Every afternoon at 4:20 sharp, “Steve“ leaves his office in San Francisco. After a day spent shuffling multi-million-dollar investments, many of his firm’s ace financial planners scurry to join the sexy clientele at the nearby W hotel’s XYZ bar. But Steve, 35, doesn’t go with them. (Some names in this story have been changed.) He doesn’t drink. And with his 24-year-old “Hawaiian Tropic–hot“ wife waiting at home, he’s not on the prowl. Instead, to revitalize his mind and body, he slips in his iPod earbuds and walks 30 minutes to his favorite state-sanctioned cannabis club.
Decked out in bachelor-pad chic, the subterranean lounge is populated by a menagerie of regulars nodding lazily to the dub reggae pulsing from the speakers. Steve approaches the fluorescent-lit glass counter and buys a gram of Purple Urkel. He hands over 15 bucks and sinks into a red velvet couch, wadding his Gucci jacket into a ball. From his briefcase he pulls out clear cellulose rolling papers from Brazil, and he twists up a joint.
Steve doesn’t have glaucoma, aids, cancer, or any other ailment commonly associated with medical marijuana. But when he wanted to avoid the “harsh side effects“ of the Valium his shrink had prescribed for his stress, he sought out a “pot doc“ from the growing field of activist physicians who consider cannabis a legitimate salve against disorders like anxiety. Today a doctor’s note gives Steve access to the state’s rapidly expanding roster of cannabis clubs (there are about 300 now).
Encouraged by recent tweaks to California’s pot-friendly laws, connoisseurs across the state are suddenly abandoning their dope dealers to sample the clubs’ exotic, high-grade strains of sativas and indicas, concentrates like hash and kief, and edibles like caramels and krispies and lollipops. One writer in Los Angeles, “Blake,“ notes, “It’s the difference between buying a six-pack of Coors Light at your local 7-Eleven and selecting a fine Pinot Noir at a snooty wine shop.“ “John,“ a 29-year-old entertainment lawyer in L.A., boasts that his local emporium sells “the most amazing selection of the sickest fucking nuggets you can find anywhere on God’s green earth.“ His eyes light up, and his voice takes on a fiery staccato: “It’s like Amsterdam, only better.“
In 1996, California passed the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215), granting physicians the authority to recommend weed for “any . . . illness for which marijuana would provide relief.“ For eight years, the typical state-sanctioned cannabis consumer, of whom there were about 30,000, was a gravely ill patient. But no longer. Thanks to recent clarifications of Prop 215 (and a U.S. district court injunction protecting pot docs), the threat of arrest has nearly vanished. Since 2004, an estimated 250,000 new “patients“ have discreetly boarded the brownie bus, many of them enthusiasts who pay up to a few hundred dollars a year for doctor’s notes that permit them to buy rarefied weed at a cannabis club. The doctors’ “recommendations“ ostensibly combat such ailments as insomnia and headaches. One pioneering pot doc wrote notes to “treat“ stuttering, writer’s cramp, and corns.
For pot smokers with careers to protect, the license to ward off cops (and bypass dealers) is a strong incentive to buy doctor’s notes. “I’m too old to start a police record,“ says “Chris,“ a 35-year-old e-commerce senior developer. “A lot of my close friends now have the get-out-of-jail-free card.“
“It used to be that physicians only wanted the wheelchair patients,“ says Jean Talleyrand, 39, an Ivy League–educated pot doc in the Bay Area. “But now that the movement has gained traction, the landscape is different. A surprising number of our patients are highly successful young professionals who would simply rather sidle up to a bong than a bottle.“
Talleyrand was serving impoverished patients in a San Francisco public-health clinic when he decided to open up his first MediCann evaluation clinic in late 2004. “I knew that marijuana was a safe, herbal alternative to Ambien, Valium, and Vicodin,“ he says. With pot laws now on the books in 10 other states, including Alaska, Colorado, Rhode Island, and Maine, Talleyrand is looking less like a renegade and more like a shrewd businessman. In two years, MediCann has become a statewide chain that’s written $135 recommendations for 54,000 patients.
Marijuana is the largest cash crop in California, worth an estimated $13.8 billion a year—nearly double the combined value of grapes and vegetables—according to statistics released in December by the Bulletin of Cannabis Reform. (The value of the annual marijuana output in America is estimated at more than $35 billion.) In Los Angeles, the number of cannabis clubs has skyrocketed from a handful in 2004 to at least 125 today. “Pot clubs are the fastest-growing industry in Southern California,“ says “Alex,“ 32, who owns several of them.
With such explosive demand comes a swarm of registered “compassionate caregivers.“ Not long ago, “Tyler“ was an East Coast real-estate investor with a six-figure salary, a new house, a girlfriend, and a dog. At first he was reluctant to chuck his career “to become a drug dealer,“ as he puts it, but after determining that the business was both legitimate and lucrative, he rented out his house, ditched his girlfriend and his career, and headed west in a U-Haul with his dog. “I wanted to stake my claim in the new California gold rush,“ he says.
Today the 28-year-old medical-marijuana provider drives a new luxury sedan and lives in a spacious loft in downtown San Francisco. This savvy entrepreneur seems relatively at ease considering his career is at odds with federal law. He retains two lawyers and an accountant and steadfastly plays by the state’s rules. Last year, Tyler declared an income well into the six figures with the IRS. “I didn’t hear them bitching about that,“ he notes wryly.
Tyler thinks of himself as a craftsman. “What I do is every bit as artisan as winemaking,“ he says. Unlike winemakers, though, licensed pot growers must limit their output. (In San Francisco, one person may cultivate 99 plants.) And as more growers saturate the market with better pot, Tyler has had to cut the price of his potent Trainwreck strain to $3,500 a pound, down from $4,000 a couple of years ago. The business is ruthless: “It’s all about who has the new hash-extraction method, the new hybrid strain of Sour Diesel, the new shit nobody else has their paws on,“ he says.
Sitting on his balcony overlooking the Bay Bridge, Tyler says, “Do you know what keeps me awake at night?“ He pulls a chalky bong hit into his lungs and pauses for effect. “What I’m most afraid of is your fucking story.“
Tyler doesn’t want his price to plummet any further as more opportunists learn about California’s permissive weed laws. He doesn’t want any publicity to inflame Prop 215’s critics, like the syndicated right-wing radio host Michael Savage. And he doesn’t want the DEA to turn its attention to the West Coast. For Tyler, it’s best that the marijuana loophole remain an open secret. Tyler looks me dead in the eyes and exhales in my face. He says, “Don’t blow it for all of us.“