Steele Smith: Prophet of Pot?

C3 Patient Association's head fancies himself a truth-teller in OC's medicinal-marijuana communtiy. And because of that, he just might be its most hated member

Besides, adds Hawes, "You'd think he'd want our help."

*     *     *

Internecine conflict within Orange County's medical-marijuana movement is indeed the least of Smith's problems. His real troubles began four years ago, when federal drug agents arrested him for illegal marijuana cultivation. Although his case has yet to go to trial, Smith remains under federal indictment and faces a potential prison term of 10 years behind bars if convicted. Despite this, he continues to operate the very collective that landed him in trouble.

Not a big fan of Smith: Marla James, president of Orange County's chapter of Americans for Safe Access
John Gilhooley
Not a big fan of Smith: Marla James, president of Orange County's chapter of Americans for Safe Access

To understand Smith's unyielding, perhaps even foolhardy approach to both law enforcement and his fellow marijuana activists, it helps to know a little bit about his pedigree. Smith's uncle, Leighton Hatch, was a California Supreme Court justice appointed by Ronald Reagan. Along with well-known drug-reform advocate and former Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, both his parents—Dr. Clark Smith, a prominent Anaheim physician, and Katherine Smith, an Anaheim Union High School District board member (see "Driving Miss Kathy," Jan. 17, 2002)—were signers of the 1993 Hoover Resolution, which called for a reform of U.S. drug policy to focus less on incarceration and more on treatment and prevention.

Following four years at Anaheim's prestigious, private Servite High School, Smith graduated from the University of Southern California before attending Western State University College of Law. He married Theresa, and together, they founded a marketing company for a product called ID Save, which fit around driver's licenses, preventing unwanted eyes from seeing people's addresses and other personal information. "My wife and I were able to eke out a small living and pay our bills," Smith says. "We had a nice little house. Life was good."

Everything changed a few weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. Smith woke up one day feeling sick; sharp pains sliced through his stomach, making it impossible to eat. "I was sick and puking, and it got worse from there," he recalls. "I was going to the hospital every day. I went from seeing my own doctor to seeing gastrointestinal specialists and, finally, rare-diseases doctors."

One of those physicians happened to specialize in Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome, a disease that causes ulcers of the duodenum, the first section of the lower intestine below the stomach.

It took months to reach this diagnosis because of Smith's tall frame—most scopes were too short to reach all the way to the duodenum. It wasn't until a specialist noticed Smith's feet hanging well off the end of the surgical table that he realized why he couldn't find the telltale ulcers. "The guy rolls me on my side, which squishes my guts together, and into view came a field of ulcers—11 of them," Smith says. "These ulcers are so painful they blind you. You can't see; you can't stand up. I dropped 40 or 45 pounds because I couldn't eat."

Doctors promptly put Smith on a regimen of powerful opiates. "They put him on major amounts of morphine, which we didn't even know was morphine because it was called Roxanol," says Theresa.

"It came in a baby dropper," Smith adds. "It was so innocuous. And then two weeks later, I woke up at 4 a.m., sweating. And this cold realization set in that this was detox, withdrawal."

After more than a year on Roxanol, Smith realized he was addicted to the drug. He went through an experimental, rapid detoxification therapy. "It nearly killed him," Theresa recalls. "He had to go into the emergency room and was there for four days, and then he came out in a wheelchair."

In desperation, Smith turned to Suboxone, a drug that helps deal with the side effects of opium withdrawal, as well as medical marijuana, to ease the pain and nausea caused by the ever-present ulcers. In 2004, there were roughly 20 medical-marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles and none in Orange County. Smith and his wife soon grew tired of the lengthy freeway commute. "We figured that not only does Orange County need one of these clubs, but also that we can do this," Smith recalls. "We've been self-employed with our own business for 14 years."

Late that year, Smith and his wife formed C3—shorthand for California Compassionate Caregivers. "We opened it in our house in Fullerton, right there in the living room," Smith says. "We had patients coming into the house, and by the end of that first week, we had 10 patients coming in a day."

In early 2005, the couple relocated to Placentia and rented a second-story apartment next to a restaurant. The apartment doubled as the location of the collective; beneath the unit was a secure garage where patients could park their cars.

Smith also got involved with Orange County's burgeoning medical-marijuana-activist community. He claims he started the county's first chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA) out of the office of a Newport Beach lawyer friend of his, William Paoli. "We had a meeting once a night at this nice law firm," Smith recalls. "We had a good group of 25, 30 patients showing up. The conference room was always full; we were standing-room-only. It was a very professional meeting. We didn't allow anyone to smoke out in the parking lot."

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