August 16, 2010

Taking pot 'out of the shadows'

Advocates say the availability of medical marijuana leads to a greater general acceptance of cannabis.

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Employee Derek Flores, right, waits for a patient at a display case at the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif. The center will be one of the models for Maine's first medical marijuana dispensaries.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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This is a small sample of the cannabis offerings in a display case at the Harborside Health Center.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below


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"I need it to help me sleep at night," says Heidi Svendsgaard, looking over the choices.

Derek Flores hands her a small glass jar of Mendo Purps, one of the most expensive varieties in the case.

"What's the THC content?" Svendsgaard asks. At 14.78 percent, it's worth the $60 for an eighth of an ounce, she says. "The higher the THC, the better I sleep."

Like Berkeley Patients Group, a nearby dispensary that also is serving as a model for Maine's new startups, Harborside offers its patients a variety of free services, including counseling, yoga, Reiki and acupuncture. It also has intense security, with staff and video cameras watching every angle of the building and parking lot.

Unlike Berkeley Patients Group, however, Harborside doesn't allow patients to smoke or consume marijuana on site. The city of Oakland doesn't permit it, and DeAngelo said that's all right with him because Harborside's ultimate goal is to make the community as comfortable as possible with his line of work.

As DeAngelo and Harborside promote medical marijuana, Oakland's Richard Lee is challenging attitudes in his own way.

Lee is the unofficial mayor of Oaksterdam, a downtown neighborhood named after Amsterdam, the world's best-known marijuana mecca.

Here, within a few blocks of Oakland City Hall, a California resident can find doctors willing to write a recommendation for medical marijuana (a visit costs about $100), get an official medical marijuana I.D. card ($50), and then buy marijuana and a handmade glass pipe to smoke it in. New patients are easy to spot as they cross Broadway with fresh, green paperwork in hand.

Lee is somewhat of a local hero here and greets admirers and local business people as he navigates the sidewalks in his wheelchair. "They know that we contribute a lot of business," Lee said.

Lee is founder of Oaksterdam University, which attracts student entrepreneurs from around the country who pay tuition to learn how to legally grow, process and sell marijuana. The school's motto is "Quality Training for the Cannabis Industry."

Lee also owns Oaksterdam Gift Shop and Blue Sky Coffeeshop, which has a small-but-busy marijuana dispensary in the back room.

"The business is my politics," Lee said.

And business could soon get even better. Lee is a driving force and financier behind the campaign to legalize and tax the recreational use of marijuana, a proposition on the California ballot in November.

The way Lee sees it, California has already moved beyond medical marijuana to de facto legalization and should just make it official.

"How do you say, 'You have enough pain to deserve it and you don't'?" he said. "We're talking about taking what's already happening and taxing and regulating it."

At the same time, however, Lee said medical marijuana dispensaries change attitudes about the drug as they spread into new states, such as Maine. "People see that the sky doesn't fall."

And, he predicted, it won't be long before marijuana is legalized nationally.

DeAngelo, meanwhile, said he is staying focused on increasing acceptance of marijuana as a safe and potent medicine. But he agrees that acceptance, and ultimately legalization, is inevitable as more  people are exposed to cannabis.

"The plant has an effect wherever she goes," he said. 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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Additional Photos

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Patients wait in line for their medication at the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif. Harborside serves up to 800 patients each day, did about $20 million in sales last year and employs 80 people with a starting wage of $14 per hour.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Steve DeAngelo, the founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif., with his fedora and braids, is one of northern California’s most recognizable cannabis celebrities.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer


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