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Navigating California’s conflicting and chaotic marijuana laws

Holly McDede
David Hodges enjoying his marijuana

Medical marijuana is legal in California. Medical marijuana is not legal in California. Both statements are sort of true; while pot shops are allowed statewide, cities still have the right to ban them. In fact, 200 cities already do. That’s left patients on their own to navigate through California’s conflicting and chaotic marijuana laws.

Distant medicine

Ed Rimshaw is one such patient. He has nerve damage from diabetes.

“There is a lot of pain at night. The pain comes and goes,” Rimshaw says. “What's the worst part is you get occasional stabbing pains in the foot.”

His doctor prescribed medical marijuana to ease the pain, which can surface at any moment any day.

“That's difficult when I'm driving, because then the immediate reaction is to either press down or pull away, and that can cause a problem. So I try not to drive,” Rimshaw says.

That causes another problem. Rimshaw lives in Dublin, which has no medical marijuana dispensaries. In fact, there aren’t any dispensaries anywhere near Dublin.

“Pretty much we take a trip to San Jose about every three months,” Rimshaw says.

It’s more than 30 miles a day and almost an hour each way.

The Green Mile


Once he makes it there, Rimshaw finds a place that’s a whole lot different from Dublin. He can choose from some 80 pot shops. Bascom Street is known by pot enthusiasts as the Green Mile.

“There were about eight clubs down here all within a very short area,” says David Hodges, owner of the All American Cannabis Club, or A2C2. When he opened his club in 2009, it was the only game in town. Then came the explosion: according to Hodges, nearly 100 new shops cropped up by the end of the year.

But as he shows me around the neighborhood, he says many quickly ran into trouble. Several were ordered to shut down by the federal government. Marijuana is a Schedule One drug. That means it has no federally accepted medical use, and there’s a high potential for abuse.

Besides that, some had conspicuous locations Hodges tells me as we approach one former club.

“It’s next to a day care,” Hodges says.

Uncertainty, and then the confident crackdown

David Vossbrink is San Jose’s director of communications, and he says about half of San Jose’s pot shops will have to move. Last year, he says, elected officials reassessed after the state’s highest courts ruled cities could ban and regulate as they saw fit.

“The gap between California law and federal law and what's legal and what's illegal has left cities really uncertain about what they can do,” Vossbrink says.

The city council started cracking down, enacting strict zoning regulations that limit pot shops to slivers of the city’s industrial corridor. They also now require pot shops to grow all their weed in or next to Santa Clara County, limit store hours, and set up round-the-clock security. Shop owner David Hodges says that’s knocked a lot of pot shops out of business.

Letters in the mail

“The reality of doing this is you'll need a very large space. It'll be very expensive, and you'll have a limited supply for your members,” Hodges says. “I would expect of the existing collectives, maybe five or six would stay, and I would say six or seven new ones. Just new people with new money.”

Hodges, himself, received a letter the same month the new ordinance was passed. It said he was too close to a residency unit. His new location is in an unmarked building.

Inside, it’s like a really laid back medical office with marijuana posters on the walls. One of the volunteer clerks goes over the menu. In the backroom, Andrea Jones rolls joint after joint after joint.

“I just roll until I don’t feel like rolling,” she says. “Then I process them and I’ll probably roll some more.”

Weed’s future gets hazy

Two years ago, San Jose tried enacting similar regulations on cannabis dispensaries, but they were stopped by a referendum. Now, Hodges is tired of fighting.

“You know, I mean, I have a lot of other opportunities myself. I can kind of say ‘Mission Accomplished’. There's pot in San Jose, so that's what I was trying to do,” Hodges says.

There will still be pot in San Jose when he leaves. There will just be fewer dispensaries to choose from.

When Ed Rimshaw heard some of his favorite pot shops were likely to close, he was furious. But there wasn’t much he could do. He’s from Dublin.

“I wish I could live in San Jose,” he says. “It's frustrating, especially being from out of town, because you don't have a voice. As soon as you said you're from Dublin, they didn't care. It's frustrating. You can't get what you want in your own town and you can't help in another town.”

But Rimshaw does live in California, which means there are other options for getting weed. There’s Oakland, land of pot colleges and reality tv shows. There’s Berkeley, where certain income brackets get their weed for free. And if he decides to move, well, over in the states of Washington and Colorado, weed is just straight up legal. For now, California dispensary regulations are vague, and so are Rimshaw’s plans for where he’ll get his medicine next.