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

When the city announced its proposed ordinance would require each dispensary to grow its own cannabis, Byron and Grumbine rented a cultivation space off Long Beach Boulevard and also began growing at the Fourth and Elm dispensary. "We didn't sell or distribute out of the [Long Beach Boulevard] location," Byron says. "We were just going to use it as a facility to grow medicine. We were probably there about three or four months before the raid."

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On Dec. 17, 2009, Byron was just putting the finishing touches on the air-conditioning system at their cultivation warehouse when several Long Beach police officers in SWAT gear, with their guns drawn, burst through the doors and arrested him. Simultaneously, police raided Unit D in Garden Grove, where Grumbine was working, as well as his house in Perris, where officers knocked down a gate and arrested his wife and 19-year-old daughter at gunpoint. "I opened the door with a gun to my head," Grumbine recalls. "I stared down the barrel of a 9mm and said, 'I guess I'm putting my hands up.'"

That day, cops also raided the homes of Byron and Grumbine's 17 employees, all of whom were arrested and sent to the Long Beach Jail; there, they were subjected to full-cavity body searches and put in holding cells overnight before being released with no charges filed. "I was thrown into a dingy dungeon and told to bend over and cough," says Katherine Hamill, who was working the front office at Unit D on the day of the raid. "I'm not a criminal. I had never been arrested in my life. It was the most degrading thing. I was bawling; it was so wrong."

Paul LaFond, manager of the Fourth and Elm collective, was filling in for an employee who was running late that morning when the police arrived. "Right at 11 a.m., about 12 police officers came in and immediately put me in handcuffs," LaFond recalls. "And within about three or four minutes, I was put in a car and taken to my house, where I was read my rights." Police ransacked the house, LaFond claims, and even refused to help his elderly housemate and landlord walk down the hall to get out of the way. "He was holding onto the wall, trying to keep his balance," he says. "I would have gotten up and helped him, but I was handcuffed."

As it soon became obvious, Long Beach police had placed Byron and Grumbine's three dispensaries, including Garden Grove's Unit D, as well as the grow house, under surveillance weeks earlier. They'd sent in several plainclothes police officers who'd purchased medical marijuana after having their doctor's notes verified, as required by state law, each time. Presumably, the police figured they were taking down a major dope-dealing operation run by a pair of profiteers. But unlike similar raids, such as the one against Mark Moen of the now-defunct 215 Agenda that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars (see "Marijuana Martyr," April 29, 2010), police managed to seize roughly $35,000 from Byron and Grumbine's operation.

Although police failed to file charges against anyone arrested in the raid, Byron and Grumbine were both re-arrested more than a year later, on Dec. 8, 2010, and eventually charged with 18 felony counts of selling marijuana, plus other charges stemming from the raid. The timing coincided with Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley's declaration of war against LA's legions of pot clubs.

Separately, Byron is being charged with failing to pay taxes on the marijuana sold at the dispensaries (he argues that paying taxes on marijuana sales hasn't protected others from being prosecuted for selling pot) and for stealing a fraction of the electrical power the club was using at the Fourth and Elm location from SoCal Edison. Byron insists a contractor he hired to do the wiring for the dispensary inadvertently connected a few outlets to the wrong power source.

By the time the Los Angeles County district attorney's office got around to hauling Byron and Grumbine before a judge, the city of Long Beach had enacted a medical-marijuana ordinance that officially sanctioned the operation of similarly run cannabis clubs within city limits. That ordinance severely restricted the ability of clubs to operate in compliance with the law. According to the legislation, no dispensary could be located within 1,500 feet of any high school; within 1,000 feet of a kindergarten, elementary, middle or junior-high school; or within 1,000 feet of another dispensary. On Sept. 20, 2010, the city held a lottery in which Ping-Pong balls representing between 60 and 70 prospective cannabis clubs were to be tumbled like popcorn in hot air, but as it turned out, none of the balls fit in the device. City officials had no choice but to dump the balls in a plastic recycling bin and randomly pull them out by hand. At the end of the day, a total of 37 dispensaries was selected to receive permits.

Meanwhile, the city has continued to modify the ordinance. On Dec. 14, the city passed a restriction that no club could operate within 1,000 feet of a city park. Each dispensary is also required to cultivate onsite the marijuana it distributes. At latest count, according to Erik Sund, Long Beach's business-relations manager, 23 cannabis clubs remain on track to obtain city permits. "That list is changing by the minute," Sund says. "Right now, the eligible collectives are going through the building department for building-improvement permits."

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