Confused about cannabis

Medpot patients grow in groups, lose a trusted ally in law enforcement

Ganja man Joshua Hinds, a medical marijuana patient and grower, stands in the cooperative garden in the foothills which he shares with seven other patients. Cooperative grows are becoming more common among medpot patients but have attracted the attention of local law enforcement.

Ganja man Joshua Hinds, a medical marijuana patient and grower, stands in the cooperative garden in the foothills which he shares with seven other patients. Cooperative grows are becoming more common among medpot patients but have attracted the attention of local law enforcement.

Photo By Josh Indar

This you may grow:The Butte County D.A. has set the following guidelines for medical pot growers: Patients may grow up to 12 immature plants or six mature plants. Maturity is defined as being when the plant’s sex becomes apparent. Patients may possess up to a pound of cured marijuana. Cooperative grows are limited to eight patients per co-op. Patient-designated caregivers are limited to caring for three patients at a time. Pot is illegal under federal law, but they rarely go after growers of 100 plants or less.

Joshua Hinds grows marijuana—some would consider it a lot of marijuana. Suffering from bipolar manic depression, Hinds says smoking cannabis helps fight off mood swings and keeps him from being suicidal. His doctor’s recommendation allows him to grow up to 20 plants, but even if that were legal under federal law, in Butte County, medical patients are allowed to grow only six mature plants at a time.

Hinds is one of many medical marijuana patients in California who, having been stymied in their efforts to open legal dispensaries, are grouping themselves into cooperatives to grow their own medicine. For patients who live in apartments or are wheelchair-bound, group-grows may be the only way to go. But with California’s medical marijuana law being as vague as it is, local law enforcement is having a tough time figuring out who is engaging in a legitimate medical co-op and who is just out to get high.

With harvest time still some two months away, Hinds finds himself looking skyward with ever-increasing anxiety, hoping the deputies that fly in helicopters over his property know that his marijuana garden is a legal, medicinal grow.

“We’ve been flown over about four times. This is hard for me because I get panic attacks. I just want to get this done legally. There’s a lot of us that have invested in this.”

While marijuana and paranoia are often associated, there are plenty of good reasons for medpot patients to be anxious. Aside from the ever-present possibility of arrest, there is the looming threat of theft and violence, both from small-time garden raiders and gun-toting bandits.

Adrian Aguilar, a medpot patient who was a member of a growing cooperative in Forest Ranch, was the victim of a harvest-time heist in 2004.

“They put a gun to my head,” he said. “It was scary. I was lucky, because at least [the cops who investigated the case] returned our pot. They hardly ever do that.”

Local law enforcement officials urge patients to let them know when they are targeted, but more often than not, patient growers who become the victim of so-called “patch pirates” don’t even bother to contact police, fearing they will be arrested or harassed for doing so.

In Butte County, it seemed for a while that the complicated mess of laws and guidelines that allow for medical marijuana was about to be sorted out, at least on a local level. When interviewed for a CN&R story in late 2003, local medpot growers and activists indicated they were working with local law enforcement toward creating a secure and legal distribution system for the county’s medical cannabis users. Today, that system is no closer to being completed than when it was first considered.

Internal power struggles and personal beefs have taken their toll on the local medpot movement, with some growers accusing others of hording harvests or worse, selling for profit to recreational drug users. Such bickering has fractured what was once a united and organized movement.

But patients also say that one reason their plans have fallen apart is the recent transfer of a District Attorney’s Office investigator. Sid Crane, who has worked for the past five years on a sheriff’s and D.A.'s task force as a liaison between patients and law enforcement, was abruptly reassigned last June, causing many patients to wonder if they’d been wrong to begin trusting law enforcement. Crane was in the process of compiling a list of medical marijuana patients, which he used to ensure that medical growers were legitimate patients following county guidelines. He also listened to patient concerns and became a sounding board for ideas about how to make an admittedly flawed system work.

“With Sid, we were talking about doing a collective, cooperative type of thing where people could go and smoke, all legal under the health codes. Then I get this letter from the [sheriff’s] Marijuana Eradication Unit that says he isn’t in charge any more,” Aguilar said.

Crane, when reached by phone, said he could not talk about his reassignment, and neither the sheriff’s department nor the D.A.'s Office offered comment, citing employee privacy concerns.

Aguilar says he was told Crane was getting “too lenient.”

“I’m amazed they would let a guy like that go,” he said. “I would say he was following the law to the letter and spirit of how it was intended. He watched us for years before he approached us. He was going after the growers who were trying to be little Mafiosos [and] was there to make sure the law was working for us.”

With the reassignment of Crane, the patient grapevine began to hum with rumors of impending busts and changes in patient guidelines. So far, the rumors have proven to be false. A revised edition of the D.A.'s medical marijuana guidelines contains no major differences, and sheriff’s Capt. Jerry Smith said there has been no sea change in the department’s attitude toward enforcement.

“It’s not the sheriff’s position that we should go out there and aggressively assert ourselves against legitimate medical marijuana users,” he said. “We’ve got other things to do than chase mom-and-pop dope growers that are growing for their own smoke.”

The Sheriff’s Office will continue to collect the names and plot locations of medical growers and will continue to visit their gardens to make sure they’re in compliance, Smith said. As far as whether patients’ trust in law enforcement will have to be rebuilt, Smith said, “I’m sure that we’ll have to work hard on it, but you know, that’s what we do.”