Steele Smith: Prophet of Pot?
The C3 Patient Association is located on the first floor of a gray office building on an access road in an industrial area of Garden Grove. A few tidy plants and a small American flag decorate the doorstep. Inside, behind the welcome desk manned by two young employees and the vault—a locked, antiseptic, humidor-type room with shelves of cannabis indica, sativa and hybrids—there's a hallway with a display case full of glass pipes and other smoking paraphernalia. Beyond that is an office, where, seated behind a small desk, is a 6-foot-7-inch man with a baby face and a booming voice.
With his short-sleeved polo shirt tucked into a pair of factory-washed jeans, Steele Smith bears no resemblance to the stereotypical red-eyed, tie-dyed, longhaired marijuana grower—he looks much more like a cop or a car salesman. But as the owner and operator of Orange County's second-oldest medical-marijuana collective, Smith has seen more than his fair share of such types as well as even-more-marginal characters, many of whom have sat with him in this room, trying to pretend they were legitimate players in the medical-cannabis trade.
"As a collective owner, you see a lot of vendors coming into your shop, trying to sell their medicine," Smith says. "When you sit down with them, you can glean a lot from them about who they are, where they come from and what kind of operation they have . . . Now, I can't say I know specifically if this one guy is a Mexican cartel guy, but I can say that he's got gang tattoos, he can bring me 100 pounds of brick medicine, and Mexican medicine is always bricked. You can draw A to Z."
Brick marijuana is cheap, outdoor weed grown in Mexico, then stuffed into bales compressed into dense bricks so that smuggling them across the border, either in a gas tank or on the back of a mule, becomes more efficient. "They come in our door and take a knife and cut a piece of it," Smith says. "And you look at the material, and it's completely patted down because that bale may have sat in a warehouse in Mexico for a month before it came north."
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This kind of marijuana, explains Smith, doesn't begin to compete with the high-quality cannabis that currently lines the shelves of cannabis collectives in California and 14 other states, as well as the District of Columbia. "The strength is very weak, but the prices are very cheap. Nowadays, it goes into concentrated extracts or edibles, or it's sold under the name 'Train Wreck' or one of the other old-school names."
The fact that cheap Mexican weed is often sold under the name "Train Wreck" is an industry secret Smith says nobody in the marijuana business wants the general public to know. "There is no strain called Train Wreck," he says. "Train Wreck is just what we call marginal weed. Nobody knows what it is."
Then there's Purple Erkle. "Anybody can bring in some red buds with a little color to it and call it Purple Erkle or Jah OG," he says. "Anybody can bring in a dark bud and call it Hindu Kush. You'll never know. It's just a marketing tool."
Another secret, according to Smith: Real marijuana doesn't look anything like what most people expect to see when they walk into their local dispensary. Those tight, dense buds that most stoners associate with the chronic look pretty and will get you high, but they've been shorn of their THC-laden leaves, either by hand-held trimmers or motorized tumblers. Sophisticated pot growers, including the cartels, are increasingly using those cheating tools to manufacture hash, kief, tinctures or edibles, thus potentially doubling their profit. "Nobody wants their customers to know that the hash and kief they're selling you came right from the buds sitting next to them on the same shelf," he says.
As Smith readily acknowledges, there are plenty of folks in the medical-marijuana community who wish he'd shut the hell up—and that's putting it mildly. In fact, Smith could be the most hated person in Orange County's community. Ever since he and his wife, Theresa, founded C3 in the living room of their Fullerton home seven years ago, his relationship with most other local activists and cannabis-club owners has gone from testy to bad to worse to, finally, all but nonexistent. He doesn't mind: In Smith's view, many of his competitors are really crooks.
"A lot of these guys who started these shops are pot dealers from the past," he claims. "So I keep myself isolated. And within that isolation, I feel the security to say that commercial cultivators are stealing your medicine. They're selling you the nut and not the fruit; they're reselling the fruit to you and doubling their margins."
His critics, however, say Smith has an abrasive and self-righteous personality and has done more harm to the medical-marijuana movement than anyone else in the county. "Steele is one of the worst people I've ever been involved with," remarks one prominent activist.
"He's delusional," claims another.
"It's a shame," concludes Kandice Hawes, president of the Orange County chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "We don't want to be enemies of anyone, but Steele has repeatedly come into our group and caused problems. We want to work with him, and we want everything to be cool, but he keeps on attacking us, and he's kind of ruined the movement."
Besides, adds Hawes, "You'd think he'd want our help."
* * *
Internecine conflict within Orange County's medical-marijuana movement is indeed the least of Smith's problems. His real troubles began four years ago, when federal drug agents arrested him for illegal marijuana cultivation. Although his case has yet to go to trial, Smith remains under federal indictment and faces a potential prison term of 10 years behind bars if convicted. Despite this, he continues to operate the very collective that landed him in trouble.
To understand Smith's unyielding, perhaps even foolhardy approach to both law enforcement and his fellow marijuana activists, it helps to know a little bit about his pedigree. Smith's uncle, Leighton Hatch, was a California Supreme Court justice appointed by Ronald Reagan. Along with well-known drug-reform advocate and former Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, both his parents—Dr. Clark Smith, a prominent Anaheim physician, and Katherine Smith, an Anaheim Union High School District board member (see "Driving Miss Kathy," Jan. 17, 2002)—were signers of the 1993 Hoover Resolution, which called for a reform of U.S. drug policy to focus less on incarceration and more on treatment and prevention.
Following four years at Anaheim's prestigious, private Servite High School, Smith graduated from the University of Southern California before attending Western State University College of Law. He married Theresa, and together, they founded a marketing company for a product called ID Save, which fit around driver's licenses, preventing unwanted eyes from seeing people's addresses and other personal information. "My wife and I were able to eke out a small living and pay our bills," Smith says. "We had a nice little house. Life was good."
Everything changed a few weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. Smith woke up one day feeling sick; sharp pains sliced through his stomach, making it impossible to eat. "I was sick and puking, and it got worse from there," he recalls. "I was going to the hospital every day. I went from seeing my own doctor to seeing gastrointestinal specialists and, finally, rare-diseases doctors."
One of those physicians happened to specialize in Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome, a disease that causes ulcers of the duodenum, the first section of the lower intestine below the stomach.
It took months to reach this diagnosis because of Smith's tall frame—most scopes were too short to reach all the way to the duodenum. It wasn't until a specialist noticed Smith's feet hanging well off the end of the surgical table that he realized why he couldn't find the telltale ulcers. "The guy rolls me on my side, which squishes my guts together, and into view came a field of ulcers—11 of them," Smith says. "These ulcers are so painful they blind you. You can't see; you can't stand up. I dropped 40 or 45 pounds because I couldn't eat."
Doctors promptly put Smith on a regimen of powerful opiates. "They put him on major amounts of morphine, which we didn't even know was morphine because it was called Roxanol," says Theresa.
"It came in a baby dropper," Smith adds. "It was so innocuous. And then two weeks later, I woke up at 4 a.m., sweating. And this cold realization set in that this was detox, withdrawal."
After more than a year on Roxanol, Smith realized he was addicted to the drug. He went through an experimental, rapid detoxification therapy. "It nearly killed him," Theresa recalls. "He had to go into the emergency room and was there for four days, and then he came out in a wheelchair."
In desperation, Smith turned to Suboxone, a drug that helps deal with the side effects of opium withdrawal, as well as medical marijuana, to ease the pain and nausea caused by the ever-present ulcers. In 2004, there were roughly 20 medical-marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles and none in Orange County. Smith and his wife soon grew tired of the lengthy freeway commute. "We figured that not only does Orange County need one of these clubs, but also that we can do this," Smith recalls. "We've been self-employed with our own business for 14 years."
Late that year, Smith and his wife formed C3—shorthand for California Compassionate Caregivers. "We opened it in our house in Fullerton, right there in the living room," Smith says. "We had patients coming into the house, and by the end of that first week, we had 10 patients coming in a day."
In early 2005, the couple relocated to Placentia and rented a second-story apartment next to a restaurant. The apartment doubled as the location of the collective; beneath the unit was a secure garage where patients could park their cars.
Smith also got involved with Orange County's burgeoning medical-marijuana-activist community. He claims he started the county's first chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA) out of the office of a Newport Beach lawyer friend of his, William Paoli. "We had a meeting once a night at this nice law firm," Smith recalls. "We had a good group of 25, 30 patients showing up. The conference room was always full; we were standing-room-only. It was a very professional meeting. We didn't allow anyone to smoke out in the parking lot."
However, several prominent cannabis activists claim Smith is exaggerating his role in ASA. "The first [ASA] meeting in my living room was five people" in 2004, says Tracy Neria, an OC NORML member who says she founded the local chapter. "Steele was never a board member or a member." Neria says she first met Smith a year later when she worked for a doctor who prescribed medical marijuana to patients, some of whom obtained their medicine from C3. "We'd had patients whom he delivered to who said he delivered moldy product," she says. "These were elderly patients. Our patients would call us, all upset, saying they were having problems with this guy. He was bringing them stuff they hadn't ordered, shorting them and being rude. They felt threatened by him."
At the time, Smith was growing his marijuana crop inside a 2,000-square-foot house near Perris, on a 10-acre property surrounded by trees and nearly invisible from the outside. Smith hired another grower he knew to live at the house and run the day-to-day operation. But, Smith noticed as the first harvest came in months later, the crop perceptibly shrunk each time he visited.
Suspicious, Smith asked an electrician friend to drop by, pretend to do work at the property, and then report what he saw. "The next day, he called and said, 'A green car just pulled up,'" he recalls. "'Two guys got out, and they've been inside 10 minutes. They walked out with two brown paper bags, put them in the trunk and left.' He called back two hours later and said the same thing happened, this time with a minivan. So that was it. I knew I was being stolen from. I was done. It went to hell in a handbag."
In the early summer of 2007, before Smith had a chance to fire his foreman and harvest what was left of his crop, the police arrested the thief while he was away from the property. "He dropped a dime on the location, and the location got busted up by the police," he says.
After the raid, Smith received a telephone call in Placentia from the Riverside County sheriff's department. "We looked into this property," a detective told him. "You signed the lease. Do you want to come out here and talk to us?" Smith said no. When the detective asked him to answer questions over the phone, Smith gave him the name of his attorney and hung up.
All Smith had left of his crop were the 18 mother plants that had spawned the thousands of clones he was in the process of growing. With no place else to put them, he left them in the garage beneath his apartment. At about 7 on a Friday night, while hanging out with a friend, Smith heard a knock on the door. A bearded man wearing a chain of beads around his neck asked Smith if he was the owner of the Grand Cherokee that was parked in the alley. "I just clipped your mirror," the man said. "I'm really sorry."
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, two uniformed Placentia police officers confronted Smith and explained that while cruising down the alley, they'd noticed a garage door that hadn't been rolled all the way down; peering inside, they had seen Smith's plants. Smith told the cops he was a medical-marijuana patient and that the plants belonged to his collective. After spending several hours combing through his patient records, receipts, and other business and tax documents, the lead detective telephoned a prosecutor with the Orange County district attorney's office, who instructed the police to confiscate everything but make no arrests.
The detective also gave Smith his business card, along with instructions to call him in a few weeks about getting his property back. But when weeks passed and none of his calls were returned, Smith grew impatient. He hired Paoli to file a civil suit against the city of Placentia.
Meanwhile, Smith and his wife moved back to Fullerton. There, in July 2007, police visited two houses where Smith was in the process of cultivating approximately 4,000 plants for the collective, which had just opened its new headquarters in Garden Grove. This time, despite the high number of plants, the cops not only made no arrests, but they also left without seizing any property. Smith even claims a female captain told him she'd never seen a collective with as much paperwork as his and to call her if he ever had problems with the city. He wasn't as lucky a few months later, when the Smiths awoke at about 4 a.m. to the sound of their front door being knocked down.
A squad of federal drug-enforcement agents entered the house, spraying fire extinguishers inside to create a disorienting fog so that for a moment, all Smith saw were red laser lights and shadows of what looked like paramilitary uniforms. Other Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) units simultaneously raided his two Fullerton grow houses, as well as C3's Garden Grove headquarters, confiscating no less than 3,860 marijuana plants.
Both Smith and his wife were arrested and charged with illegally cultivating marijuana. Also arrested that morning were Alex Valentine and Dennis Leland. Valentine, a 21-year-old member of C3 who suffers from neurofibromatosis (better known as Elephant Man's disease), was staying at one of the grow houses; Valentine was a homeless friend of a friend whom the Smiths had allowed to sleep at another house in return for helping with minor chores. Because of Smith's medical condition, he wasn't housed at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange, where most local federal inmates are held awaiting trial, but rather at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Although his wife was released on bail after two months—they were housed on different floors but were able to shout at each other through air ducts once or twice a day until weekly visits could be arranged—Smith spent 10 months in jail. Among other things, he survived a massive race riot that began on his floor and spread throughout the facility, leading to several days of lockdown, and became addicted once again to painkillers, specifically Oxycontin, which was prescribed to him by jail doctors for his ulcers. After being released, Smith spent a year with an ankle-monitoring bracelet on house arrest and gradually weaned himself off opiates with copious amounts of medical marijuana.
* * *
During his incarceration, Smith says, rivals within the Orange County ASA chapter had taken over the weekly meetings at Paoli's law office in Newport Beach, which he claims began to deteriorate. "They weren't respecting the rules I had in place," he says. "People were smoking in the parking lot, and the neighbors complained to the senior partner, who told Bill he had to get those people out of there."
ASA began to hold its meetings at a pizza parlor where the OCNORML meetings were held. Smith showed up at one of the meetings, insisted the two groups should meet separately and announced he was running for president of ASA. In Smith's view, the two organizations have separate and mutually exclusive goals: While ASA advocates for medical-cannabis patients, NORML's mission is to push authorities to legalize marijuana. Hence, he argued, the two groups had no business sharing meetings or members. "When I said that, it pissed off that whole group," Smith says.
"Steele just stood up and said he was having elections and nominated himself president out of the blue," says Marla James, a paraplegic who now heads Orange County's ASA chapter. "He hadn't been to a single meeting in the past year, so I told him he couldn't run, according to our bylaws, and he hadn't paid any dues and wasn't on the membership list. So then he demanded the membership list and sent me all kinds of emails and left threatening messages on my voice mail. He threatened to sue me, and it was really as if he had a psychiatric break."
James says she often wonders if Smith's painful medical symptoms might explain at least some of the personality conflict. "I've tried to understand him for a long time," she says. "My opinion is he needs medication more than cannabis. He is a very charming man, but what's sad is that his wife, Theresa, who is a wonderful lady, was arrested, too, but if you look on his website, it just says, 'Steele's Case' and doesn't mention Theresa or the other people arrested who could go to prison. It's just like the whole world is centered on him, so I choose not to be in his world—a lot of people choose that. He's made a lot of enemies."
Joe Grumbine, director of the medical-marijuana-activist group The Human Solution and former owner of the Unit D Patient Collective in Garden Grove who is now facing criminal charges in Long Beach Superior Court, recalls meeting Smith in the midst of this controversy. "He came into my collective and didn't have his paperwork," Grumbine recalls. "My people are trained to not let people come in without a [doctor's note]. He came back with an expired note, and we called the doctor to see if it was valid, and he said it wasn't, so we said, 'You can't come in.' I didn't see him much after that."
Later, he learned that Smith was spreading rumors that Grumbine, who is viewed as a hero by many medical-marijuana activists for his social work through The Human Solution—including the distribution of free marijuana to low-income and disabled patients—was really a "drug dealer" masquerading as a humanitarian. "He is a very toxic person to our movement," Grumbine says. "I don't even have a collective anymore, and all my resources were taken from me. If I'm a drug dealer, then why am I still fighting for other people's rights?"
Despite believing that Smith has tried to sully his reputation behind his back, Grumbine says, he's made a point of showing up in court to support Smith in his pretrial hearings, a favor that Smith has so far declined to return. "Me and a handful of guys were the only people present at his last hearing," Grumbine recalls. "My philosophy and belief is that that nobody should go to jail for a plant. Regardless of my opinion on someone, if they are a jerk or not socially adept, I would always be supportive. That said, he's never done anything for anybody, and if you're not on his show, you're nobody."
* * *
After falling out with James and her ASA group, Smith started his own chapter. "I basically said, 'Forget it; you guys can have that group,'" Smith recalls. "I'm gonna take my ASA to a new address, and you can do what you want." Smith also formed a trade organization called the Greater Orange County Caregivers' Alliance (GOCCA), which he claims represents the most ethical cannabis collectives in the county. To join the group, collectives must go through what Smith describes as a rigorous accreditation process and hand over to him all their corporate paperwork proving they comply with state law and operate at the highest professional standards.
So far, however, only six collectives have joined GOCCA. To Smith, that simply proves his thesis that many collectives are actually just "front groups" for drug dealers. "Six collectives is about 10 percent of the total number of collectives in the county," he estimates. "Those 10 percent really represent the cream of the crop. The other 90 percent want to remain in the shadows, doing the gray things that they do just to make some money. They don't want to be in the spotlight of the city or the police, so they operate off the board."
Meanwhile, after numerous delays, Steele and Theresa Smith face a June trial date in their federal marijuana-cultivation case. If it goes to trial, it will become the first federal case in the nation in which a defendant will be able to mention the words "medical marijuana." Previously, juries in such cases had no way of knowing if the defendant was a sick patient growing medicine for his or her collective or a garden-variety weed farmer. But as Smith's own defense attorney, Eric Shevin, points out, there is still no "medical marijuana" defense to marijuana cultivation in federal law.
In other words, Smith's only hope at a not-guilty verdict is a sympathetic jury deliberately ignoring this fact, despite the judge's inevitable instructions to the contrary. Besides, Shevin adds, prosecutors have repeatedly offered Smith a settlement the attorney described as "too good to refuse." So far, however, his client has refused to cop a plea. "To hope a jury acquits you just because they hear the words 'medical marijuana' is super-risky," Shevin says. "To fight this case and be a martyr just to be heard? The stakes are just incredibly high."
For his part, Smith seems incredibly unworried about his legal prospects. He points out that Shevin has filed motions in his case arguing the federal government has no right to penalize conduct that has been legalized under state laws. "The government doesn't want to answer those motions," Smith says. "I will probably get a favorable judgment. There are 15 other states watching this, and if I win, there will be a new law that all those states can use."
If Smith wins in federal court, he'll also regain his legal standing to sue the city of Placentia, which he believes is responsible for setting in motion the ordeal of the past several years of his life. Thanks to the 10 months of incarceration he suffered after he filed the original lawsuit, he says with almost giddy excitement, the amount of damages he can claim has risen exponentially.
"The attorneys I'm talking to say the sky's the limit," Smith enthuses. "They say I can rename the city of Placentia if I win. The city's lawyers know that I'm too clean. They know I'm not going to look bad in front of a jury. They can't say, 'We found meth on this guy; he had a gun; he's an alcoholic.' I went to USC. I went to law school. I'm a seventh-generation Californian. I'm a patient. I've got a rare disease. Fuck—I'm the perfect storm!"
This article appeared in print as "Prophet of Pot? Steele Smith fancies himself a truth-teller in OC's medicinal-marijuana communtiy—and because of that, he just might be its most hated member."
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