Growing Pains at Otherside Farms

Chadd McKeen helps medical-pot patients grow their own, while openly bashing some weed dispensaries

Given that beet and bean fields made up a lot of what is now Costa Mesa, it’s likely the small strip center at 2424 Newport Boulevard rose from what was once farmland.

A 10-by-10-foot room inside Suite B—the middle unit between a day spa and pet-grooming shop—is a farm once again.

It’s where Chadd and Alysha McKeen grow their marijuana.

Chadd McKeen is not just a medical-marijuana farmer. He's also a patient
Keith May
Chadd McKeen is not just a medical-marijuana farmer. He's also a patient
Through a window at OtherSide Farms, patients can see the grow room for the McKeens' medical marijuana
Keith May
Through a window at OtherSide Farms, patients can see the grow room for the McKeens' medical marijuana

A half-dozen pots are filled with 5-foot vines of green lusciousness rising toward the ceiling’s fluorescent lights. Surrounding them are machines that purify the air, control the temperature and maintain the humidity. You can see the ecosystem through a window right in the middle of the showroom.

Call it organic advertising.

“I like to show people how to get the best medicine possible for the lowest price,” Chadd McKeen says in his mile-a-minute cadence.

The McKeens are both 39-year-old, card-carrying medical-marijuana patients. After a monetary windfall came their way via a court settlement, they decided to ditch their real-estate careers and invest in a dispensary. But when they tried to get a business license, they found their mellow harshed by City Hall. Costa Mesa has outlawed dispensaries since 2005.

So, the Newport Beach couple took the metal bars off the former jewelry store’s windows; painted, tiled and carpeted the space; and opened Otherside Farms, which helps fellow patients grow their own cannabis, as allowed under state law. A separate “private” collective delivers the meds to verified patients who have become members.

The business fills a unique niche in a side of the health-care industry that has grown in Orange County, Southern California and the entire state, much to the delight of compassionate users and legalization advocates and to the consternation of buzzkillers who continue to stay awake nights thinking of ways to thwart—or at least, constrict as narrowly as possible—the will of the people.

But Chadd McKeen also warns patients that dispensaries motivated more by greed than helping sick people are selling weed that is inferior in quality or contaminated with mold, fungus or chemicals.

“There’s a lot of bad medicine out there,” he says. “But you can be self-sufficient. There is no need to ever go to a dispensary.”

Growing organically is the best, safest and cheapest way to get one’s meds, claims McKeen, who concedes his point of view is not shared by all cannabis providers and advocates.

He’s got that right.

*     *     *

On Nov. 5, 1996, 56 percent of California voters approved Proposition 215, the “Compassionate Use Act,” which took effect the following day. The law removed state-level criminal penalties on the use, possession and cultivation of marijuana by patients who possess a “written or oral recommendation” from a physician who states the patient “would benefit from medical marijuana.”

Prop. 215 did not set limits on the amount of marijuana patients could possess and/or cultivate. The California Legislature took care of that in 2003, when then-Governor Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 420—yes, 420. Under the guidelines, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2004, qualified patients and/or their primary caregivers may possess no more than 8 ounces of dried marijuana and/or six mature (or 12 immature) marijuana plants. The same quantities are cited in the “Guidelines for the Security and Non-Diversion of Marijuana Grown for Medical Use” that Attorney General Jerry Brown issued to law enforcement in 2008.

However, there’s a huge loophole in SB 420: Patients can hold larger amounts when a doctor recommends such quantities. Through local ordinances, counties and municipalities can also allow patients within their boundaries to possess larger quantities of medicinal pot than allowed under the state guidelines.

“Qualified patients, persons with valid identification cards, and the designated primary caregivers of qualified patients . . . who associate within the state of California in order collectively or cooperatively to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes, shall not solely on the basis of that fact be subject to state criminal sanctions,” states SB 420.

Think of that language as the seed, and California’s medical-marijuana dispensaries, collectives and associations as the bountiful harvest.

But Costa Mesa is among several cities that have effectively banned dispensaries by withholding business permits to merchants who conflict with local, state or federal law. Uncle Sam still classifies marijuana a Schedule 1 drug that has no beneficial uses and a high potential for abuse, just like cocaine and heroin. Multiple attempts to reschedule cannabis have failed, so marijuana cultivation and possession remain federal crimes.

Possession of 99 marijuana plants or fewer can fetch a two-year sentence in a federal prison, with 100 or more plants bringing a mandatory 10 years in the pen—without any exceptions for medical-marijuana patients, dispensaries, collectives or associations.

Things are loosening up a bit. Following Bush-era raids of California medical-marijuana dispensaries in Oakland (which were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court), Attorney General Eric Holder said his office will no longer subject individuals who are complying with state medical-marijuana laws to federal drug raids and prosecutions. Meanwhile, California voters could approve legalization and taxation of pot in November, with backers claiming the “Marijuana Control, Regulation, and Education Act” will stand up despite the conflict with federal law.

Dispensaries manage to open in Orange County by negotiating with individual landlords, securing county health permits as alternative-healing facilities and sidestepping the whole business-permit process in cities that ban dispensaries.

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