So now what?: the feds, medical marijuana and California

Long-standing activist, publisher and comedian Ngaio Bealum on the feds, the county—and what the medical-cannabis community can do to survive

Find out more about Ngaio Bealum at <a Email him at <script type="text/javascript" language="javascript">{ document.write(String.fromCharCode(60,97,32,104,114,101,102,61,34,109,97,105,108,116,111,58,101,100,105,116,111,114,64,119,101,115,116,99,111,97,115,116,99,97,110,110,97,98,105,115,46,99,111,109,34,62,101,100,105,116,111,114,64,119,101,115,116,99,111,97,115,116,99,97,110,110,97,98,105,115,46,99,111,109,60,47,97,62))}</script>.">

Find out more about Ngaio Bealum at Email him at <script type="text/javascript" language="javascript">{ document.write(String.fromCharCode(60,97,32,104,114,101,102,61,34,109,97,105,108,116,111,58,101,100,105,116,111,114,64,119,101,115,116,99,111,97,115,116,99,97,110,110,97,98,105,115,46,99,111,109,34,62,101,100,105,116,111,114,64,119,101,115,116,99,111,97,115,116,99,97,110,110,97,98,105,115,46,99,111,109,60,47,97,62))}</script>.


This past Friday, California’s four U.S. attorneys laid out a case that the state’s medical-cannabis collectives are crime-causing, illegal money machines that funnel pot to children. Then, they announced a plan to shut down all of the commercial dispensaries and grows within 45 days. Ngaio Bealum, who’s been a medical-cannabis activist for most of his life, has seen this before. The comedian and publisher of West Coast Cannabis sat down with SN&R just as the feds announced their latest crackdown to talk fact, fiction—and what happens next.

So, what the hell is going on?

The Department of Justice has apparently lost its mind and they have decided that, instead of going after the bankers and companies who defrauded the economy out of trillions of dollars, they’re going to come after cannabis users who have put millions of dollars into the economy. Apparently, they feel it’s better for cannabis to be an underground, nontaxable item than for it to be a revenue-generating, job-creating industry.

Let’s speculate as to the feds’ motivation to crack down on California.

There are a lot of things. I think it was [H.L.] Mencken who said, “Don’t expect a man to understand you if his job is to not understand you.” If you look at how they have to justify their billion-dollar drug-war budgets, most of those they arrest are cannabis users. And if they can no longer arrest a cannabis user, how are they going to justify hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. So that’s the first thing: Those cats are just afraid for their jobs, as cannabis users are afraid for their jobs.

So, the feds just need to “look busy.”

But half of me also thinks the right-wingers in the Department of Justice are trying to embarrass President [Barack] Obama, who said it wouldn’t be a good use of the government’s time and energy to go after people who are abiding by the laws of their state. I don’t think the federal government expected the level of exponential growth that first happened. But shit did explode. It went crazy. It went from maybe five clubs in Sacramento to how many now, 80, 100?

Do you think the cities and counties will stand up against the feds?

That is my hope. I’m surprised that [Gov.]Jerry Brown isn’t at the DOJ right now going, “What the hell?”

Well, he just signed Assembly Bill 1300.

But he didn’t sign Senate Bill 847. … That makes sense. It really should be left up to local jurisdictions. …

My whole thing today is people need to get involved. People need to start voting people out of office. My whole contention has been that cannabis users make up about 15 percent of any electoral—

Is it that high?

I just read a report today that said 20 percent of people in the world are regular cannabis consumers, and 45 percent of the people in the world have tried cannabis. … So if all these guys stand up and vote for more cannabis freedom, then the politicians will have to listen. We’ve tried logic and reason and compassion … but that’s not working. So, cats have got to go.

You’d think they’d like all those millions in cannabis money?

A hundred million dollars to the [California State Board of Equalization] in the last two years. Harborside just paid the city of Oakland a million dollars in the past year, right?

We’re going to get nearly $2 million in the city of Sacramento.

On top of all the jobs. When I worked for the Los Angeles Patients Caregivers Group in L.A., I had a living wage, I had a 401(k). I had a health plan I had a damn good job. So, why would you, in a recession—we’re at 12 percent in Sacramento?—try to take away jobs from people?

You know a lot of collective and cooperative owners and operators. What are they saying?

Everybody’s panicking. They’re all freaking out. Which is completely understandable, because this will affect people’s lives and livelihoods.

You see, there seems to be this illusion that it’s all these cats with big money who showed up and opened a club and everybody’s making millions of dollars. That’s not it. People with compassion and love have sunken their whole life savings into cannabis clubs to help sick people. They give away cannabis to sick people. Sunnyfields, which [used] to be out in the county, helps out with food drives. … There’s probably a shady guy or two, but that’s true of any industry.

So, if you’re a cannabis-club owner in Sacramento, once you get over the panic, what do you do?

You have to lean on your elected officials, first of all.

But do politicians have the will?

You see, that’s the thing: Maybe 10 years ago it would have been sticking your neck out. But right now, you’re supporting the will of the people.

So if you run a collective or oversee a grow, do you shut it down? Do you “go underground”? Do you wait it out? Even if you don’t get a letter?

If you don’t get a letter, you probably sit still on it. If you get a letter—and they’re not sending most letters out to operators, they’re sending them to landlords. And if you’re the landlord of a $2 million property, and the Department of Justice is threatening you with not just asset forfeiture, but also jail time, you don’t really have a choice.

It seems unlikely that they’d go after a third party so aggressively.

The [Drug Enforcement Agency] sent out letters in 2005, and it freaked everyone out, but no one got prosecuted. And most people stayed open. But you never really want to have to call the government’s bluff. Because the government is big and huge and gigantic—and, oftentimes, quite mean. And you don’t want to be the one guy. I mean, no one should ever go to jail for cannabis. But you don’t want to go to jail for 10 years, or 20 years, or 40 years, just to prove a point.

Do you think they’ll go further this time?

That’s the problem: You can never tell. If I was running a club this time, I would probably keep it as low-key and as bare bones as I could while still reasonably serving my community.

Today, in 2011, can you put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak?

You can’t close the barn door after the horse is gone! You can’t put the genie back in the bottle—that’s the thing. It’s way, way too late. You can’t stop it. It’s like Michael Jordan.

Does it bother you, though, that at some level Obama is complicit in this? Or do you not agree with that statement?

I’m not sure if he’s complicit. I’ve always understood cannabis freedom, or decriminalization, as a second-term issue. Sort of the same way that Gov. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger damn-near waited till his last day in office to signing a bill to decriminalize possession in California. If you can’t do it in your first 90 days, you can’t do it in your first three or four years, because you just give fodder to your enemies.

I can see how some people might want to force [Obama’s] hand leading into this election year. Politics are so convoluted. You don’t want to embarrass the DOJ if you’re the president, because that makes it so much harder for him to work with them. … But I’ve never seen people or politicians fight so hard as they do against Barack Obama.

Where’s Gov. Jerry Brown?

I think he quit smoking weed! Since him and Linda Ronstadt broke up, I don’t think there’s been that much weed in the house.

It gives him a racy heart.

He’s got to lay off the sativas. You need more indicas, bro. I would recommend tinctures. …

But seriously, Jerry Brown should be the first cat over at the Department of Justice, going, “What are you doing? What are you doing? We’re how many billions of dollars in debt?” I say this all the time: Cannabis users and cannabis growers are the only outlaws I know that want to go legit.

No one wanted Steve Cooley to win attorney general, but, really, could it get any worse had he won?

And where the hell is [Attorney General] Kamala Harris? Because if it wasn’t for cannabis users, she would not have a job. She would not have a job. She barely won—and she won because of the marijuana vote.

But it would be way worse under Cooley. Just look what he did in L.A.

Look what’s happening in Sacramento County.

You have to remember: People have sunken their last savings into getting these clubs open. Sacramento County doesn’t really need 80 cannabis clubs … but if they’re hitting you with fines of $500 and $1,000 a day, and you’re not seeing that many patients, because there are so many places to go—

It’s actually hard out there for a club owner.

No one’s really making any money. Especially once you factor in the exorbitant rates for advertising (laughs).

Where will be we in a year from now, just after the November 2012 election.

It’s hard to say. I can’t see the movement getting any smaller. First of all, there’s 10 percent unemployment. There’s people sleeping in the park because everybody’s upset, and I don’t know how putting people out of work is going to have less people showing up at the park. … And now you’re shutting down one of the few industries creating jobs, and creating jobs all over—for scientists and consultants, painters, electricians, ad reps, magazines— I don’t know how in the world you can go to the board of supervisors and say, “We want to give you a million dollars,” and they say, “No we’re going to spend half a million dollars to shut you down.” Where in the world does that makes sense?


(Laughs) Orangevale.

But I think people need to rise up. Register to vote, and vote against the bullshit. If you can’t change the laws, change the lawmakers. And that’s where I’m at these days. They say if you make evolution impossible, it makes revolution inevitable.

I guess that makes sense.

It makes lots of sense. Tattoo it on your arm.