By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
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.
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."
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."
* * *
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."
Of the medical-marijuana dispensaries about to receive city permits, two are actually operating at the same addresses where Byron and Grumbine's collectives were located. Replacing Byron and Grumbine's planned marijuana-cultivation center is one run by an outfit called the NLB Collective. Another address where Byron and Grumbine were planning to grow marijuana is now being operated by an organization called the Airport Collective. As for the collective that Byron and Grumbine were running off Lakewood Boulevard? That address now belongs to a dispensary called the Industry Green Collective, which is next door to a cultivation center run by the same club.
"All these clubs are doing exactly what my client is being charged with doing," says Grumbine's defense attorney, Christopher Glew. "If there's something wrong with what he did, why did the city just target him and Joe [Byron] and not the rest of the clubs, or at least two or three of them? What these two guys are guilty of doing is going on all over the city right now, and what's crazier than that is the fact that it's actually being condoned by the city of Long Beach. The whole thing is just surreal."
* * *
As Byron and Grumbine wind up their breakfast at Egg Heaven, they reflect on the fact they've rejected repeated offers by prosecutors to settle the case before trial, a deal they claim would involve no further jail time. So far, they've refused because they don't want to plead guilty to felonies for doing something they don't believe is wrong.
"I've got American blood going back before the Revolutionary War," Grumbine says. "I was born an American citizen, and I value that and all the rights that have been given to me, and if I plead guilty to a felony, I lose a lot of those."
"We thought about taking a deal, but it just wouldn't be the right thing to do," adds Byron. "Maybe if the city apologizes and drops the charges to a misdemeanor."
That said, both men admit prosecutors have not only a strong case that they are guilty of dispensing marijuana, but an ironclad one at that. "There is no question that we had marijuana and were dispensing it," Grumbine explains "We're just saying we were doing that within the confines of the law. I look at the charges against us, and there is no basis for any of it. It's a fucking joke."
"You know," Byron interjects in a hushed voice. "What's really funny is there's a guy with the DA's office sitting right behind us." Everyone at the table turns around to see a middle-aged man with an olive complexion and slicked-back hair in a yellow shirt and tie reading a newspaper. It's unclear if the man has been eavesdropping during the entire conversation, or if he is just enjoying his eggs. Either way, the narc knows he's been caught.
He smiles. "Surf's up," he says. And everyone returns to his respective breakfast.
This article appeared in print as "Buds: Joe Byron and Joe Grumbine thought they were doing the people of Long Beach a favor by opening medical-marijuana dispensaries. Then they became targets in the city's weird war on weed."