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

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During his incarceration, Smith says, rivals within the Orange County ASA chapter had taken over the weekly meetings at Paoli's law office in Newport Beach, which he claims began to deteriorate. "They weren't respecting the rules I had in place," he says. "People were smoking in the parking lot, and the neighbors complained to the senior partner, who told Bill he had to get those people out of there."

ASA began to hold its meetings at a pizza parlor where the OCNORML meetings were held. Smith showed up at one of the meetings, insisted the two groups should meet separately and announced he was running for president of ASA. In Smith's view, the two organizations have separate and mutually exclusive goals: While ASA advocates for medical-cannabis patients, NORML's mission is to push authorities to legalize marijuana. Hence, he argued, the two groups had no business sharing meetings or members. "When I said that, it pissed off that whole group," Smith 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

"Steele just stood up and said he was having elections and nominated himself president out of the blue," says Marla James, a paraplegic who now heads Orange County's ASA chapter. "He hadn't been to a single meeting in the past year, so I told him he couldn't run, according to our bylaws, and he hadn't paid any dues and wasn't on the membership list. So then he demanded the membership list and sent me all kinds of emails and left threatening messages on my voice mail. He threatened to sue me, and it was really as if he had a psychiatric break."

James says she often wonders if Smith's painful medical symptoms might explain at least some of the personality conflict. "I've tried to understand him for a long time," she says. "My opinion is he needs medication more than cannabis. He is a very charming man, but what's sad is that his wife, Theresa, who is a wonderful lady, was arrested, too, but if you look on his website, it just says, 'Steele's Case' and doesn't mention Theresa or the other people arrested who could go to prison. It's just like the whole world is centered on him, so I choose not to be in his world—a lot of people choose that. He's made a lot of enemies."

Joe Grumbine, director of the medical-marijuana-activist group The Human Solution and former owner of the Unit D Patient Collective in Garden Grove who is now facing criminal charges in Long Beach Superior Court, recalls meeting Smith in the midst of this controversy. "He came into my collective and didn't have his paperwork," Grumbine recalls. "My people are trained to not let people come in without a [doctor's note]. He came back with an expired note, and we called the doctor to see if it was valid, and he said it wasn't, so we said, 'You can't come in.' I didn't see him much after that."

Later, he learned that Smith was spreading rumors that Grumbine, who is viewed as a hero by many medical-marijuana activists for his social work through The Human Solution—including the distribution of free marijuana to low-income and disabled patients—was really a "drug dealer" masquerading as a humanitarian. "He is a very toxic person to our movement," Grumbine says. "I don't even have a collective anymore, and all my resources were taken from me. If I'm a drug dealer, then why am I still fighting for other people's rights?"

Despite believing that Smith has tried to sully his reputation behind his back, Grumbine says, he's made a point of showing up in court to support Smith in his pretrial hearings, a favor that Smith has so far declined to return. "Me and a handful of guys were the only people present at his last hearing," Grumbine recalls. "My philosophy and belief is that that nobody should go to jail for a plant. Regardless of my opinion on someone, if they are a jerk or not socially adept, I would always be supportive. That said, he's never done anything for anybody, and if you're not on his show, you're nobody."

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After falling out with James and her ASA group, Smith started his own chapter. "I basically said, 'Forget it; you guys can have that group,'" Smith recalls. "I'm gonna take my ASA to a new address, and you can do what you want." Smith also formed a trade organization called the Greater Orange County Caregivers' Alliance (GOCCA), which he claims represents the most ethical cannabis collectives in the county. To join the group, collectives must go through what Smith describes as a rigorous accreditation process and hand over to him all their corporate paperwork proving they comply with state law and operate at the highest professional standards.

So far, however, only six collectives have joined GOCCA. To Smith, that simply proves his thesis that many collectives are actually just "front groups" for drug dealers. "Six collectives is about 10 percent of the total number of collectives in the county," he estimates. "Those 10 percent really represent the cream of the crop. The other 90 percent want to remain in the shadows, doing the gray things that they do just to make some money. They don't want to be in the spotlight of the city or the police, so they operate off the board."

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