Joe Byron and Joe Grumbine Are Buds

The two thought they were doing the people of Long Beach a favor. Then they became targets in the city's weird war on weed

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.

But just when it seemed like both men were headed to the poorhouse, rumors circulated around town that the Long Beach City Council, unlike many other municipal bodies in California, was going to issue permits to marijuana collectives operating in the city. Like any entrepreneurs, Byron and Grumbine wanted to capitalize on the opportunity. Over the next year, they opened a trio of dispensaries, two in Long Beach and one in Garden Grove.

In retrospect, everything would've been fine if Byron and Grumbine had ignored the positive vibes coming out of Long Beach City Hall and just stayed in Orange County. After opening their Unit D cannabis collective in Garden Grove in March 2008, the two men had their share of visits from the local cops, but they were all of the friendly, non-you're-under-arrest variety.

"They stopped by maybe half a dozen times," Byron recalls. "First, they inspected us with code enforcement; then they came in a couple of months later and said, 'We have a new guy on the beat here.'"

Garden Grove's finest asked Byron and Grumbine to show them how to tell the difference between a legitimate doctor's recommendation for cannabis and something a stoner might fake on his computer. "We told the cops what we do and what to look for," Byron says. "A few months later, a new cop shows up, says, 'I do traffic stops all the time; I smell pot, and they hand me a piece of paper. Can you help me?' They were really friendly to us."

Unlike other dispensaries, Unit D did a lot more than distribute marijuana. They also gave out free clothing, food and medicine to low-income patients, as well as wheelchairs to disabled members of the collective. Central to that effort was Charles Monson, director of the nonprofit group Wheels of Mercy (see Derek Olson's "Roll Player," Aug. 24, 2007). When Monson was arrested in October 2007 for growing marijuana, his lawyer asked him to stop cultivating until the case was settled. That's how he met Byron and Grumbine.

"I needed a way to get ahold of my medicine," says Monson, a quadriplegic who broke his neck in a Newport Beach swimming accident when he was 16. Since he lives on a fixed income and couldn't pay for the cannabis, he offered to provide Unit D with services in exchange for his medicine. "I taught classes on how to cook with medicine, made sure people got wheelchairs who needed them, created a program in which we put grab rails in people's homes."

Byron and Grumbine assisted in the fieldwork. "If one of our members needed a wheelchair ramp, we'd go and build it for him," Byron says. "We loved doing that. If someone needed something, we'd go and do what needed to be done. It was a lot of fun."

In return, members would donate food and clothing to the collective. "We had one guy who always brought in loads of fresh bread," Byron says. "We were running it as an actual collective, the way you are supposed to do it. It wasn't some party situation, with guys in dreadlocks and people smoking medicine onsite or with a hookah in the back yard."

At first, Long Beach seemed just as friendly as Garden Grove when it came to medical marijuana. "I knew the city were getting ready with rules and regulations on licensing medical marijuana," Byron says. "We went to all the City Council meetings. We went called City Hall a couple of times and went down there because we knew there were dispensaries in town."

They soon found the city wasn't yet issuing permits for dispensaries, but it had already begun drafting an ordinance that would open the way for that process to begin. With that in mind, Byron and Grumbine rented a shop at the intersection of Fourth and Elm streets in downtown Long Beach and another off Lakewood Boulevard. Shortly after they opened for business, they received a telephone call from the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

"The DA's office called us just to see who we were and what we were doing. They said, 'Don't worry about the phone call,'" Byron recalls. "'We're just finding out where everybody is, and when this license thing goes through, we'll be able to contact you then.'"

Unlike many marijuana dispensaries that had stoner-friendly monikers such as 420 and After Midnight, Byron and Grumbine chose nondescript, address-specific names for their Long Beach locations: Fourth and Elm Natural Health Collective and the 2200 Health Collective. "We opened Fourth and Elm first," Byron says. "We thought we'd need a bunch of locations because we figured that once the ordinance passed, maybe one of those locations wouldn't work."

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