Dispensary Operator Puts Issue of Medical Pot on Front Burner


In an anonymous office park in this conservative city, a self-styled revolutionary is hard at work.

The sleeves of her brocade blazer pushed up, long auburn hair piled in a messy twist, Andrea Nagy is dispensing marijuana to a client.

While the woman, who has undergone 13 intestinal surgeries in two years, waits in a nearby chair, Nagy drops fat buds of the illicit weed onto a digital scale.


One-eighth of an ounce, $40.

“She’s an angel,” sighs Katie DiSilva, a 37-year-old mother, who says her ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease rage mercilessly without marijuana. “God’s on her side.”

If she’s an angel, Nagy’s a controversial one.

It has taken all of four months for this slight 28-year-old spitfire to become one of Ventura County’s most infamous business owners--or primary caregivers, as Nagy prefers to be considered.

It was in September that the legal-secretary-turned-pot-crusader opened the Rainbow Country Ventura County Medical Cannabis Center, with half a dozen clients. Nagy’s Thousand Oaks dispensary now serves 46.

With a single-minded ferocity, Nagy has forced the issue of medical marijuana use on the police, district attorney and elected officials in Ventura County.

So far, they have treated her gingerly.

At every City Council hearing and in every newspaper story possible, Nagy stresses that her clients need marijuana for their multiple sclerosis, cancer, AIDS and other illnesses. Nagy uses marijuana herself to treat chronic migraines, she says.

Come narcs or personal bankruptcy, she is hellbent on distributing the drug she grows at her center. She has taken a leave from her secretary’s job to run the center, and said she has sunk thousands of dollars into the business.


“I might be a freedom fighter because my parents fled communism,” said Nagy, whose family left Hungary when she was 11. “I think everyone owes it to themselves to claim their inalienable rights.”

But the city in which Nagy [pronounced Nadj] is staking her claim is a bastion of DARE classes and conservative politics.


Small wonder, then, that not everyone here cottons to Nagy’s cannabis crusade.

Some of Nagy’s critics grudgingly acknowledge respect for her political savvy and freely express empathy for her clients. But they worry about the message her dispensary is sending.

Even those who oppose her cannabis center are reluctant to criticize Nagy publicly. Privately, some critics point to a criminal conviction and a string of motor vehicle violations that, they contend, suggest a pattern of lawlessness.

In 1991, Nagy was convicted of cultivating marijuana in her Newbury Park home. She was sentenced to 250 hours of community service and five years of probation--later reduced to four.

A driver with an avowed lead foot, Nagy estimates she has received a dozen speeding tickets in as many years. Her court records show 11 motor vehicle citations since 1990.


Just last month, a jury convicted her of reckless driving in connection with an incident in which Nagy was zipping up the Ventura Freeway at 85 mph or more, according to court records. She was sentenced to 36 months’ probation and 10 days in a work-release program. Saying that she should have been charged with speeding, not reckless driving, Nagy has appealed.

“The big thing that occurred to me when I looked at the case was that she has a problem with authority figures and the law,” said prosecutor Ryan Wright. “I think even her lawyer acknowledged that. She is more than assertive.”


More than three years ago, Nagy was arrested on suspicion of--but never charged with--assault with a deadly weapon. Court records say that Nagy and her boyfriend at the time were quarreling and that she revved the engine of her red 1989 Nissan 240 SX and hit her boyfriend with the car, injuring him. The case was dismissed three months later.

The prosecutor assigned to the case doesn’t recall the specifics, but Nagy said she was leaving a quarrel when her boyfriend ran in front of her car to stop her.

An arrest, she added, is a far cry from a conviction.

“What’s the pattern here?” she asked. “I was falsely arrested once. I grow my own medicine. I don’t think an arrest points to a pattern of lawlessness when there are no convictions--or even charges. It points to a lack of integrity among law enforcement if there is an arrest and no charges.”

Critics stress that federal law clearly outlaws growing, possessing or distributing pot, even though California voters approved a medical marijuana initiative, Proposition 215, in 1996.


“I mean, we’re teaching our kids to ‘Just say no’ to drugs,” said Thousand Oaks Mayor Mike Markey, a retired police officer who wants Nagy’s shop shuttered. “And she’s here selling marijuana?”

But, he added, Nagy is canny in her tactics. She obtained a business license for her dispensary, has met with law enforcement officials and brings a crowd of clients to public hearings.

“She’s working the system,” he said. “In my mind, I don’t know if she’s smart or what, but she knows how to work the system.”

“She certainly seems to be a professional person,” added City Councilwoman Elois Zeanah, who refused in December to shut down Nagy’s business. “And she’s certainly being hounded right now. We’ll see how strong she is. It takes a strong person to receive the hounding she is receiving now and not buckle.”


Nagy’s interest in medical cannabis--and marijuana legalization, period--comes from personal experience.

Her searing migraines started in puberty. A joint offered by a friend when Nagy was 13 loosened her neck muscles and eased the pain almost immediately. Nagy was convinced.


At the same time that Nagy--the daughter of a baker and a physical therapist--began using marijuana to treat herself, she also became a budding activist.

During high school, Nagy served on Thousand Oaks’ youth council, which advises city leaders on teens’ concerns. She moved briefly to Indiana with her mother and missed enough school to face a decision: repeat a year at Thousand Oaks High School or finish classes at the continuation high school.

She chose the latter, and became senior class president at Conejo Valley High School.

Viewing legal prohibitions against marijuana as ridiculous, Nagy took to growing her own headache remedy--as her criminal record attests.

Now working on her associate’s degree at Moorpark College, the Thousand Oaks resident hopes to become an environmental lawyer.

Those who know her best say Nagy can accomplish almost anything to which she sets her mind.

“She’s a 5-foot-2 ball of fire,” said her new boyfriend, Robert Carson, who met Nagy while fixing her car two years ago. “I really can’t think of anything to compare Andrea to. She’s like no one I’ve ever met.”


Her doggedness verges on the obsessive. Nagy is sharp, passionate, blunt and short-tempered, her friends say. She’s a Grateful Dead fan, who prefers her desk clean, her files organized and her dog’s water bowl full.

A question about Nagy’s hobbies turns into a speech about how she no longer has free time because she must treat her clients--whom she considers the victims of a failed $16-billion-a-year drug war. Small wonder, she adds, that the federal government doesn’t have budget surpluses.

Nagy’s spunky even while battling a nasty cold and missing lunch again.


Although police and some city leaders contend Nagy is not a primary caregiver, as required by the state initiative allowing the sale of marijuana for medical use, her clients say she does much more than dispense pot. Nagy helps those who use wheelchairs make it to public hearings, they say. She asks about their families and their aches.

“If I fall out of my wheelchair or get stuck, she’ll come and get me out,” said Jeri-May Starkey, 42, who has multiple sclerosis and diabetes. “I call Andrea instead of the fire department.”

Nagy’s activism and outspokenness have won her friends and critics.

“Lots of people--like the city bureaucrats--are put off by her because she’s their equal,” said Suzi Sax, a friend and former co-worker of Nagy’s. “She works on their level to fight them. She didn’t just wake up one day and decide to open this clinic. She knows what all the legal limits are.”

Good thing, because Nagy sits in the middle of a legal thicket.

No one has moved to shut Nagy down, but law enforcement is keeping tabs on her business. Sheriff’s deputies have dropped by twice to check on her club--which so far has generated one unsubstantiated citizen complaint. The second time, they came with video cameras.


“Nobody wants to take medicine from someone who is seriously ill or dying,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Chris Godfrey. “The state law allowing them to use marijuana they grow themselves has to be respected. But that has to be balanced against the public health and safety concerns that her marijuana storefront is opening a Pandora’s box.”

Although her cannabis center has a “pharmaceutical-related” business license, Nagy lacks a certificate of occupancy from the city. That means she can’t apply for further permits that would allow her to make renovations to help grow her flourishing crop.

A judge recently refused to order the city to grant the certificate.

Although the City Council has failed to muster enough votes to impose a moratorium on medical marijuana outlets, Nagy isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. City leaders will examine the medical marijuana issue at a Feb. 3 meeting.

Two city officials--Markey and Councilman Andy Fox--have asked the U.S. attorney’s office to look closely at Nagy’s shop and her crops. The federal prosecutors have been in contact with local officials, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney.

“We have not taken, as of this time, any enforcement activity against the marijuana club,” he said. Meantime, federal officials are trying to shut down six cannabis centers in Northern California.

And there is the small matter of suspicious-looking men in dark suits hanging around Nagy’s house and office, she said. Nagy said she was watched at least three days in the last week.



“It was the same people in the same suits in the same car just sitting around and walking by,” Nagy said. “They said they were investors looking at the [office] building. Right.”

For the present, her clients say they count their blessings.

“If you’re down in a city like L.A., trying to buy your marijuana on a street corner, someone in a wheelchair can be robbed or beaten,” said Jim Kelly, 22, who suffered a broken neck in a snowboarding accident three years ago. “Each time I talk to Andrea or see her with other patients, I think she’s a complete humanitarian.

“Not that many people are willing to risk everything for us,” he added.


Times staff writer Tracy Wilson contributed to this story.