The history of the West is a history of lawlessness, so it should come as no surprise that the coast’s burgeoning marijuana industries are plagued with cops n’ robbers of their own.
Like the Golden State’s first settlements, the frontier of legalization is characterized by opportunity and violence in somewhat equal measures. Neither the profits of legal weed nor “foul play” associated with it are addressed in a clear or consistent way: what kind of smoking is allowed, where it must take place, and how the plant is distributed and taxed all change frequently.
Laws regulating weed often contradict when they do exist, or are borrowed from other kinds of drug legislation, ignoring the plant’s status as a medicated, controlled substance rather than a uniformly dangerous and illicit one.
These issues and inequalities are most apparent to those producing wax and concentrates, which exist in a space of bizarre quasi-legality: dabs are legal to consume with a medical card but producing them remains a felony subject to the same charge as cooking meth. Because wax companies aren’t allowed to operate in the open, concentrates are often manufactured by amateur chemists in unsafe conditions. A February FEMA alert ascribes a spike in home explosions to these home experiments in marijuana-based extractions, particularly those using butane hash oil.
Even dispensaries and other allegedly legal cannabis businesses face routine harassment from DEA and local cops. Dispensary owners and weed entrepreneurs are not only denied benefits and treatment allocated to other business owners, but also frequently hesitate to report robberies, for fear of having their doors kicked in by the DEA.
With dabsplosions, fires and raids filling the news, even in today’s age of legalization, those within the marijuana industry largely remain forced to operate in a hazardous, extra-territorial legal realm. Here are some of our most newsworthy busts and combustions.
On Monday, Oct 13th 2014, cops busted down the doors at San Diego T-shirt company Progressive Screen-print to find a 7000 foot grow operation. The facility housed lights, fans, a generator, and a sophisticated watering system. Officers seized the plants and several thousand dollars in cash, as well as opium and firearms found on the property. Neighborhood business owners describe the operation’s “mastermind” as a polite, unassuming tenant. “He was a perfect neighbor, he keeps an eye on the place,” DK3 Studio owner Dave King told CBS after the arrests.
On Monday Feb 23rd 2015, DEA agents swarmed a Fresno grow house, tossing more than 400 plants out the window. Though the DEA has yet to report who tipped them off on the operation, unconfirmed reports suggest that the home may have been illegally siphoning power, bypassing the garage’s meter panels in order to power 60-70k of electrical equipment.
A February 13th fire in Atascadero led to the arrest of Danielle and Kevin Manhart. The couple was charged with felony child endangerment and using a chemical to produce an illegal substance under California Health and Safety Code 11379.6, a “one size fits all” drug law initially created to combat meth production and now applied to marijuana extracts.
On February 3rd, a Los Osos dabsplosion sent a man to a Fresno burn ward. Once released from the hospital, the 32-year-old was charged with elder abuse and manufacturing a controlled substance.
It may surprise Californians to know that even LA’s chicest bud outposts are coming under fire. In October 2014, The Farmacy’s West Hollywood location was raided by Los Angeles DEA agents. Collective staff said no arrests were made, but that the cops took money, marijuana and computers – a scene more reminiscent of the Wild West than West Los Angeles.
On February 25th, Wilmington’s 420 Collective officially shut its doors, facing a temporary restraining order filed by a city judge. City Attorney/nefarious party-pooper Mike Feuer announced that his office is preparing legal recourse against six of the cities other collectives, in addition to the eighteen that have already been shut down during his nineteen-month term.
Unlicensed dispensaries are especially prone to becoming targets for thievery. A February 16th gunfight at an illegal San Bernadino dispensary left security guard Anthony Pineda fatally wounded, and came only weeks after an armed robbery in a nearby Upland collective.
The town sharpshooters fall in love at the end of the story. Or the cowboy vanquishes the savage natives, and rides off to the next town to deliver word.
Though Hollywood Westerns and dime novels may neatly attribute the development of democracy and American individualism to heroic frontier settlements and California dreamers, in reality, this process was messy, long-winded and far from egalitarian – much like the path to marijuana legalization is now.
We’ve come a long way since the days of cowboys and ransacked boom towns, but neither the West, nor the American character often attributed to it, have quite fulfilled the idyllic visions of early California settlers. It takes a long time for laws to change and for new ones to be enforced evenly – and people’s attitudes can be even harder to budge.
Still, hope remains for those within the marijuana community or hoping to profit from it: as the industry’s profits rise, so do emergent start-ups and weed-specific legal practices. These institutions will provide much needed services in a safe, regulated sphere and, hopefully erode the industry’s taboo-status, leaving the West and its greenery safer, more comprehensible, and a little less wild.
Illustrations by Nicholas Nazmi