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The Great California Weed Rush

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A woman in an electric-blue sweat suit buzzes him through three levels of security: an armed guard, a man trap and two alarmed doors. The security's not for the cops — it's the robbers that Daniel's worried about. He's been robbed more than once, but he notes with a touch of pride that he's never had a "takeover robbery." That's when thieves dress up as LAPD and pretend they're raiding the store, then hogtie the clientele and steal everything in sight (in the biz, they're called "Ocean 420s"). When a friend of Daniel's had a takeover robbery, the friend called the cops, and the cops arrested him.

The back room is slightly hazy with pot smoke, with Nine Inch Nails booming from the stereo and a stack of video screens documenting the street, waiting room and apothecary. On one wall, there are several six-foot-tall, 3,500-pound gun safes, each with a digital keypad and a gold wheel, like the safe in the grow house on Weeds. The safes, which are bolted to the ground, hold dozens of pounds of pot, a fraction of the real inventory, the remainder of which Daniel says is stored in a secret location off-site. When he opens the safes, I start to laugh — shocked, nervous, titillated — because I have never, ever seen this much pot, even on TV.

In the apothecary, there's the usual mix of patients: Hollywood types in designer jeans, an older woman who has pulled out her glasses to read the dry-erase board and a lanky dude gabbing excitedly about his real estate scheme in Pacific Palisades, where he's living in the garage of a $2.6 million house he wants to flip except the foundation is cracked. There are sick people here, and celebrities: Daniel even met a famous rapper once, after the rapper got medical. (It seems he suffers from anxiety and stress.) In a corner, there's a few cute stoner girls, whom Daniel calls "shoppies," like the blondes from a small town down South ("probably a swamp") who introduced him to Tommy Lee at a restaurant one night — he gave Tommy a breath strip, and Tommy couldn't believe that there was weed in the thing! He got Tommy Lee stoned!

At the counter, a guy in a USC shirt is talking to the goateed clerk (Daniel's employees are paid approximately twenty dollars per hour, plus a free gram per day). With all the options, the customer — er, patient — doesn't know what to buy.

"The muffins look nice," he says.

"They're about a gram and a half of hash, which is pretty good," says the clerk. Then he points to the goo — superpotent powdery hash mixed with honey. "This is what you want," he says. "This will definitely get you medicated."

For all the fun of this business, Daniel is not having a very good time. As in any covert industry, there's no one he can trust except himself, particularly when it comes to buying pot. The vendors can be a real pain in the ass, and he's up all night sometimes waiting for them to drive down from Sonoma County or their Inland Empire warehouses. (Vendors usually carry one or two strains of pot, as growing conditions are easiest to manage with the same crop.) His cousin used to do the buying — she's got an amazing nose, and can even smell mold in a nug in the bottom of the bag — but they had a falling out, and his brother can't seem to smell right. Smelling pot, the first step to identifying good herb, is like being able to roll your tongue, says Daniel. Even he is at a bit of a disadvantage, because he no longer smokes pot, and you really need to smoke weed to buy and sell weed. In college, he smoked a couple of times a week, but he is sick to death of the smell.

Daniel's dream is that his businesses could operate like franchises, and he tries to require that each store buy marijuana exclusively from him, taking a markup on each deal. "Look at McDonald's or Starbucks — the only way to control franchises is to control the supply," he says. "Still, cash flow is very difficult. There is no way for me to properly franchise this, to the point where I'm taking a percentage in profits, kicking back and making money." He cannot keep detailed records, he says, because of the possibility of a DEA raid, and he couldn't entrust an assistant to keep records, because of the possibility that he might turn out to be an informant.

The narcs — they're such a nuisance. Last year, they raided one of his shops, and he lost more than $100,000 in the process. In addition to draining Daniel's bank accounts, the feds did a "snatch-and-grab" at the store — pot, computers, cash, anything not bolted to the ground — and even went to the house of one of his employees. Nevertheless, nothing appears to be happening with the case. The feds won't touch it, because their attorneys will rarely prosecute cases unless enormous amounts of pot are involved, and the local DAs aren't much more likely to press charges. In fact, not one club owner has been prosecuted by the feds in Los Angeles in the past two years. Daniel could maybe even get his money back, but he'd have to pay an asset-forfeiture lawyer a third of his winnings plus show the feds all sorts of records, and that's the last thing he wants to do.

So he's stuck driving around day and night, dropping off weed to each store in bulk. Today, he needs to go to the San Fernando Valley, considered medical marijuana's Wild West, with dozens of stores being opened up by kids who were just last year selling pot out of their mothers' basements. He's been staying away from the Valley because he heard there might be raids there this week — if he pays the right people, he says, he gets twenty-four-hour notice before a raid. Then, yesterday, one of the big Valley kahunas was taken down by the feds. The place was all about low profit margins and high quantity — it was way sketchier than Daniel's spots.

Now, Daniel feels safe. We're at his apartment, a modern place on the west side befitting a well-to-do yuppie, getting ready to move product. He opens his kitchen cabinets, and there it is with his extra toilet paper: one pound each of Northern Lights Haze, Afghooey, Black Sensei, Bubblicious, Blackberry and Green Erkle; a half-pound of White Widow; two pounds of Cali Orange and two more of Sour OG Kush; two and a half pounds of Mekong Haze; three pounds of Purple Haze; 37 grams of Lamb's Breath hash; 125 grams of Master Kush; 189 grams of some grapey flower he doesn't know what to call, and 110 grams of Granddaddy Purple hash.

"I didn't even want the Granddaddy Purp hash," he says. "The vendor was like, 'By the way, I have a half-pound of hash, do you want it?' No, I didn't want it. I wanted flower. But what do growers love? They love coming down, dumping everything they've got, taking cash upfront and going back really clean. The last thing they want is to be driving with $60,000 in cash and getting it seized because they also happen to have a half-pound of hash."

He puts it in his trunk, in four gigantic duffel bags.

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