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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

At the time, Smith was growing his marijuana crop inside a 2,000-square-foot house near Perris, on a 10-acre property surrounded by trees and nearly invisible from the outside. Smith hired another grower he knew to live at the house and run the day-to-day operation. But, Smith noticed as the first harvest came in months later, the crop perceptibly shrunk each time he visited.

Suspicious, Smith asked an electrician friend to drop by, pretend to do work at the property, and then report what he saw. "The next day, he called and said, 'A green car just pulled up,'" he recalls. "'Two guys got out, and they've been inside 10 minutes. They walked out with two brown paper bags, put them in the trunk and left.' He called back two hours later and said the same thing happened, this time with a minivan. So that was it. I knew I was being stolen from. I was done. It went to hell in a handbag."

In the early summer of 2007, before Smith had a chance to fire his foreman and harvest what was left of his crop, the police arrested the thief while he was away from the property. "He dropped a dime on the location, and the location got busted up by the police," he says.

Steele Smith: OC's most dangerous cannabis activist?
John Gilhooley
Steele Smith: OC's most dangerous cannabis activist?
Joe Grumbine, gearing up for his coming trial at Long Beach's Egg Heaven
John Gilhooley
Joe Grumbine, gearing up for his coming trial at Long Beach's Egg Heaven

After the raid, Smith received a telephone call in Placentia from the Riverside County sheriff's department. "We looked into this property," a detective told him. "You signed the lease. Do you want to come out here and talk to us?" Smith said no. When the detective asked him to answer questions over the phone, Smith gave him the name of his attorney and hung up.

All Smith had left of his crop were the 18 mother plants that had spawned the thousands of clones he was in the process of growing. With no place else to put them, he left them in the garage beneath his apartment. At about 7 on a Friday night, while hanging out with a friend, Smith heard a knock on the door. A bearded man wearing a chain of beads around his neck asked Smith if he was the owner of the Grand Cherokee that was parked in the alley. "I just clipped your mirror," the man said. "I'm really sorry."

When he reached the bottom of the stairs, two uniformed Placentia police officers confronted Smith and explained that while cruising down the alley, they'd noticed a garage door that hadn't been rolled all the way down; peering inside, they had seen Smith's plants. Smith told the cops he was a medical-marijuana patient and that the plants belonged to his collective. After spending several hours combing through his patient records, receipts, and other business and tax documents, the lead detective telephoned a prosecutor with the Orange County district attorney's office, who instructed the police to confiscate everything but make no arrests.

The detective also gave Smith his business card, along with instructions to call him in a few weeks about getting his property back. But when weeks passed and none of his calls were returned, Smith grew impatient. He hired Paoli to file a civil suit against the city of Placentia.

Meanwhile, Smith and his wife moved back to Fullerton. There, in July 2007, police visited two houses where Smith was in the process of cultivating approximately 4,000 plants for the collective, which had just opened its new headquarters in Garden Grove. This time, despite the high number of plants, the cops not only made no arrests, but they also left without seizing any property. Smith even claims a female captain told him she'd never seen a collective with as much paperwork as his and to call her if he ever had problems with the city. He wasn't as lucky a few months later, when the Smiths awoke at about 4 a.m. to the sound of their front door being knocked down.

A squad of federal drug-enforcement agents entered the house, spraying fire extinguishers inside to create a disorienting fog so that for a moment, all Smith saw were red laser lights and shadows of what looked like paramilitary uniforms. Other Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) units simultaneously raided his two Fullerton grow houses, as well as C3's Garden Grove headquarters, confiscating no less than 3,860 marijuana plants.

Both Smith and his wife were arrested and charged with illegally cultivating marijuana. Also arrested that morning were Alex Valentine and Dennis Leland. Valentine, a 21-year-old member of C3 who suffers from neurofibromatosis (better known as Elephant Man's disease), was staying at one of the grow houses; Valentine was a homeless friend of a friend whom the Smiths had allowed to sleep at another house in return for helping with minor chores. Because of Smith's medical condition, he wasn't housed at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange, where most local federal inmates are held awaiting trial, but rather at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Although his wife was released on bail after two months—they were housed on different floors but were able to shout at each other through air ducts once or twice a day until weekly visits could be arranged—Smith spent 10 months in jail. Among other things, he survived a massive race riot that began on his floor and spread throughout the facility, leading to several days of lockdown, and became addicted once again to painkillers, specifically Oxycontin, which was prescribed to him by jail doctors for his ulcers. After being released, Smith spent a year with an ankle-monitoring bracelet on house arrest and gradually weaned himself off opiates with copious amounts of medical marijuana.

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