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
Keith May
Keith May
Marla James, who uses a wheelchair, and husband David are advocates for marijuana legalization and patient access
Keith May
Marla James, who uses a wheelchair, and husband David are advocates for marijuana legalization and patient access
Like OtherSide Farms, Tri-County Patient Collective encourages members to grow their own
Keith May
Like OtherSide Farms, Tri-County Patient Collective encourages members to grow their own
Keith May
Alysha McKeen poses with her medication
Keith May
Alysha McKeen poses with her medication

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.

Some cities have struck back. After police and code-enforcement officers receive complaints (or say they do), dispensaries are put under surveillance and have reverse-sting operations run on them. Those arrested are portrayed by prosecutors as street dealers (see “Marijuana Martyr,” Nick Schou’s April 30 feature on now-jailed 215 Agenda dispensary owner Mark Moen).

Raids and cease-and-desist orders have come down in recent months on medical-cannabis providers in Lake Forest and Costa Mesa. This led to a recent lawsuit in federal court by four medical-marijuana patients aimed at keeping their pot providers’ doors open. Judge Andrew Guilford ruled May 3 at the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana that disabled OC residents Marla James, Wayne Washington, James Armantrout and Charles Daniel DeJong do not have the right under the Americans with Disabilities Act to smoke marijuana. “Marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act, and under that Act, it currently has no medical purpose,” Guilford argued. Lawyers for the patients filed an appeal May 14. Yet to be decided is a lawsuit filed April 19 in Orange County Superior Court by two Costa Mesa dispensaries, Herban Elements Inc. and MedMar Patient Care Collective, arguing that the city’s ordinance prohibiting cannabis clubs violates California law.

In this highly charged atmosphere, the McKeens opened Otherside Farms earlier this year.

*     *     *

Anyone who walks through the front door of Otherside Farms without a state-issued card identifying him or her as a medical-marijuana patient is referred to a local doctor—one who makes house calls. McKeen wants those who need it to get their medicine, but he is not taking any chances.

He keeps up on laws by hosting or attending gatherings of local medical-marijuana providers. He acknowledges some dispensary owners hold a dim view of Otherside Farms, seeing it as competition. That’s fine with him.

McKeen does not trust the pot distributed at some dispensaries because he does not know where the plants came from—and he’s found that many hawking medical cannabis do not know either. Patients can have plants tested for safety and quality, but that is costly and the wait time for the results is long. Meanwhile, the patients are not getting their medicine. McKeen says he has found many clones sold by dispensaries infested with spider mites, which can kill plants before they bloom.

The solution, he says, is growing one’s own. Like the weekend gardener, the medical-marijuana grower can feel the therapeutic powers of working with soil—not to mention the therapeutic powers of righteous buds. However, like the best gardeners, home growers need to know what they are doing. They can’t go to the neighborhood Armstrong Garden Center for help; the gardening expert will be uncomfortable talking about growing pot, if he or she even knows how.

Some hydroponics stores are run by operators who truly want to help patients grow their own medicine, McKeen says, but finding those among so many others just out to gouge customers can be difficult.

The McKeens aim to enlighten through education, using their own experience as patients—with a healthy dollop of Farmer Chadd’s growing know-how—to allow people to self-medicate without ever having to leave home.

“If you take the right care all the way through, your original plants can continue to bear medicine forever,” Chadd McKeen claims. “You may need to transplant it in a bigger pot, though. Actually, we say buckets. We don’t want to say pot. That’s one of those negative buzzwords.”

Encouraging patients to grow their own medical marijuana instead of relying on dispensaries; claiming some dispensaries sell poor, overpriced and even unsafe weed; lambasting what he called the “ridiculous” lawsuit filed by patients to keep Costa Mesa dispensaries open—those are also negative buzzwords in some local cannabis circles.

“The movement needs to be unified, and this guy is mudslinging,” says an Orange County medical-marijuana provider who says he knows Chadd McKeen and wishes to remain anonymous. “He doesn’t want to work with any of the area clubs. Other medical-marijuana groups have tried to work with him. He’s very strong-willed and isn’t willing to help choose the direction.”

On McKeen’s blasting of some of the dispensed cannabis, the provider declares, “To be willing to slander all the growers in California, when everyone is making a concerted effort to stay within the law, is wrong.”

He blames “the Mexican cartel” for “most of the stuff with pesticides” and calls Costa Mesa’s dispensaries “closed-circuit clubs” that “only grow within their groups.”

“They aren’t buying it from a cartel or wholesaler, but from the person who grew it, so we can ask questions and grill the guy,” the provider says. “The growers know about the pesticides and herbicides.”

He noted patients can always turn to NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), whose “Clean Green 2000” he described as an FDA-type verification process that gives a seal of approval to growers who use only organic fertilizers and don’t use pesticides.

“There are already people out there trying to do this who aren’t talking shit,” the provider says.

*     *     *

Marla James is confined to a wheelchair. Several years ago, she contracted a flesh-eating disease from someone who had the flu. She had body parts removed. She still suffers severe, painful nerve damage. She is nearly legally blind.

She says she was a recreational toker in the 1980s but had grown out of it years before she was beset with her medical problems, which were treated first with prescribed OxyContin and hydrocodone. After she became addicted to those medications, James fired her doctor and found another who weaned her off them. Another doctor eventually recommended cannabis to ease her constant pain. That was eight years ago.

Her husband, David James, who has been an activist involved in several progressive causes since the 1960s, campaigned for Prop. 215. He is now the secretary of Orange County’s NORML chapter.

He “dragged” his wife into activism, according to Marla, who now leads Orange County Americans for Safe Access (ASA). She was also the titular star of Marla James, et al. v. The City of Costa Mesa, California, et al., the aforementioned federal lawsuit filed on behalf of her and three other medical-marijuana patients.

James obviously has a soft spot for medical-marijuana providers, and when asked about growing one’s own, she replies, “It doesn’t always work for everybody. I can’t grow. I don’t have the ability to grow for myself.”

She conceded that many patients can grow their own, and she noted the free growing classes offered by the collectives she frequents. James agrees with McKeen that patients should investigate the origins of the buds supplied by dispensaries—as should patients picking up prescription medication at the local pharmacy.

“The ones I deal with do not buy from cartels,” she says. “They know who they are buying from. Usually, it is from growers up north.”

James, who uses a vaporizer to cut down on carcinogens and increase the THC she breathes in, claims to have never acquired “bad” cannabis from a collective. Even if she were physically able to cultivate, James notes, she resides in a rented, one-bedroom apartment “with a husband, four cats and a dog.”

“It’d be wonderful if it were all grown on our own,” she says. “You would always know what you are growing. But you have to have room for growing.” She has no land on which to grow plants outdoors. Even if she physically could, she figures she’d constantly worry about her crops’ security. “It is a valuable plant,” she says.

*     *     *

Before getting inside Tri-County Patient Collective, which is a couple of miles down Newport Boulevard from Otherside Farms, you have to walk through a small entryway with two doors. One leads to an art gallery, the other to a tiny lobby that is as warm and welcoming as a Soviet government office.

Either someone behind a tinted reception window slides it open to determine why you are there, or a figure appears in a doorway asking the same. You then have to be buzzed into a hallway that eventually leads to a room with big celebrity portraits on the walls.

But those aren’t the eye-catchers; the large jars stuffed with buds inside a long glass counter lining one wall are.

Like any merchant proud of his store, the brains behind this highly secure outfit would love to see his name in the OC Weekly. But given the legal war raging over dispensaries in Costa Mesa, he fears the powers that be would interpret anything positive he says about his establishment or negative about the current operating climate in town as an excuse to raid Tri-County. The name of his business is real, but he asked that his own name not be used.

“To me, there’s a difference between an association and a dispensary,” he says. “A dispensary, in my opinion, is just trying to get people medicine, similar to a pharmacy. That is illegal; the law says you have to operate as an association.

“We don’t operate like a dispensary,” he continues. “Our push is on patients growing their own. We encourage you to grow your own, so that you become self-sufficient, independent.”

Tri-County offers growing classes that are free to association members. But the fellow characterized them as very basic, and he says he regularly—and happily—sends McKeen anyone who really wants to bore into the subject, find the right growing equipment or just get answers to their nagging farming questions.

“What Chadd does works hand-in-hand with what we do: It furthers the knowledge on how to grow,” the director said. “We encourage all our patients to grow, and when they need more help, we almost always say, ‘Go talk to Chadd.’ We don’t see him as a threat at all.”

He also agrees with much of what McKeen said about some dispensary patients and operators being clueless as to the origin of their medication, whether it was organically grown and how effective it is.

“A lot of [dispensaries] that do not take the collective-growing approach are buying off the street,” the director asserts. “You do not know if the crop was sitting on a truck eating diesel fuel.”

He blames the disconnect on simple greed. “A lot of guys who get into this are seeing dollar signs,” he says. “They are not in it for the right reason.”

He recalls a recent conversation with McKeen in which they discussed online reviews from patient members. Among countless positive reviews for Otherside Farms was a minor quibble about a recent delivery. McKeen blew up. The Tri-County director understood his frustration.

“We work hard for good reviews and to provide quality customer service,” he says. “There are a billion forums and different websites where people just drop bombs about you.”

The Weekly found no bombs dropped on Otherside Farms in a recent online search. Out of 21 patient reviews on WeedMaps.com, 21 were raves.

“I was concerned about the quality of medicine that is available,” wrote someone described as a married mother and cancer survivor in her mid-30s, “and the Otherside folks explained, in detail, how they have complete quality control over all of their medicine as they only procure their meds from members of their collective (the way it’s supposed to be).

“But even beyond that, they go to the grow rooms and check on the operations weekly to ensure that their ‘no pesticides, no chemicals and no cartels’ guarantee is upheld, and I like that. They are compassionate, well-educated and very professional.”

“I am from the Costa Mesa area,” begins a legalmarijuanadispensary.com review from another commenter, “and I totally recommend this place for your medicine delivery! If you’re looking for a reliable and legit delivery service in SoCal, Otherside Farms, my friend, can’t go wrong! Very discreet, professional and fast!

“Oh, and lastly, I just have to mention that the guys who deliver are so knowledgeable and very, uhm, CUTE. :)”

“Simply the best medicine I’ve had,” states an Otherside Farms patient testimonial on skunkmarijuana.info. “Very fresh, great tasting, and dang does it get you high. Their edibles actually work and taste really good. They gave me quality and quantity. Great phone services and an awesome, friendly delivery service!”

*     *     *

The McKeens got the keys from their landlord for the Otherside Farms space on a Friday night. By the following Monday morning, a city official was “banging on the door,” according to Chadd McKeen. He claims he had received heavy resistance while trying to work openly with the city to establish a dispensary, followed by two months of foot-dragging to secure a business license.

McKeen also claims he and his wife got pulled over by Costa Mesa police shortly after leaving work another day. He said the cop’s justification was it appeared as if their car was going to change lanes without signaling. The vehicle was searched, the couple was fingerprinted, and patient records in the car were thoroughly examined by officers, according to McKeen.

He has grown used to a police presence nearby. After months under surveillance, a dispensary called Doc’s in the same business complex as Otherside Farms was raided by police in March. Bags of marijuana were confiscated, and a man was arrested on suspicion of selling and transporting the drug.

Besides providing grower education, equipment, and help with set-up and maintenance, Otherside Farms operates a separate “private” collective that delivers member-grown cannabis to member patients who have viewed the buds on othersidefarms.com. An online mission statement claims collective operations are done in accordance with California Health & Safety codes, Prop. 215 and SB 420.

The Weekly asked the Costa Mesa police official who heads up dispensary enforcement about his department’s stand on Otherside Farms.

“Based on a pending lawsuit in Costa Mesa regarding marijuana dispensaries, it would probably be prudent for the police department at this point to refrain from any opinions or statements surrounding the issues,” said Lieutenant Mark Manley. “That omission isn’t a stance either way on Otherside Farms.”

Costa Mesa City Attorney Kimberly Hall Barlow says she has been led to believe Otherside Farms provides only patient education, adding, “If they are filling orders, they are not a cooperative.” She agreed medical-marijuana patients can collectively cultivate cannabis under state law, but Barlow maintained no provisions are made for selling or transporting the medication to member patients.

Asked how collective members too ill to grow or travel are supposed to get the marijuana, she replied, “That’s an excellent question.” After a pause, she added, “I suppose there are other ways you could particpate in cultivation. I’m not sure how.”

She was unaware of any businesses operating in Costa Mesa as “true collectives,” arguing that state law does not legalize their right to exist, it only allows them a defense to criminal charges. “This point gets lost a lot in discussions,” she said. “Under state law, transportation of marijuana is still illegal and sales are still illegal. . . . All of the businesses [in Costa Mesa] that have been ordered to cease and desist” were served “after investigations determined they were not complying with state or federal law.”

McKeen says his lawyers have “attempted numerous times to sit down with the city” to discuss the collective side of Otherside Farms, only to be told the city’s attorneys “don’t have time.”

“I find that odd since the city is being sued—a lot—and to me, that’s worthy of a conversation, at least,” McKeen says.

His deliveries range from Long Beach to South Orange County, and they can be made within 45 minutes of orders from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily—for a $10 delivery fee. All recipients must be verified medical-cannabis-patient members, and McKeen says he has put several measures in place to ensure deliveries comply with state law, such as making sure the identification of the patient matches that of the resident of the home being delivered to, or that nothing be dropped off to minors, even those who are patient members of the collective. This includes a 10-year-old autistic patient who was given six months to live.

“His meds kept him from eating, and he was wasting away,” McKeen says. “His mother refused to allow this and searched everywhere for answers. A doctor suggested a [loaded] brownie, and from that day forward, Joey began to speak, he doubled his weight and grew several inches. This was all over a year ago, and he is no longer in danger of passing away.”

Otherside Farms also works with a nonprofit that procures medical marijuana for HIV-positive patients for free. McKeen reports he will soon join the agency’s board of directors.

“I am the man with the plan,” McKeen states. “The problem is, the cities are perfectly content fighting the lawsuits, which is ridiculous given the current state of our economy.”

*     *     *

Helping patients grow their own is personal to the McKeen family, which includes two sons and a daughter. Alysha McKeen recently completed her second round of chemotherapy to treat skin cancer. She previously had three large growths removed, according to her husband.

“That’s my angel,” he says from inside the grow room and out of her earshot. “She never shows she is suffering, but one day, I saw her sitting at her desk, and she was crying due to the pain. It killed me, man. That’s why we do this. It’s important.”

When McKeen—trim, athletic and good-natured with a playful twinkle in his eye—mentions he once battled depression and still suffers from migraines and chronic pain from a shoulder he injured while working at Knott’s Berry Farm, it’s difficult to fathom.

A former weed dealer from his days fronting a band, McKeen had sworn off drugs because of what they were doing to his body and personality. But he became interested in medical marijuana again when California voters overwhelmingly passed Prop. 215.

Despite the “sketchy” information that was around in those days, McKeen taught himself the intricacies of growing marijuana the safe, all-organic way. He now visits five grow rooms per week, coming up with ways to help his clients produce better yields.

But it is patients like Joey, the autistic 10-year-old, who keep McKeen crisscrossing the county, helping regular folks grow their own medicine. Most are elderly, terminally ill, living with HIV/AIDS, former cops and even local celebrities.

Alysha McKeen, now in earshot, chimes in when she hears her husband asked about the typical Otherside Farms customers. “Actually, most of them look like you,” she says to the nearing-50 interviewer. “Most are men between 35 and 60.”

“We want to put a full-length mirror in the store right there,” Chadd McKeen says as he points to a spot next to the front entrance. “Above it, it will say, ‘This is what the typical medical-marijuana patient looks like.’”

mcoker@ocweekly.com

 

This article appeared in print as "Growing Pains: Costa Mesa’s Otherside Farms helps patients cultivate their own medical marijuana without ever having to visit a dispensary. Guess who has a problem with that?"

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