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Flash forward 15 years to the summer of 2011, which is starting to look a lot like the historical watermark of the medical-marijuana movement, although few realized it at the time. Besides California, 15 other states—Arizona, Alaska, Montana, Colorado and Nevada among them—as well as the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana. Cannabis is California's biggest cash crop, with an annual harvest valued at about $14 billion. With an estimated annual yield of 8.6 million pounds, it represents by far the largest share of the national cannabis crop, which itself is valued at $35 billion.
It's estimated that as much as $1.4 billion worth of cannabis is sold each year in California. Because state law views medical marijuana as a medicine, some dispensaries have gone to court to avoid paying sales tax, arguing that cannabis should be exempt from it like any other prescribed medicine. However, as of 2011, the California State Board of Equalization estimated that it was taking in between $58 million and $105 million per year in taxes on cannabis sales. In 2010, the city of Oakland, with its four mega-dispensaries, including the world-famous Oaksterdam University—founded by the wheelchair-bound, bespectacled ex-roadie Richard Lee and which has its own nursery and has provided cultivation classes to thousands of activists—and Stephen DeAngelo's Harborside Health Center—the subject of the Discovery Channel reality show Weed Wars, which aired in 2011—collected $1 million in tax revenue.
Starting in the mid-2000s, hundreds of medical-cannabis dispensaries had opened up throughout the state, mostly in densely populated urban neighborhoods of cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, spreading from there to the suburbs. For as little as $50, a California resident could drop by a doctor's office—some of them conveniently located next-door to dispensaries—and obtain a written recommendation for marijuana. With that in hand, you could walk into your dispensary of choice and, after signing membership paperwork, select your "medicine" from row upon row of various strains of cannabis indica and sativa with sometimes exotic but more often recreational-sounding names such as Hindu Kush, Chem Dog, Luke Skywalker, Sweet Tooth and Sour Diesel.
Meanwhile, local prosecutors in states that have legalized marijuana for medical use now refuse to file charges against anyone with a doctor's note as long as they aren't transporting or cultivating more weed than what is allowed under state law—usually half a dozen fully grown plants or up to 8 ounces of dry marijuana. Knowing this, assuming the person has a valid doctor's note, it's likely the police won't even confiscate the cannabis in question. It's now just an infraction—the legal equivalent of a parking ticket—to possess an ounce or less of the stuff—and that's assuming you're the rare recreational pot smoker who's too lazy to get a doctor's note. Oaksterdam's Lee even paid $1.5 million to sponsor a law, Proposition 19, that would have legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults, but it failed at the polls in November 2010.
Since the first anti-cannabis law was enacted by the Massachusetts state legislature on April 29, 1911, pot smokers have blossomed from a handful of jazz musicians to tens of millions of people. Some 20 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges so far, and 40,000 people remain behind bars for marijuana-related crimes. And just as marijuana seemed poised to become completely legal in California, thus providing possible impetus to a nationwide campaign of decriminalization, everything changed. In October 2011, the federal government began a massive crackdown on California's medical-marijuana industry, raiding dispensaries up and down the coast, seizing property from landlords who were renting to people growing or distributing pot, and hitting DeAngelo's Harborside—the nation's largest dispensary with more than 90,000 members—with a $2.4 million tax bill, while also pressuring the dispensary's landlord to evict. Oaksterdam was next. On April 2, 2012, federal drug agents backed by local police raided the university in downtown Oakland, as well as Lee's house, and seized his entire nursery; Lee announced a few days later that he was giving up the medical-marijuana business.
The raids continued throughout 2012, with particular intensity in places where local officials had grown fed up with large numbers of dispensaries, such as Los Angeles, Orange County and especially Long Beach, which as my book reveals, engaged in a mercurial experiment with medical marijuana that will likely remain unrivaled in its hypocrisy in the annals of drug policy. Within the space of two years, the city invited cannabis clubs to pay tens of thousands of dollars to apply to win city approval, wrote an elaborate city ordinance mandating the cultivation of marijuana within city limits, engaged in a suspicious and sloppy lottery process to award clubs that had met the criteria, and then refused to provide any club with a permit. Meanwhile, the city frequently raided the clubs that had smartly avoided the lottery fiasco. Lawsuits by cannabis patients and dispensaries against the city were filed as a result; taken together, they could bankrupt Long Beach.
By the eve of the U.S. presidential election in November 2012, it seemed official: The medical-marijuana movement had reached its apex, and it had failed. The industry that had boomed in the past three years was doomed to decline. And then on Election Day, voters in Washington and Colorado passed state laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use, something that had been attempted more than once in California, most recently in 2009, but which had never won at the polls. A cover story in Newsweek magazine just weeks before the Colorado measure passed shed light on the corporate backers of the legalization measure, dubbing them America's new "pot barons." Just as the federal government's successful takedown of California's dispensaries showed the abject failure of medical marijuana to protect both the crop and the people growing it, American democracy had stepped in and provided new hope for stoners.