Selling pot ‘in the light’
Joel Castle proudly—and publicly—provides medical marijuana to qualified buyers
On a recent bright fall day, Joel Castle stood outside the 8-foot fence that surrounds his home, a joint in one hand, a glass jar filled with marijuana buds in the other. On the fence were colorful paintings in the style of Gilbert Shelton and R. Crumb showing a Mr. Natural-type figure smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and boldly advertising that this is the home of the Chico Cannabis Club.
Meet Chico’s foremost—and most public—dispenser of homegrown, organic medical marijuana.
As far as he’s concerned, he’s providing a valuable service under the terms of Proposition 215, the state’s med-pot law. Castle, a 60-year-old disabled veteran, organized the Chico Cannabis Club five years ago when he moved to Chico and realized the only way people with medicinal-marijuana recommendations could acquire the drug safely was by growing it themselves. But not everyone can grow, he says, considering that growing requires supplies, land and time. Besides, many are afraid of becoming an easy target for criminals.
“I found out there was no place to get [medicinal marijuana in Butte County] … that I would have to break a law to get it,” he said. “That didn’t set well with my soul.”
Castle says his club fits the state’s guidelines—as outlined by the Attorney General’s Office—specifying that only medicinal collectives and cooperatives may sell the herb, and only among their own members. Collectives cannot be operated for profit, must provide detailed records proving users are legitimate patients, and may not purchase marijuana from unlawful sources.
A major component of the guidelines suggests storefront dispensaries that sell to anyone with a doctor’s recommendation are illegal because they don’t fit the definition of a collective.
As Castle has found, however, interpretation of the law, like so much about Prop 215, is up for debate.
The Chico Cannabis Club, with 51 members, is a “sanctuary"—Castle’s word—for people with medical-marijuana recommendations from local physicians.
Castle is selective about its membership. He terminates anyone he discovers abusing its privileges—for example, by selling marijuana to people without recommendations to make money. Members pay a one-time fee of $50, which also gets them a T-shirt.
Most of Castle’s members are growers and share information and techniques on organic-growing methods. Members also share clones of differing varieties of plants.
For patients who choose not to grow, or can’t, the club charges $140 an ounce. By comparison, an ounce on the street can run as high as $566, Castle said, and may not be organic. It’s also risky to send people into a “criminal world just to get a joint,” he said; instead, patients meet with Castle at his home, behind that high wall.
Castle’s mission to create a safe haven for medicinal-marijuana patients on a grand scale is not accepted by everyone—including Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.
In a phone interview, Ramsey said he didn’t know enough about the club to have a solid opinion on the legitimacy of its operation. “It’s difficult to talk with Joel,” he said, noting that conversations between the two usually disintegrate because Castle “doesn’t like to hear the word no” and issues statements such as, “I’m selling dope, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
The thing the two seem to agree on is that marijuana is still tied too closely to the criminal world. Ramsey supports medicinal marijuana, but only for people who are seriously ill. He doesn’t think the plant requires substantial labor to grow and believes most people should be able to grow a plant or two easily. “Remember, it is called a weed,” he said.
Ramsey’s conception of what is allowed under Prop 215 is based on People v. Peron, a 1997 case in which an appellate court in San Francisco found that only those people who are consistently responsible for their patients’ housing, safety and daily living are primary caregivers and can grow marijuana for them. An operation such as Castle’s should be limited to no more than three people, Ramsey believes.
“Just being a person who supplies marijuana to another person is not fulfilling that consistency” needed to qualify as a caretaker, Ramsey said. “You cannot be a caretaker to the world.”
But, Castle asks, what about people who don’t have land? People shouldn’t be required to own property to have access to their medicine. And people who are extremely sick with, say, cancer “aren’t going to be outside gardening” and may not be able to find a caretaker willing to grow marijuana for them.
Not even KZFR, the ultra-hip community radio station that regularly broadcasts reggae shows featuring songs extolling ganja and sinsemilla and calling for “420” smoke breaks, is comfortable with the Chico Cannabis Club. Last week it turned Castle down when he sought to become an underwriter—the public-radio equivalent of an advertiser—after station employees discussed the club’s legality with Ramsey and other sources.
“We were not comfortable with some of the information we were given about the nature of the business,” said Jill Paydon, KZFR’s general manager.
Shelly Mariposa, underwriting sales director at KZFR, said she contacted Ramsey because Castle suggested she should and because she didn’t know much about his club. Following her inquiry, she said, she felt “this was not a legal enterprise, so why would I have it on the air?”
Wait a second, Castle says: The station airs sponsorship announcements with Natural Care for Wellness, a business that issues medicinal-marijuana recommendations, and his club’s services are just as important in the community.
Nikki Coons, office manager at Natural Care for Wellness, says the business ran the sponsorship on KZFR for about a year and did not renew its contract because the sponsorship did not provide a substantial increase in business.
Castle smokes pot nearly every day. He says he isn’t worried about health risks to his lungs, especially since his cannabis doesn’t contain pesticides or other toxins often added to the drug.
Not only is his nonprofit club “in accordance with the law,” he said, it’s also helping stop crime. “Every person who joins [the Chico Cannabis Club] takes that many felonies off the street,” he explained.
Castle often describes himself as a soldier fighting a long battle, not only against the police, but also against the criminals who want to rip him off, something that has happened to several med-pot users in recent weeks.
Criminals often attempt to seize marijuana because they believe that it’s not legal, so the victim won’t report the crime, Castle said. That’s why he has the artwork and signs advertising the Chico Cannabis Club on his fence, which surrounds his home. He says he would rather be “in the light than in the dark.” Even though he fears the police, he also values that he is protected by the law against criminals.
On his Web site, he offers this advice to med-pot users: “Do not ever open your door to cops or criminals.”
Castle has been robbed at gunpoint for marijuana. In June, someone got past his fence and his 11-month-old border collie, and stole four pounds of herb, which he reported to the police. Still, Castle says he is lucky: Some members of his club have experienced far worse violence.
Ramsey agrees involvement with marijuana can be dangerous. “Legitimate growers,” he said, should contact police in the event of a home invasion or burglary.
“People have to be careful—make sure you have a fence,” Ramsey said. “If there is a situation where you can grow indoors, don’t bring people in to see the grow. … Word trickles out.”
All the more reasons for local government to become involved, Castle says: “It’s dangerous. If Chico wants to protect its citizens, they would address this issue, build a forum and get on it like a hungry lion.
“You have fear all the time. Some people can be curious. Some people will be aggressively curious. When you go to sleep at night … after eight or 10 weeks, plants become a certain size, and all of a sudden you are up a few times at night. And it doesn’t stop.
“It’s always constant pressure when you are growing.”