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 jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer


OAKLAND, Calif. - Steve DeAngelo didn't come west just to open the world's largest medical marijuana dispensary.

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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

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He has bigger plans.

"I'm all about creating a cannabis distribution model that will be accepted in the heartland of America," DeAngelo said.

He may be getting closer to that goal. DeAngelo's creation -- Harborside Health Center -- will be one of the models for Maine's first medical marijuana dispensaries.

Eight storefront dispensaries are expected to open in Maine this winter. They will expand access to the drug for patients in and around Portland, Augusta, Bangor and five other communities. They also will take marijuana out of the shadows and put it in plain view.

"We create an environment where people can look at cannabis and re-evaluate the way they feel about it," said DeAngelo, who is not involved in Maine.

 

No one expects Maine to turn overnight into Oakland, perhaps the country's most pot-friendly city. Mainers are already pretty comfortable with medicinal pot, however, having first legalized it in 1999 and then, last fall, voting to establish dispensaries.

Now, activists hope, dispensaries will get Mainers even more comfortable with cannabis.

"I think having dispensaries helps legitimize (medical marijuana). It breaks down some of the psychological barriers around this issue," said Jonathan Leavitt, director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative. "It's already the number one cash crop in the state. It might as well be out in the open."

Maine advocates say full-scale legalization is definitely a long-term goal, and opening up medical marijuana dispensaries around the state will help get there. But, they maintain, the first order of business is getting the drug to people suffering with serious illnesses.

"Our agenda is to get patients taken care of as a priority," said Leavitt. "Patients are hurting and they need their medicine."

Not everyone wants marijuana use out in the open, even in California.

More than 100 California communities have banned dispensaries, pointing to a lack of state regulation and cases of abuses and crime.

"There has been wholesale diversion (of medical marijuana) to people who have no medical issues at all," said Moses Johnson, attorney for the city of Anaheim, which is fighting the state's Supreme Court to preserve the city's dispensary ban.

Oakland, on the other hand, is among the communities that have embraced the movement, albeit with city regulations and taxes.

Some of Oakland's open attitude is due to DeAngelo, whose trademark fedora and braids make him one of northern California's most recognizable cannabis celebrities.

The 52-year-old once ran a large business selling hemp products before moving here from the Washington, D.C., area four years ago to open Harborside and take medical marijuana mainstream, what he calls "out of the shadows and into the light." His success at Harborside has attracted a lot of media attention.

"Hey, you're the guy I've been seeing in the newspapers," says one starry-eyed woman arriving at DeAngelo's Harborside Health Center. Another man walks up to shake DeAngelo's hand and thank him for what he's doing.

Harborside serves 700 to 800 patients a day and sold $20 million worth of medical marijuana last year, said DeAngelo. Any profits are either put back into the operation or donated, he said.

It employs 80 people, all trained to make patients feel so welcome that they keep coming back.

Wages start at $14 an hour, with health and dental coverage and a 401(k) plan, he said. The company won't disclose executive salaries, but DeAngelo did say that the company's average wage works out to be $41 an hour.

Harborside is new and clean, with bright windows, wood furnishings and freshly cut flowers. Its large main room resembles a bank or a high-end jewelry store. Eight employees stand behind a long glass display case loaded with marijuana samples, cannabis creams, lozenges and other products.

"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:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

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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