A flourishing and unregulated industry of pot delivery services is circumventing bans on storefront dispensaries and bringing medical marijuana directly to people's homes, offices and more unconventional locations across the state, records and interviews show.
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. These new couriers include enterprising farmers, business entrepreneurs and even a former Los Angeles pot dealer methodically switching her former clients to legal patients.
In newspapers and on the Internet, hundreds of "mobile dispensaries" advertise a wide range of strains and other products, such as brownies and cookies laced with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. One service delivers organic vegetables along with medical marijuana, as part of a "farm-direct" serv- ice.
Some operate in multiple counties, including jurisdictions where storefront dispensaries are banned, or make local deliveries to drop-off points, such as parking lots and gas stations. At least three ship to clients around the state using private prescription-drug couriers.
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Although delivery of medical marijuana is not a new phenomenon, advocates say the growth of these services could be a game-changer in the state's pot war, which often pits law enforcement, elected officials and community groups against dispensary owners and patients.
And these businesses could increase in popularity if voters approve an initiative on the November ballot that would legalize pot possession.
"They're delivering the product better, cheaper, more discretely and probably at a higher profit rate than dispensaries," said Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which advocates legalization. "These delivery services are starting to grab more and more market share."
A question remains on whether these services are legal. Some local and federal officials say delivery services violate the 1996 Compassionate Use Act that legalized medical marijuana in California for qualified patients, as well as other laws. The services are viewed as a way to circumvent local regulations -- like Modesto's -- clearly banning dispensaries.
"They're transporting drugs," said Tommy LaNeir, director of the National Marijuana Initiative. "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."
The exact number of delivery services operating in California is unclear. In April, 758 services advertised direct delivery of marijuana to patients on Weedmaps.com, a commercial listing service.
Those numbers have nearly tripled in the past 18 months as more counties and cities began regulating storefront dispensaries or banning them outright, according to Justin Hartfield, owner of Weedmaps.com.
More than half the couriers who advertised in April said they were located in the Los Angeles region. Other services clustered around San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento -- with most regions experiencing steady growth. The number of couriers advertising within Los Angeles has jumped from 110 to 161 since February. San Diego saw an increase from 68 to 101 over the same period.
A total of 129 cities and nine counties in California have all banned medical marijuana dispensaries. An additional 96 cities and 13 counties have moratoriums, according to Americans for Safe Access. Yet, in many of these "dry" communities, pot delivery services appear to be flourishing.
Officials caught flat-footed
For the state, the trend has caught officials flat-footed and unable to pinpoint any legal guidelines that directly address the delivery of medical marijuana by courier or mail. It's clear that sending drugs through the postal service and cultivating pot for sale violates U.S. law, but most marijuana growers know federal prosecutions are rare.
"Delivery services are a relatively new creature, one that has not been directly addressed by the courts or in legislation," said Peter Krause, a California deputy attorney general who helped write the state's landmark guidelines on medical marijuana in 2008.
The state's 1996 initiative and a companion law approved by the Legislature in 2003 granted cities and counties most of the authority over implementing the Compassionate Use Act. But no city council or board of supervisors has explicitly outlawed or legalized delivery services, according to Americans for Safe Access.
The 2003 law appears to protect individual patients from prosecution for "possession, transportation, delivery, or cultivation of medical marijuana" under legal limits. The law also allows patients and their primary caregivers to "associate" with each other to "collectively or cooperatively" cultivate pot for medical purposes.
To some law enforcement officials, the law is unambiguous.
"It is the position of this office that based on current law, all mobile medical marijuana operations are illegal," said John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney's office.
Others agree, saying California law clearly does not allow the distribution of medical marijuana to hundreds of people by a service or any single person.
"I don't see anything that suggests that when voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, they envisioned (marijuana) delivery services," said Joseph Esposito, head of narcotics for the Los Angeles district attorney's office.
Nowhere is the boom in pot delivery more evident than in Southern California. Until recently, Los Angeles was ground zero in the rapid growth of medical pot outlets, with dispensaries outnumbering Starbucks locations along some commercial strips.
That era may be ending. In January, the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance that led city attorneys to order the closing of 439 dispensaries. An estimated 135 will be allowed to remain if they follow new regulations.
In the face of the crackdown, some dispensaries have already shuttered their storefronts and rebranded themselves as delivery serv- ices.
Don't need security guards
Dann Halem, a former freelance journalist, founded the Artists Collective delivery service 18 months ago after he started using marijuana to treat a rare hormone condition. He quickly saw the benefits of distributing marijuana directly to customers rather than running an expensive storefront.
"You don't have to rent property," he said. "You don't have to deal with security cameras. You don't have to have a security guard."
Together with a business partner, Halem logs hundreds of miles each week to fill phone and Internet orders for 500 or so clients. He said he doesn't charge extra for delivery, but sets a minimum amount of marijuana a patient must buy, depending on the distance. If the customer is within 10 miles, the minimum is one-eighth of an ounce; within 20 miles, one-quarter of an ounce; within 30 miles, three-eighths of an ounce.
Just days after Los Angeles ordered a crackdown on the city's teeming medical marijuana dispensaries, Halem drove to a downtown residential hotel to deliver half an ounce of high-grade pot. At the hotel, Halem met up with Leonard Lombardo, a 50-year-old Gulf War veteran undergoing treatment for throat cancer. The two men spoke casually and then Lombardo paid for the marijuana.
"These are people who don't have cars. They can barely walk," said Halem, who nevertheless acknowledges that most of his clients are not severely ill. "So it's absolutely critical for there to be delivery services in some way."
A range of operations
In Northern California, there are fewer delivery services but some of the operations cover large areas, spanning multiple counties and cities.
One new company, Mediharvest, promises to deliver marijuana to qualified patients anywhere in the state via commercial carriers. Mediharvest promotes its service to people who "don't want to be seen at the store," who want high-quality pot, who don't want to support illegal drug cartels and who "want to change the attitude of medical marijuana use in America."
Another new online dispensary, C420, says it will ship pot overnight to qualified medical marijuana users at "almost any legal address in California." It has signed up 1,000 qualified medical marijuana users across the state since its launch in April.
Elsewhere, some operations are modeling themselves on organic farms that deliver distinctive boxes of fruits and vegetables directly to customers' homes. Matthew Cohen, owner of Northstone Organics, pioneered what he calls "farm-direct medical marijuana." The Ukiah-based cooperative grows and delivers marijuana to a network of some 500 qualified patients in the nine Bay Area counties.
One former pot dealer who runs a delivery service in Los Angeles agreed to talk about her business under the condition that her name and specific area of operation not be revealed. To transform her former customers into legal patients, the woman holds unusual gatherings: Sunday brunches at her home where a doctor evaluates the invited guests at a discount rate.
She and her small, all-female staff are on call noon to 8 p.m. every day and deliver anywhere in Los Angeles County. She says she employs female drivers because they are less threatening to customers. On an average week, the service delivers 1 to 2 pounds of marijuana packaged into colored packets usually weighing an eighth of an ounce and costing between $50 and $70.
"I have doctors. I have lawyers. I have (school) principals," she said on a recent delivery run, which included a Starbucks parking lot and a film production studio. "I have teachers. I have nurses, doctors, who don't want to be seen going into a dispensary."
This story was reported in collaboration with KQED public radio, with assistance from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting with offices in the Bay Area and Sacramento.