Medical marijuana goes underground

"Ricky" tends to his indoor marijuana operation in an apartment in Southern California. “The genie is out of the bottle," he says of the medical marijuana movement. (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times / July 23, 2012)

A stocky onetime mortgage broker is speeding through Costa Mesa in an old pickup with two pounds of weed in a paper bag. He wears gray cargo shorts and flip-flops and a faded cap with the image of a marijuana leaf stitched on the front. He just smoked a joint thick as a knuckle.

Cypress Hill thumps through the cab.

I'll hit that bong and break ya off somethin' soon

I got ta get my props,

Cops, come and try to snatch my crops

These pigs wanna blow my house down

For a man whose apartment was raided recently and now faces felony drug possession and cultivation charges, he doesn't seem particularly worried about the mission at hand. Ricky rants about a federal and local crackdown on medical marijuana that closed various dispensaries that he ran and forced him back to the streets, where he began as a teenager in the 1970s. (Except then, he was a dealer. Now he is a "mobile dispensary.")

"It's too late!" he bellows. "The genie is out of the bottle. A huge demand has been created. It's back to the underground. Anyone who is smart is just going to take it back to the streets."

He says he knows lots of people scurrying to the shadows as the state has struggled and failed to regulate the medical cannabis industry and local law enforcement agencies and the federal government have tried to curtail it.

It's an easy journey to the underground, as the line between the legal and illegal markets in California has always been sketchy. The medical cannabis trade did not rise from a boardroom meeting when voters passed the medical marijuana initiative Proposition 215 in 1996. It sprouted out of the marijuana networks that already existed, with largely the same growers, middlemen and customers.

As the medical cannabis industry evolved, sharp differences with the illicit market developed, but only at the extremes: the AIDS patient getting his lab-tested cannabis from a dispensary in a regulated city like Berkeley on one end, the street dealer selling Mexican cartel weed to high school students on the other.

In the middle was a vast, amorphous gray zone, and many operators have found it wise to stay there, keeping their heads low and leaving no paper trail.

Which is how Ricky does business —- no taxes, no permits and no paperwork. He stashes his cash in safe deposit boxes all over and buries it in the ground. But he still sells only to people with medical recommendations, he says, mainly in case he lands in court and needs a defense.

At 48, Ricky has been an entrepreneur in legal and illegal ventures since junior high school in Long Beach. I met him through a mutual friend, and he asked me to withhold his name and key identifying traits for this story. "Ricky" is an alias he has used and he agreed to be interviewed on condition he not be identified beyond that. If prosecutors knew he had resumed growing in the bedrooms of his apartment after the raid, or that he had 96 plants on the North Coast, or had two "girls" delivering packages all over Orange County, or that he used to distribute Mexican and Canadian pot in the 1990s, it would undoubtedly complicate his legal problems.

The strain of bud he has under his seat today is relatively mild, grown on a patch of Mendocino soil he had a stake in the previous summer.

His gruff voice overpowers my questions and even the rap music, and it is clear the joint he smoked has set loose a runaway train of thought.

Forget complying with city regulations, he says, or the state Board of Equalization, which collects sales tax. "All you're doing is creating a record for when they come back to get you later."

"The cops want to make this 'weed' again. It's medicine. I believe in this. I need it. I got my card. . . . It helps me deal with every day. . . . I do get high on my own supply." He laughs hard enough to cough.

"The above board thing is a recent phenomenon. It was always illegal, and it still is in Orange County."

::