Law enforcement officials in Stanislaus County say medical marijuana delivery services are nothing but clandestine pot operations hiding behind the state law that protects people using the drug to alleviate chronic afflictions.
"They're a fraud; they're a sham," said Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Shawn Barlow, who prosecutes major narcotics cases. "It's just people growing marijuana, putting it in their car and delivering it to people."
Since there is hardly any regulation of delivery services, he said it's highly unlikely that every delivery customer is a qualified patient.
"A vast majority of these types of businesses are operating against the law," Barlow said. "These businesses are supposed to be nonprofits, but they're making thousands and thousands of dollars."
The trend has spread to Stanislaus County, where at least six delivery services were operating in April, according to a survey conducted by California Watch, a nonprofit investigative news outlet.
Attempts by The Bee to contact all of the delivery services operating in the county were unsuccessful. When The Bee reached the manager of one delivery service, Mr. Purple Skunk Delivery, he said he was too busy to talk and hung up the phone.
Modesto police Sgt. Al Brocchini said these delivery services want to avoid drawing attention to themselves, fearing it would attract scrutiny by law enforcement.
"They don't want you to know where they are," said Brocchini, who works with department's narcotics enforcement team. "They're pretty covert."
Like hundreds of others across the state, Mr. Purple Skunk Delivery advertised its services on Weedmaps.com, a commercial listing service. The Web site provides a location for the business, but it's only latitude and longitude designations on a map.
The delivery service's location listed on the Web site is actually an empty lot just north of Kaiser Modesto Medical Center on Dale Road.
Brocchini said delivery services can operate below the government's radar much more easily in cyberspace than by providing medical marijuana from a storefront.
Modesto and four other Stanislaus County cities have banned medical marijuana sales, according to Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group.
Earlier this month in Merced County, the Livingston City Council voted unanimously to ban medical marijuana dispensaries.
But no city council or board of supervisors has explicitly outlawed or legalized delivery services, according to Americans for Safe Access.
"They found a hole in the market," said Barlow, who is prosecuting a man suspected of advertising on Craigslist to deliver medical marijuana and selling the drug to undercover narcotics investigators.
He said the marijuana delivery case, which is still pending, is the only case of its kind to be prosecuted in Stanislaus County.
"I'm surprised we only have one (prosecution)," Barlow said. "It's booming."
While Barlow expects more delivery services to surface in the area, the number in Stanislaus County, six, pales in comparison to nearby Sacramento County, with 24.
Brocchini said there are probably fewer delivery services in Stanislaus County because of its proximity to nearby metropolitan cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento.
California Watch's survey revealed that some delivery services operate in multiple counties.
MediHarvest.com, for instance, was listed on Weedmaps.com as operating in Oakdale.
The delivery service's Web site says MediHarvest.com is a nonprofit organization legally dispensing medical marijuana to California residents via the Internet -- and shipping is free. Attempts by The Bee to reach this delivery service were not successful.
MediHarvest pledges its members are verified, and money that exceeds the nonprofit's operating costs will be used to fund worthy community projects. According to the Web site, a quarter of an ounce of marijuana ranges from $70 to $120 and is available in a variety of strains -- including one called "Train Wreck."
Brocchini said he would need another narcotics investigative unit to look into each tip he gets of someone selling medical marijuana on the Internet.
He said law enforcement, however, can push back this trend and prevent illegal delivery services from becoming more established here.
"If we crack down on a few, they're not going to want do it in Modesto," Brocchini said. "We'll have to nip that problem in the bud."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.