By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Joe Byron and Joe Grumbine face each other as the two sit on opposite sides of a booth table at Egg Heaven, the popular Long Beach breakfast eatery that the towering, ruddy-complexioned Byron—this morning wearing a somewhat-pained smile—has owned for the past 17 years. Grumbine is shorter, with wavy shoulder-length hair, and is wearing a billowy, white, button-down shirt that has a green ribbon with a red cross pinned to it, the symbol of his medical-marijuana activist group, the Human Solution. Both men poke at their eggs as they struggle to make sense of the fact they're talking to a reporter about something that, while apparently illegal for them to do, isn't illegal for a bunch of other people to do. That, at least, seems to be the moral of the Kafkaesque riddle that has become their lives, one that tends to put a dent in one's appetite and makes one's brain hurt even if one has had a few cups of coffee.
On June 17, Byron and Grumbine will be put on trial at the Long Beach Courthouse of Los Angeles Superior Court for dispensing medical marijuana to members of their cannabis collective—that is, they sold the pot to qualified patients who showed up at their storefront and presented valid California driver's licenses and legitimate recommendations from licensed physicians saying they were medical-marijuana patients whose right to obtain and smoke cannabis is protected under state law. The only problem: The patients in question turned out to be undercover police officers who were part of a major operation aimed at taking Byron and Grumbine out of the medical-marijuana trade and sending them to prison. If convicted of selling marijuana, each man faces seven years in state prison.
On its face, the case is a bit anachronistic. It has been 15 years since California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act that legalized marijuana for state residents with a legitimate doctor's recommendation. Then, last November, a majority of Long Beach residents voted to support Proposition 19, the failed initiative that would have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and a whopping 73 percent of city residents voted in favor of a municipal measure to tax the dozens of marijuana dispensaries operating within the city.
All that's a bit beside the point, however. Dispensing marijuana isn't just legal under state law; it also happens to be an activity that the city of Long Beach has since endorsed by passing an ordinance allowing cannabis collectives to operate within the city. In fact, Long Beach is currently in the process of handing out business licenses to more than 20 marijuana dispensaries that are already doing exactly what Byron and Grumbine are about to be prosecuted for doing.
Both men are quick to point out that until their Dec. 17, 2009, arrests, neither of them had ever been in trouble with the law, that they were both upstanding members of Long Beach's business community.
"How many times have you been to jail, Joe?" Byron asks his friend, turning his head back and forth to see how many people at nearby tables might be overhearing the conversation.
"Zero," Grumbine says. Then he corrects himself: He was arrested on Dec. 10, 2008, when a Riverside County Sheriff's deputy pulled him over a few miles from his house near Perris and found 10 pounds of marijuana in his trunk. The pot, he told the deputy, belonged to his cannabis collective in Garden Grove, Unit D.
"We had just opened up the collective and didn't have all the security features we have now," Grumbine explains. "We couldn't afford it, so every night, one of us took the medicine home." He spent the night in jail; the charges were later dropped.
"How about you, Joe?" Grumbine asks Byron. "How many times have you been to jail?"
"Zero," Byron responds, wistfully shaking his head. "Yeah."
* * *
Byron and Grumbine's haphazard descent from legitimate businessmen to high-profile defendants in the city's schizophrenic war on weed began on New Year's Eve, 2000. That's when the two childhood friends grabbed a couple of beers and sat on a pair of paint buckets in Grumbine's garage, gearing up for a brainstorming session. They had a lot in common—and not in a good way: Both men were not only broke, but also heavily in debt, facing imminent financial doom.
Grumbine, a house painter who grew up in Fullerton, was living in a house near Perris, where he'd turned a dirty hillside into a botanical garden that hosted weddings until Riverside County shut him down for violating a zoning ordinance. He'd spent thousands of dollars in legal fees fighting the county, but he lost, had to return 50 deposits on future ceremonies and had no new cash coming in.
Byron, raised next door to northern Orange County in Whittier, was also struggling financially. Although Egg Heaven, which he has now owned for 17 years, was doing well, he'd just lost the lease on a pub in Long Beach. "Egg Heaven didn't pay all the bills," Byron says. "So I talked to Joe and told him I had a plan that could work for both of us."
By the time the two had finished their beers, they'd agreed to open a real-estate brokerage that could hopefully reverse their mutual financial misfortune courtesy of Southern California's ever-expanding housing bubble. They formed Mission Priority Lending, a boutique mortgage broker in Long Beach's upscale Belmont Shore peninsula. Business boomed for a while, but in 2007, the housing market imploded in Southern California and throughout the United States. For more than half a year, the pair struggled to keep afloat, but by the summer of 2008, as the global economy itself began to tank, it was clear they needed to switch careers. Suddenly, the two Joes were back where they started, minus the paint buckets.