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The Great California Weed Rush

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Daniel is proud of his business, which has branched into franchises as well as supply-side endeavors like a grow house. "Look at Ford, or every company out there," he says. "Just because there's a stigma attached to pot doesn't mean that we shouldn't be able to run our business in an intelligent fashion." Never a street dealer himself, he started out with a $50,000 loan from his parents, and after that, he put the next $50,000 he made aside for future attorney fees. In his late twenties, he has a university degree and worked in the business world before deciding against corporate life. Articulate and kind, with a mathematical mind, he dresses conservatively so as not to attract unwanted attention from the authorities, and the effect is very Andrew McCarthy circa Less Than Zero.

"I always say, 'Never compare yourself to the mediocre — use the entrepreneurial drive to bring yourself to a higher level,' " says Daniel. "The biggest problem facing this industry right now is the stoner mentality."

The 405 is now choked with traffic. He checks his cell: His assistant got her boobs done today, and she's calling because she's in a lot of pain. He's thinking again. He's dreaming about buying the kind of commercial pullulan-making machine that Listermint uses to make zillions of breath strips. The machine is $50,000. He can afford it.

The first step to securing medical pot is getting a doctor's recommendation, which is usually a Word document printed out from a computer (because marijuana is a controlled substance, doctors are hesitant to write scripts on their regular pads). More than fifty pot-friendly physicians in California are easily found on the Web at addresses like Ganja Grocer.com or by phone at 888-POT-DOCS, as well as on MySpace, Max Racks postcards, radio stations and medical-cannabis giveaway newspapers. The doctor's visit costs about $150 and is usually good for one year. Doctors prefer that patients provide medical records for their ailments, but a lack of paperwork is not a deal breaker (the state does not keep complete records on the number of medical-marijuana patients, but advocates put the number around 250,000). The visit is not covered by insurance, although some doctors have a money-back guarantee — if they don't approve you for medical marijuana, it's free!

Those who want to maximize their returns in medical marijuana often invest in doctors' offices, paying willing M.D.s about fifty percent of each patient's visit, which is only fair, since medical advisory boards have threatened some with suspending their licenses. The day I was at a Hollywood office, pretty much everyone was getting approved, about thirty patients per day (a $4,500 haul). The phones were ringing off the hook, and the owner had to grab some calls because the girl in the front couldn't get them all: the Better Business Bureau hoping to sign them up for a database, a district attorney curious about the specific nature of the ailment of a patient in legal trouble, and two stoned people asking for directions to the office. "We spend a lot of time giving directions," he said, irritated.

A doctor's note is the gateway to the wonderful world of pot clubs, which in the new lingo are called "dispensaries." In California — unlike the eleven other states with medical-cannabis laws — there's some vague legal protection for Amsterdam-style shops selling medical marijuana. Usually named something like "Compassionate Caregivers," "Earth Healers" or, less obscurely, "Kush Mart," these stores are like dying and going to stoner heaven. They look like old-timey apothecaries, with glass cases of prescription bottles with twenty to thirty different kinds of bud, nearly all of exceptionally high quality, ranging from $35 an eighth to $100 for OG Kush. Any self-respecting dispensary owner also sells hash, kief, jellies, infusions, cones, clones, pot lollipops ("Hydropops"), pot candy bars, pot peanut butter, pot ice cream and at least a half-dozen flavors of pot sodas — sometimes sold out of a vending machine. One store owner told me excitedly that when Nevada OKs dispensaries, he's opening a club on the Vegas Strip. We were talking in a parking lot, and when he drove away he forgot a can of soda on the roof of his car.

The legal basis for these businesses hangs by the barest thread: In California, the law is mum on wholesale marijuana distribution (it is legal, however, for patients to possess a half-pound of weed). More importantly, the federal government still considers the possession and sale of marijuana 100 percent illegal, whether it's sold from a dispensary on Santa Monica Boulevard or by a sketchy guy in a junior-high-school alley. "We don't differentiate between those who use state law to dispense marijuana and those who traffic in marijuana on the street," says Special Agent Sarah Pullen of the Los Angeles DEA. "Marijuana is marijuana is marijuana." Only a handful of DEA agents usually focus on medical marijuana in Los Angeles, though, no match for the commercial instinct of Americans. San Francisco regulates their clubs, and San Diego all but invited the feds to shut down theirs, but L.A. has been a free-for-all. Around 200 clubs have opened in L.A. County since a 2004 State Senate bill gave some protection to the clubs, up from less than a dozen in 2005.

On a recent Saturday night, patients are filling the waiting room of Daniel's most popular shop. He has a stake in several Los Angeles dispensaries. They're all open seven days a week. He wants to help sick people, and waives fees for those who cannot afford their "meds." Some stores deliver, but Daniel doesn't think it's worth it, once you figure in car insurance and gas; some stores also pay sales tax, but he doesn't, yet, on the principle that medicine should not be taxed. He is proud to say that he has the best weed selection of any store in L.A., with dozens of strains up on the dry-erase board every day, a nice color-coded selection of indicas, sativas and hybrids, with lots of Purps and many, many Kushes, the spicy-sweet, lemony-diesel, aggro-lethargic bud that is all the rage in the L.A. ganja-connoisseur scene.

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