Captain Blue rose and fell in fluttering counterpoint to the wheezy rhythm of his breath. Lifted by a gentle breeze off the Pacific Ocean, each swatch of red, white, yellow, or green cotton bore a paragraph of Asian script. Every time a flag flaps in the breeze, it is thought, a prayer flies off to Heaven. Blue’s mother says that when her son was an infant he used to sleep until noon, which is still the time that he wakes up most days, on his platform bed in a one-bedroom apartment overlooking Venice Beach, a neighborhood of Los Angeles.

It was now three o’clock in the afternoon, and Captain Blue was dozing after a copious inhalation of purified marijuana vapor. (His nickname is an homage to his favorite variety of bud.) His hair was black and greasy, and was spread across his pillow. On the front of his purple T-shirt, which had slid up to expose his round belly, were the words “Big Daddy.” With his arm wrapped around a three-foot-long green bong, he resembled a large, contented baby who has fallen asleep with his milk bottle.

Captain Blue is a pot broker. More precisely, he helps connect growers of high-grade marijuana upstate to the retail dispensaries that sell marijuana legally to Californians on a doctor’s recommendation. Since 1996, when a referendum known as Proposition 215 was approved by California voters, it has been legal, under California state law, for authorized patients to possess or cultivate the drug. The proposition also allowed a grower to cultivate marijuana for a patient, as long as he had been designated a “primary caregiver” by that patient. Although much of the public discussion centered on the needs of patients with cancer, AIDS, and other diseases that are synonymous with extraordinary suffering, the language of the proposition was intentionally broad, covering any medical condition for which a licensed physician might judge marijuana to be an appropriate remedy—insomnia, say, or attention-deficit disorder.

he inside of Blue’s apartment, where he spends most of his time, measures less than four hundred square feet. It opens onto a huge wraparound terrace that offers mind-bending views of the ocean and the Hollywood Hills. The apartment, which is in the vicinity of Washington Boulevard, used to be occupied by another pot dealer, who moved out a few years ago, leaving Blue with his crash pad and a list of about a hundred patients. The building is near Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the commercial drag in Venice that, in recent years, has been transformed from a low-rent strip of bars and secondhand-clothing stores into a destination for well-heeled shoppers and restaurant-goers. The building retains a funky seventies vibe, with white wood floors, murky brown walls, and faded Morrison Hotel-style carpets. The sounds of “Tom and Jerry” episodes blare through locked doors in the middle of the day.

I recently spent six months, off and on, with Blue—at his apartment, in private homes, on farms, in pot grow rooms, and in other places where “medical marijuana” is produced, traded, sold, and consumed in California. During that time, I saw thousands of Tibetan prayer flags. The flags identify their owners with serenity and the conscious path, rather than with the sinister world of urban dope dealers, who flaunt muscles and guns, and charge exorbitant prices for mediocre product. For Blue and tens of thousands of like-minded individuals, Proposition 215 presented an opportunity to participate in a legally sanctioned experiment in altered living. The people I met in the high-end ganja business had an affinity for higher modes of thinking and being, including vegetarianism and eating organic food, practicing yoga, avoiding prescription drugs in favor of holistic healing methods, travelling to Indonesia and Thailand, fasting, and experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. Many were also financially savvy, working long hours and making six-figure incomes.

Blue and I have known each other for almost two decades. Our fathers were both professors of political science, and, starting in the mid-eighties, we both attended Ivy League colleges in the Northeast, where we shared a fondness for illegal drugs. After graduation, Blue spun records and taught nursery school in Manhattan. He left for California in 1998, not long after the state banned cigarette smoking in workplaces—Blue is highly allergic to cigarette smoke—and passed Proposition 215. After working for a while as a bouncer, he began selling pot full time.

In 2003, the California State Legislature passed Senate Bill 420. The law was intended to clear up some of the confusion caused by Proposition 215, which had failed to specify how patients who could not grow their own pot were expected to obtain the drug, and how much pot could be cultivated for medical purposes. The law permitted any Californian with a doctor’s note to own up to six mature marijuana plants, or to possess up to half a pound of processed weed, which could be obtained from a patients’ collective or coöperative—terms that were not precisely defined in the statute. It also permitted a primary caregiver to be paid “reasonable compensation” for services provided to a qualified patient “to enable that person to use marijuana.”

The counties of California were allowed to amend the state guidelines, and the result was a patchwork of rules and regulations. Upstate in Humboldt County, the heartland of high-grade marijuana farming in California, the district attorney, Paul Gallegos, decided that a resident could grow up to ninety-nine plants at a time, in a space of a hundred square feet or less, on behalf of a qualified patient. The limited legal protections afforded to pot growers and dispensary owners have turned marijuana cultivation and distribution in California into a classic “gray area” business, like gambling or strip clubs, which are tolerated or not, to varying degrees, depending on where you live and on how aggressive your local sheriff is feeling that afternoon. This summer, Jerry Brown, the state’s attorney general, plans to release a more consistent set of regulations on medical marijuana, but it is not clear that California’s judges will uphold his effort. In May, the state Court of Appeal, in Los Angeles, ruled that Senate Bill 420’s cap on the amount of marijuana a patient could possess was unconstitutional, because voters had not approved the limits.

Most researchers agree that the value of the U.S. marijuana crop has increased sharply since the mid-nineties, as California and twelve other states have passed medical-marijuana laws. A drug-policy analyst named Jon Gettman recently estimated that in 2006 Californians grew more than twenty million pot plants. He reckoned that between 1981 and 2006 domestic marijuana production increased tenfold, making pot the leading cash crop in America, displacing corn. A 2005 State Department report put the country’s marijuana crop at twenty-two million pounds. The street value of California’s crop alone may be as high as fourteen billion dollars.

According to Americans for Safe Access, which lobbies for medical marijuana, there are now more than two hundred thousand physician-sanctioned pot users in California. They acquire their medication from hundreds of dispensaries, collectives that are kept alive by the financial contributions of their patients, who pay cash for each quarter or eighth of an ounce of pot. The dispensaries also buy marijuana from their members, and sometimes directly from growers, whose crops can also be considered legal, depending on the size of the crop, the town where the plants are grown, and the disposition of the judge who hears the case.

California’s encouragement of a licit market for pot has set off a low-level civil war with the federal government. Growing, selling, and smoking marijuana remain strictly illegal under federal law. The Drug Enforcement Administration, which maintains that marijuana poses a danger to users on a par with heroin and PCP, has kept up an energetic presence in the state, busting pot growers and dispensary owners with the coöperation of some local police departments.

In the past five years, an unwritten set of rules has emerged to govern Californians participating in the medical-marijuana trade. Federal authorities do not generally bother arresting patients or doctors who write prescriptions. Instead, the D.E.A. pressures landlords to evict dispensaries and stages periodic raids on them, either shutting them down or seizing their money and marijuana. Dispensary owners are rarely arrested, and patient records are usually left alone. Through trial and error, dispensary owners have learned how to avoid trouble: Don’t advertise in newspapers, on billboards, or on flyers distributed door to door. Don’t sell to minors or cops. Don’t open more than two stores. Any Californian who is reasonably prudent can live a life centered on the cultivation, sale, and consumption of marijuana with little fear of being fined or going to jail.

Captain Blue displays his pot on a shelf by his bed, next to two new laptop computers and an assemblage of high-end stereo equipment. The weed is kept in silver Ziploc bags. All the pot that Blue sells is grown in accordance with California state law, he says, and is provided only to dispensaries of which Blue is a member, and to patients for whom he is the primary caregiver.

Blue has a photo I.D. card from the City of Los Angeles confirming that he is a bona-fide medical-marijuana patient. His malady is anxiety. On a side table by his bed, he keeps a Volcano, a German-made vaporizer that resembles a stainless-steel coffeemaker. The Volcano, which costs five hundred dollars, warms dried marijuana, releasing vapor into a plastic bag and leaving behind a toasted brown chaff that smells oddly like popcorn. When Blue uses the Volcano, he inhales the contents of the plastic bag through a bong, which purifies the vapor.

While Blue napped, I wandered around his apartment, and counted nearly a dozen images and carvings of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha. The proliferation of Ganesha dates back to a well-publicized federal bust in January, 2007, when the D.E.A. seized the medicine and cash of eleven pot dispensaries in Los Angeles. The only major dispensary that wasn’t busted had a Ganesha in its window. Now it is hard to find a karmically inclined ganja dealer in Los Angeles who doesn’t own a herd of lucky figurines.

Blue’s cell phone rang several times in succession, rousing him. His phone rings, on average, once every two and a half minutes between noon and 2 A.M., and I soon developed a Pavlovian aversion to his ringtone, a swirling, Middle Eastern-inflected electronica tune called “Lebanese Blonde.” Blue switches phone numbers every six months or so. Although it is unlikely that the D.E.A. would tap his phone, he told me, it doesn’t hurt to take simple precautions, if only to reassure his more paranoid clients.

Blue answered the phone, rubbed his eyes, and began rattling off numbers. “Three hundred fifty? Three-fifty? Three-twenty-five? We could do three-twenty-five,” he said, quoting a final price per ounce. Assuming a sitting position on his bed, he punched numbers into a calculator and suggested some designer strains that his patient might enjoy.

“Try Sour Diesel,” he told the client. “Take that and the Bubba Kush.” In addition to Sour Diesel and Bubba Kush, which are grown indoors, he also had AK Mist, an outdoor strain; Jedi, which is brown and fuzzy; Purple Urkel, whose hue is suggested by its name; O.G. Kush and L.A. Confidential, two particularly potent strains; and Lavender, a fragrant purple grown up North. Modern Kush plants are derived from a strain that is said to have originated in the Hindu Kush mountains, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and, according to stoner lore, was imported to Southern California by some hippie surfers in the seventies, and then popularized in the late nineties by the Los Angeles rap group Cypress Hill. Stronger, better-tasting varieties of pot can sell for more than five thousand dollars per pound, more than double the price of average weed. The premium paid for designer pot creates a big incentive for growers and dealers to name their product for whatever strains happen to be fashionable that year. The variety of buds being sold as Kush has proliferated to the point where even the most catholic-minded botanist would be hard pressed to identify a common plant ancestor.

Only a small percentage of consumer marijuana sales in California occur within the medical-marijuana market. Even so, the dispensaries, by serving as a gold standard for producers and consumers, have fuelled the popularity of high-end strains in much the same way that the popularity of the Whole Foods grocery chain has brought heirloom lettuce to ordinary supermarkets. To serve these sophisticated new consumers, growers in California and elsewhere are producing hundreds of exotic new strains, whose effects are more varied, subtle, and powerful than the street-level pot available to tokers in the nineteen-seventies and eighties.

“Does Terrence have paperwork with him?” Blue asked the customer. From the living room, I could hear the hum of the Volcano and the crinkle of the expanding plastic bag. The vapor in the bag was Gush, a robust mixture of Goo—a lighter, giddier high—and Kush.

Blue’s business consists mainly of selling a few pounds a week to various dispensaries; occasionally, though, a single outlet will buy five or more pounds at a time. In the course of a month, Blue is typically in debt to half a dozen people, and in turn holds markers for twenty to thirty thousand dollars that he is owed by distributors around town. Because Blue works only with people he trusts, he usually gets his money back, although it can take as long as two or three years for some debtors to make good. Understanding the abstractions of ganja credit and debt is important in the pot business, where financial success is determined largely by the velocity of your cash transactions. A practiced flipper like Blue can make twenty to thirty dollars on an eighth of an ounce of high-grade pot, which retails for anywhere between fifty and seventy-five dollars. Last year, Blue made roughly a hundred thousand dollars, and paid some ten thousand in taxes.

Later in the afternoon, a friend of Blue’s, who calls herself Lily, showed up with a duffelbag. She unzipped the bag and placed on Blue’s kitchen table three black trash bags filled with ganja. Lily is a courier; she transports pot to Los Angeles from the growing regions upstate. A witchy Japanese-American girl with a dolphin tattoo on her right shoulder, she wore large gold hoop earrings, a Lucite cross necklace, and sunglasses perched on top of her hair. She said that she got into the business because she suffers from chronic back and neck pain from a spinal injury, and found that smoking weed helped her with symptoms such as nausea and a loss of appetite.

Captain Blue encourages the growers he deals with to stay within legal cultivation limits, and makes sure that the dispensaries he joins keep the doctor’s recommendations of members on file. The only participants in Blue’s transactions whose activities are not strictly covered by prevailing interpretations of state law are couriers, or mules, who usually transport marijuana in airtight containers in the trunk, seats, or tires of a car. Neither Proposition 215 nor Senate Bill 420 spelled out how medical marijuana should be transported from rural growers to urban patients, leaving the mules as the least protected link in the distribution chain. Once the mules reach Los Angeles, they make the rounds of middlemen like Blue, who can legally broker their product to dispensaries where they are members. Mules receive a cut that ranges from five to sixteen per cent of the purchase price.

Being a courier was risky, Lily said, but the pay was good enough to let her not work for half the year. Her methods of transporting the pot from Northern California to Blue’s apartment were time-tested and low-tech. You get the largest garbage bags you can find, some food bags, and a vacuum sealer. Then you double- or triple-bag the pot, seal it, pack it in garbage bags, put the bags inside some old newspapers, and stuff the bags into some cheap knapsacks, and then put three knapsacks each into duffelbags, along with a few hockey gloves or soccer balls. Then you pack the duffelbags in the back of the trunk and throw an old blanket over them, and toss on top a few folding chairs, along with some grocery bags full of fresh organic apples, to mask the scent of pot.

Blue, having assessed Lily’s stash, made his offer for a portion. “Six thousand,” he said.

One day, Blue and I went for a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, in his blue hybrid S.U.V. I watched him make more than a thousand dollars in under an hour, dealing on the phone. “I’ve got some tasty L.A. Confidential,” he told a customer, motioning me to extract a disk of trance music from a pile of stale laundry in the back seat. “It’s like O.G. Kush. A pound? I think I can do that.” Blue said that he sells pot solely for medical purposes, although he conceded the possibility that some clients might break their purchases down into smaller amounts for the street trade. Asking questions about what buyers intend to do with their pot is not friendly behavior, Blue explained with a smile.

We were headed up to Topanga Canyon, in the mountains near Malibu, to meet a broker who supplies Blue with some of the best weed in the state. I’ll call him Guthrie. A lifelong resident of Humboldt County, he funds a number of growing operations, ranging from a large underground bunker to smaller outdoor plots of fewer than a hundred plants. He also uses a fat bankroll to buy product from other producers, which he takes to Los Angeles two or three times a month. The house in Topanga, an old hippie enclave, belonged to a friend who let Guthrie sleep outside in a blue-and-green tent that resembled one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. I ducked to avoid a string of Tibetan prayer flags that hung over the entrance.

Guthrie was a lean, healthy-looking, brown-eyed man in his mid-thirties. “We have a list of all the pot growers in Humboldt County,” he said, repeating an old Northern joke for my benefit. “It’s called the Yellow Pages.” He reached beneath a table and handed Blue a large black trash bag. Blue untied the bag and stuck his head inside, as the rich aroma of Purple Kush filled the interior of the tent.

“Mmm,” Blue said, inhaling. Purple Kush smells like a mixture of cardamom and cloves, with a darker, earthier undertone of dried peat moss, and an acidic top note evoking freshly ground coffee. The two men agreed on a figure of forty-four hundred dollars a pound; the price had eased somewhat since its peak, in 2005. A large number of new growers entering the market had nudged prices down.

Guthrie’s parents had been hippies. Growing up in Humboldt, he and his siblings got used to fleeing their house in the middle of the night when D.E.A. helicopters raided his family’s growing patch. Perhaps a quarter of the kids in his class had parents involved in the marijuana trade. “You’d say, ‘My dad, he fixes our house a lot,’ ” Guthrie recalled with a laugh, as he offered me a loaded pipe. By the end of the summer, the family was usually broke. In October, the harvest would come, and the family would sell their crop and have a great Christmas; by the next summer, they’d be back in a jam.

Guthrie stayed out of the family business until he was twenty-seven. Then he obtained a trucker’s license and began hauling propane. Since truckers who transport hazardous materials are professional drivers who must go through background checks, the police generally leave them alone once they show their license, whether they are driving a truck or not. Guthrie’s trucker’s license gave his family a free pass through the “gantlet”—a stretch of Highway 101 between Humboldt and Santa Rosa where state police routinely search cars for pot.

Guthrie said that the quasi-legal status of smaller growing arrangements, combined with consumers’ preference for potent, high-maintenance weed, has shifted the balance of the pot business away from large-scale farms. “There’s a lot more people doing little scenes,” he said. The welter of laws pertaining to medical marijuana in California has offered careful operators like Guthrie the best of both worlds: prosecution for growing and selling has become much less likely, while federal busts and seizures keep prices high. Guthrie sells about ten per cent of his product to dispensaries and collectives. Starting up a sophisticated indoor farming operation costs about three hundred thousand dollars, he said, including the cost of making a building airtight—to lock in the humidity, and to keep passersby from smelling the pot and calling the cops—and fitting it with thousand-watt grow lights.

Guthrie grows his plants in octagons, a hydroponic arrangement that allows producers to maximize the number of plants in a confined space. The cost of a piece of property upstate can run an additional three hundred thousand to one and a half million dollars, he said. After a few years, if you know what you are doing, you can make your investment back, and then you can pay a sharecropper to run your operation and spend your time travelling. Guthrie told Blue that he would soon be heading to Indonesia. “It’s amazing over there,” he said. The last time he was in Java, he recalled, he stayed in a Muslim village near the beach, and found the people generally relaxed and welcoming, if somewhat hostile to the Western habit of lying in the sun without clothing.

Life was good, he said; the only problem was that too many other people wanted the same life. Most people who moved up North to become pot entrepreneurs fucked it up, he said. Their failures, however, did nothing to diminish the potency of the dream.

One of Captain Blue’s regular marijuana customers was a dispensary in Venice Beach. The store, which has cement floors, a glass display case, and a couch the color of aluminum, looks like a cross between a photographer’s loft and a Kiehl’s boutique. When I last visited, large Mason jars in the display case were filled with designer strains of weed selected by the owner, Cindy 99, whose nickname refers to a variety of designer pot. In a refrigerator, and marked “For medicinal use only,” were treats such as marijuana granola and marijuana milk chocolate with crispy wafers. Above the counter hung a notice: “To our valued patients: in accordance with California law, we are required to add 8.25% sales tax.”

Cindy 99’s employees included a receptionist, a full-time counter girl, a part-time counter girl, and a bonded security guard—a former Green Beret—who is licensed to carry a weapon. Dr. Dean, a local physician, saw aspiring patients at the dispensary once a week. As long as they had a California state I.D., those who received recommendations for marijuana could buy some immediately from the dispensary’s stock. Cindy told me that when she opened her shop, in 2007, she needed the same licenses that she would have needed to open a newsstand on the Santa Monica Pier: a commercial lease, a seller’s permit, a federal tax I.D. number, and a tobacco license (for selling rolling papers and pipes). She estimated that forty per cent of her clients suffer from serious illnesses such as cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, epilepsy, and M.S. The rest have ailments like anxiety, sleeplessness, A.D.D., and assorted pains.

Like many other dispensary owners I spoke with, Cindy derives particular satisfaction from providing medication to people who suffer from chronic diseases. Although she suspects that there is nothing seriously wrong with many of the young men who come in to buy an eighth of L.A. Confidential, she doesn’t regard marijuana as a harmful drug when compared with Xanax, Valium, Prozac, and other pills that are commonly prescribed by physicians to treat vague complaints of anxiety or dysphoria. It was easy to see why the dispensary was so popular with young men: there was good pot, and Cindy 99, who is in her thirties, looks like an adolescent boy’s fantasy of his best friend’s hot older sister. The day I was there, she wore a tight sleeveless blue T-shirt with a gilt-winged emblem of a flying horse.

The first customer of the day was a Hispanic guy with three tattoos, the biggest one of which read “Angeles del Inferno.” He had a doctor’s note on file. After a short discussion, Cindy recommended two strains, which cost sixty-five dollars for an eighth. “These two have sativa in them,” she said. “They’re really good for daytime use.” All strains of pot sold in the United States are derived from two varieties of the plant—indica and sativa—which have discernibly different effects on the user. Indica is a heavier, numbing drug; sativa is better for doing creative work or listening to music. Cindy refers to a popular book called “The Big Book of Buds” to determine the precise balance of indica and sativa in the strains she sells. Purple Urkel, Cindy explained, was mostly indica, making it better for alleviating pain. “The percentages are arbitrary, because of all the cross-breeding,” Cindy admitted to me. “You take a Blueberry and you cross it with a Kush and you go back into Trainwreck, and how do you get a percentage from that?”

A young white man, barely out of his teens, with lace-up black boots, a nubby backpack, and a goatee, came in and bought an eighth of Trainwreck. He selected a chocolate turtle from the edibles case while gazing shyly at Cindy. “Don’t eat it all at once if you have anything to do,” she warned him.

Cindy has been in the ganja business for seventeen years, her entire adult life. Both of her parents grow pot. She began selling weed in high school, in British Columbia, where enforcement of anti-marijuana laws was famously lax. One day, a friend asked her if she would help distribute what his mom had grown. Within six weeks, they had doubled their money. “We started bringing it from Canada down to California,” she recalled. “And then we moved to snowmobiles and then hollow-panelled speedboats on trailers, and then semis and shadow-planes. A plane would go up in the States and another plane would go up in Canada, and they’d fly around as if they were sightseeing, and you’re allowed to switch airspace as long as you don’t land. And then they would land in each other’s countries looking like each other, same serial number, same everything.”

A patio in back of the shop had been set up with a white plastic table with a batik tablecloth and two plastic chairs, in preparation for Dr. Dean’s weekly visit. Each prospective patient pays the Doctor a hundred and fifty dollars, in cash, for a diagnostic interview. Dr. Dean’s full name is Dr. Dean Hillel Weiss. Forty years old, he is one of a few dozen doctors in Los Angeles who regularly write medical-marijuana recommendations. In the past few years, he said, he had written several thousand such letters, none of which had been successfully challenged in court.

I told Dean that I wanted a doctor’s recommendation that would allow me to legally smoke pot. He began a fifteen-minute interview, asking me about my reasons for wanting the drug. “How long have you been under the care of a psychiatrist?” he asked me, writing down the answer on a notepad. I provided him with a bill from my psychiatrist in New York, along with proof that I was currently living in California. He then quizzed me about my brief and unsatisfactory experiences with prescription medications for anxiety and depression, and my history of illegal drug use. Deciding that I was a suitable candidate for a medicalmarijuana recommendation, Dr. Dean took my money and provided me with a quick tutorial on strains of pot—indica offered a “body high,” whereas sativa was “more heady and abstract”—along with a signed letter certifying that I was a patient under his care. The letter was good for a year, after which I could renew it, for a hundred dollars.

So far that day, Dr. Dean had seen seven patients, including a former doorman at a Manhattan night club, a musician working on a Bob Marley tribute album, and a young woman named Cassandra who was in the publishing business and came armed with a purse full of prescription medications for anxiety and depression. The vast majority of his referrals, he said, were by word of mouth. Though he was always careful to observe the letter of California state law, he said, “My personal belief is that marijuana is a useful and relatively harmless substance and that adults should be free to choose whether they want to use it or not.”

Dean graduated from Columbia University and SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and began an orthopedics residency in his home town of Detroit before moving to Los Angeles, in 1998, and becoming an emergency-room doctor at Martin Luther King, Jr./Drew Medical Center—known to locals as Killer King. By 2005, he was burned out. One day, a friend invited him over to his house to sample some marijuana that he had obtained from his fiancée’s boss, who had a recommendation for pot. “My friend said, ‘I’ve got six strains you’ve got to try. I’ve got lollipops, I’ve got brownies,’ ” Dr. Dean recalled. “I went over. It was like being in Amsterdam. At the end of the night, he turned to me and said, ‘You know, you hate working in the emergency room. Maybe you should look into this.’ ”

Cassandra, the publishing employee, was interviewed by Dr. Dean after I was. Emerging from the patio, she said, “That was amazing! That was fantastic!” She went over to the display case.

“What’s the best in terms of social life, having other people around?” she asked. As Cindy discussed the relative merits of the various sativa strains, Cassandra noticed some small hash pipes in the glass case.

“It’s a great little travel device that you can take to the beach,” Cindy explained.

“No way! Cool! I love it!” Cassandra said. She bought one.

As Cindy weighed out Cassandra’s marijuana purchases, which totalled a hundred and ten dollars, she commiserated with her new customer about the unattractive names of some popular strains. “Cat Piss?” she said. “Dog Shit? If it’s going to be legal, the stoners can’t still be making up the names.”

The Farmacy, which has outlets in West Hollywood, Venice, and Westwood, made Cindy 99’s dispensary look like a mom-and-pop operation. Famous for the “Very Open” neon sign in the window of the West Hollywood location, the Farmacy has the carefully art-designed “natural” aesthetic of an Aveda boutique. The reigning concept is that pot is simply another benign medicinal herb, like echinacea or ginkgo biloba. The Farmacy is the brainchild of Michael, an elusive hippie who doesn’t give out his last name and whose defiant nature and marketing prowess have made him a celebrity on the medical-marijuana scene. His success has begun to irritate the authorities: the D.E.A. recently forced the Farmacy’s landlord to close a fourth outlet, in Santa Monica.

I met Michael one afternoon at the Venice store, a large retail space on Abbot Kinney. In the front of the shop, Asian handicrafts are for sale. Saint-John’s-wort and various Chinese herbs are stocked in jars behind the main counter; a forty-two-inch plasma TV screen displays Tao symbols and other karmic imagery. An extensive selection of organic soaps and shampoos is available in the back of the store, near a children’s-medicine section. The main sign that the Farmacy is not, in fact, a Body Shop is a large color portrait on the wall of Bob Marley, smiling broadly while toking on a fat spliff.

Customers with a valid doctor’s letter may request one of the bamboo-bound menus kept behind the counter, which list available strains of pot, some of them requiring a “donation” of seventy-five dollars per gram. There is also a gelato bar, which offers a variety of flavors laced with marijuana and other herbs.

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