At This Club, the Third Floor Is High
By William Booth
With baggies filled with the sticky buds of premium "California Green," the oldest, largest and most controversial Cannabis Cultivators Cooperative in the nation reopened its doors here last week, overseeing what its red-eyed but giddy organizers describe as the first legal sales of marijuana in 60 years.
The club was shut down in August by state drug agents, who also busted its founder, the dealer-turned-activist-turned-"pot celebrity" Dennis Peron. But it reopened after a state judge ruled this month that the cooperative could do business under the tenets of Proposition 215. That initiative, approved in November, allows "caregivers" to provide medicinal marijuana to those seriously sick and those suffering "any other illness for which marijuana provides relief."
If the half-dozen other such clubs in California are trying to keep a low, nonsmoking profile on their premises, Peron's cooperative is not. The club is the vortex of the legal challenges and societal debate over drug use, and the camera crews are still swirling, videotaping plants and product and patients. Peron and his supporters vow they will not go away.
"We're here, America," said a grinning client, sharing a bowl with a friend. "Deal with it."
California Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) has vowed to keep a close eye on the operation. Other anti-drug advocates, including many of the state's sheriffs, say the club and its organizers are really pushing an agenda to legalize marijuana. According to many patients at the club here, they would be right. Many clients of the Cannabis Cultivators Club see nothing wrong with pot.
Hundreds of new patients shuffled last week through the glass doors of the converted downtown warehouse on Market Street to register their ailments from end-stage AIDS to dubious anxieties and secure their identification cards, complete with photos, some with joints in their smiling mouths.
"Aren't these the most gentle people?" Peron said. "What could possibly be wrong with this? They want to arrest these people? I just keep asking, why, what for, what crime?"
Upstairs, via freight elevator operated by a volunteer in tux and tails lies the third-floor "bud bar." Here, clients can purchase hemp rated as fine vines from the pine-scented, resinous AAAA California Green, grown by local underground botanists using high-tech grow lamps (the one-toke herb selling for $65 an eighth-ounce), to the econo-buzz weed smuggled from Mexico, retailing for $5 an eighth-ounce. That is the dregs as far as connoisseurs are concerned, but probably still more potent than anything that Bill Clinton and a generation of recreational users did or did not inhale during the highflying 1960s.
"I guarantee, in a year, marijuana is going to be in Walgreen's, just like any drug," said John Entwistle Jr., 31, an enthusiastic former Yippie activist from New York. He is now a legalization advocate at the Cannabis Club who toured the facilities with a reporter, punctuating his hectic day with talk radio interviews and the repeated huffing on a wooden pipe whose bowl was replenished with the good stuff.
It is a mind-altering experience to visit the cooperative part flashback to the 1960s, but fast-forwarded to the late 1990s. Located a few blocks from the Civic Center, the club has ceilings covered with origami paper birds. Its walls display the sort of art popular in head shops, along with notices of AIDS treatments, nutrition classes and memorials to those who have died.
The ambience is celebratory and relaxed; the clients, a little sleepy-eyed and very mellow. On the third floor, where the pot is sold and smoked at cafe tables and on old, soft, mismatched couches, the air is thick with the ripe smell of marijuana. The San Francisco club is unique, for it allows its patients to "self-medicate" on-site.
In a glass case, the various grades of marijuana are displayed, the buds resting in silver ashtrays.
At another counter, a burly man named Gypsy sells marijuana chocolate brownies, oatmeal raisin cookies, vegetarian truffles and "merry pies."
"I grind it up like flour," said Elena Marie Bridges, one of the cannabis chefs, who is writing a cookbook for pot recipes. A nursing assistant, Bridges learned to cook with marijuana from an AIDS patient she cared for. She also makes the edibles for her father, who has bone cancer.
"He just eats it at night. It wipes him out and helps him sleep," Bridges said.
Where does the pot come from? Before the club was busted in August, it was selling about 100 pounds a week, half smuggled from Mexico, half from domestic producers.
"Dennis built this industry," Entwistle said. Peron was a pot dealer in San Francisco for years, arrested 15 times, and "they never once found a weapon," Entwistle said proudly.
Peron is so well-connected among growers and smugglers that he does not need to cultivate sources. They come to him. "They call us, every week, every month, just a phone call, somebody saying, `Is Dennis there? This is Bob from up north.' And then they get on the phone with Dennis, and it's like, `Yo, dude, want me come by?' "
The marijuana is delivered right through the front door. "We're not into cloak and dagger," Entwistle explained. "We give them a good price."
The club operates with the acceptance, and even support, of the local politicians. A former state senator cut the ribbon to reopen the place. The city's district attorney actively supported Proposition 215, and one of his deputies, suffering from AIDS, has joined a group of doctors and patients in a lawsuit filed last week against the Clinton administration. The suit seeks to block the federal government from punishing physicians who recommend marijuana to patients, arguing that it is a free-speech issue.
When the cannabis club was busted in August, it had 12,000 members. The majority are people with AIDS or infected with HIV. The next largest group, Peron said, are cancer patients. Marijuana, say its proponents and some medical studies, helps patients counteract wasting syndrome by increasing patients' appetites, giving them the well-documented side effect of "the munchies." Pot also can help relieve the nausea that accompanies chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It is described by its adherents as a self-administered painkiller.
Of course, there is the drug's well-known ability to produce a mild euphoria, the buzz. And among the cooperative's patients are not only those with wheelchairs and canes, those obviously sick and gaunt, but people suffering from arthritis, migraines and other illnesses.
Entwistle, for example, self-medicates because he is a recovering alcoholic, replacing a very damaging but legal intoxicant with one he feels is less harmful. He believes that another group of users should be those with the diagnosis of "over 65."
"We would take their word for it," Entwistle said. "If your grandmother wants to smoke pot, who cares? What is the harm?"
As for patients who might like the high rather than trying to counter nausea or pain, Entwistle responds, in essence, so what? Life is stressful, and pot relieves the symptoms of the modern world.
How long will this club and the half-dozen others along with three more preparing to open in coming weeks be allowed to operate? Peron and Entwistle say they are prepared to pursue their new legal rights all the way to the Supreme Court.
"And I promise you, we'll win," Entwistle said. "There is no stopping this. Because there is no reason to stop this."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company