The perfect storm of California law allowing for medical marijuana collectives and local government crackdowns on storefront cannabis clubs has created the "explosive growth" of unregulated pot couriers.
The Center for Investigative Journalism's nonprofit California Watch explores the phenomenon in a package of stories available for viewing on its website.
Accompanying the stories is a map of the Golden State that shows how concentrated the known delivery services are. Take, for instance, Orange County above: all the little green tops represent marijuana delivery businesses advertised on websites like Weedmaps.com.
"The website charges advertisers from $50 to $150 a month and provides the most current snapshot of medical marijuana delivery operations available to the public," reports California Watch. "The list is by no means comprehensive."
Based on Weedmaps listings in April, the map shows businesses that are strictly delivery services and physical dispensaries that also deliver.
California Watch Multimedia Producer Lisa Pickoff-White came up with the idea of creating a statewide map to show where the delivery services were overlaid with moratoriums. She and Sarah Terry-Cobo completed the project with the assistance of reporters Michael Montgomery and Gary Cohn, as well as students at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Before California Watch even existed, freelance reporter Cohn began reporting on medical marijuana businesses for the Center for Investigative Reporting. After California Watch launched in November, Cohn teamed up with radio reporter Montgomery, and they decided to focus on delivery services.
"As city and county moratoriums were shutting down storefront dispensaries throughout the state, we heard that delivery services were moving in to meet the demand," California Watch explains.
"The unfettered delivery of marijuana through hundreds of these services highlights how quickly California's fabled pot industry is moving from the shadows and into uncharted legal territory," Cohn and Montgomery report. "These new couriers include enterprising farmers, business entrepreneurs and even a former Los Angeles pot dealer methodically switching her former clients to legal patients."
Among the reporters' findings:
- The exact number of delivery services operating in California is unclear, since the state does not keep a registry of medical marijuana distributors or outlets;
- In April, 758 services advertised direct delivery of marijuana to patients on Weedmaps.com;
- Those numbers have nearly tripled in the past 18 months and grown by 39 percent since February, as more counties and cities began regulating storefront dispensaries or banning them outright, according to Weedmaps owner Justin Hartfield;
- Deliverers advertise on the Internet and in newspapers (a quick shout out to the Weekly's Alternative Healing section and Rolling Papers insert);
- One courier delivers organic vegetables along with medical marijuana as part of a "farm-direct" service;
- At least three services ship to clients around the state using private prescription-drug couriers;
- Claim the California Watchers: "Nowhere is the boom in pot delivery more evident than in Southern California."
Naturally, there are government buzz-killers who maintain delivery services are illegal.
"They're transporting drugs," Tommy LaNeir, director of the National Marijuana Initiative, which is funded through the White House's drug policy office, tells California Watch. "It's a trans-shipment operation that's trying to bypass the ordinances that have been set up by cities and counties. It's as simple as that."
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But Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, counters that if delivery services are operating as collectives or cooperatives they are protected under state law. He said all members must be qualified patients or caregivers, the operator must verify each patient's status under legal guidelines and the delivery services must organize as nonprofits.
When it comes to sorting out the legalities, California government is once again part of the problem instead of the solution, the investigation reveals.
Voters in 1996 legalized medical marijuana, and Senate Bill 420 (heh-heh) allows for the existence of patient co-operatives for growing and distributing the meds. The bill charges the state Department of Public Health and the attorney general's office with regulating patient access.
"Neither the attorney general's office nor Public Health keep a listing of medical marijuana dispensaries, delivery services or individual cities and counties that have moratoriums on dispensaries," California Watch reports.