By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
The C3 Patient Association is located on the first floor of a gray office building on an access road in an industrial area of Garden Grove. A few tidy plants and a small American flag decorate the doorstep. Inside, behind the welcome desk manned by two young employees and the vault—a locked, antiseptic, humidor-type room with shelves of cannabis indica, sativa and hybrids—there's a hallway with a display case full of glass pipes and other smoking paraphernalia. Beyond that is an office, where, seated behind a small desk, is a 6-foot-7-inch man with a baby face and a booming voice.
With his short-sleeved polo shirt tucked into a pair of factory-washed jeans, Steele Smith bears no resemblance to the stereotypical red-eyed, tie-dyed, longhaired marijuana grower—he looks much more like a cop or a car salesman. But as the owner and operator of Orange County's second-oldest medical-marijuana collective, Smith has seen more than his fair share of such types as well as even-more-marginal characters, many of whom have sat with him in this room, trying to pretend they were legitimate players in the medical-cannabis trade.
"As a collective owner, you see a lot of vendors coming into your shop, trying to sell their medicine," Smith says. "When you sit down with them, you can glean a lot from them about who they are, where they come from and what kind of operation they have . . . Now, I can't say I know specifically if this one guy is a Mexican cartel guy, but I can say that he's got gang tattoos, he can bring me 100 pounds of brick medicine, and Mexican medicine is always bricked. You can draw A to Z."
Brick marijuana is cheap, outdoor weed grown in Mexico, then stuffed into bales compressed into dense bricks so that smuggling them across the border, either in a gas tank or on the back of a mule, becomes more efficient. "They come in our door and take a knife and cut a piece of it," Smith says. "And you look at the material, and it's completely patted down because that bale may have sat in a warehouse in Mexico for a month before it came north."
This kind of marijuana, explains Smith, doesn't begin to compete with the high-quality cannabis that currently lines the shelves of cannabis collectives in California and 14 other states, as well as the District of Columbia. "The strength is very weak, but the prices are very cheap. Nowadays, it goes into concentrated extracts or edibles, or it's sold under the name 'Train Wreck' or one of the other old-school names."
The fact that cheap Mexican weed is often sold under the name "Train Wreck" is an industry secret Smith says nobody in the marijuana business wants the general public to know. "There is no strain called Train Wreck," he says. "Train Wreck is just what we call marginal weed. Nobody knows what it is."
Then there's Purple Erkle. "Anybody can bring in some red buds with a little color to it and call it Purple Erkle or Jah OG," he says. "Anybody can bring in a dark bud and call it Hindu Kush. You'll never know. It's just a marketing tool."
Another secret, according to Smith: Real marijuana doesn't look anything like what most people expect to see when they walk into their local dispensary. Those tight, dense buds that most stoners associate with the chronic look pretty and will get you high, but they've been shorn of their THC-laden leaves, either by hand-held trimmers or motorized tumblers. Sophisticated pot growers, including the cartels, are increasingly using those cheating tools to manufacture hash, kief, tinctures or edibles, thus potentially doubling their profit. "Nobody wants their customers to know that the hash and kief they're selling you came right from the buds sitting next to them on the same shelf," he says.
As Smith readily acknowledges, there are plenty of folks in the medical-marijuana community who wish he'd shut the hell up—and that's putting it mildly. In fact, Smith could be the most hated person in Orange County's community. Ever since he and his wife, Theresa, founded C3 in the living room of their Fullerton home seven years ago, his relationship with most other local activists and cannabis-club owners has gone from testy to bad to worse to, finally, all but nonexistent. He doesn't mind: In Smith's view, many of his competitors are really crooks.
"A lot of these guys who started these shops are pot dealers from the past," he claims. "So I keep myself isolated. And within that isolation, I feel the security to say that commercial cultivators are stealing your medicine. They're selling you the nut and not the fruit; they're reselling the fruit to you and doubling their margins."
His critics, however, say Smith has an abrasive and self-righteous personality and has done more harm to the medical-marijuana movement than anyone else in the county. "Steele is one of the worst people I've ever been involved with," remarks one prominent activist.
"He's delusional," claims another.
"It's a shame," concludes Kandice Hawes, president of the Orange County chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "We don't want to be enemies of anyone, but Steele has repeatedly come into our group and caused problems. We want to work with him, and we want everything to be cool, but he keeps on attacking us, and he's kind of ruined the movement."