A flourishing and unregulated industry of pot delivery services is circumventing bans on storefront dispensaries and bringing medical marijuana directly to people's homes, offices and more unconventional locations across the state, records and interviews show.
The unfettered delivery of marijuana through hundreds of these services highlights how quickly California's fabled pot industry is moving from the shadows and into uncharted legal territory. These new couriers include enterprising farmers, business entrepreneurs and even a former Los Angeles pot dealer methodically switching her former clients to legal patients.
In newspapers and on the Internet, hundreds of "mobile dispensaries" advertise a wide range of strains and other products, such as brownies and cookies laced with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. One service delivers organic vegetables along with medical marijuana, as part of a "farm-direct" service.
Some operate in multiple counties, including jurisdictions where storefront dispensaries are banned, or make local deliveries to drop-off points, such as Starbucks parking lots and gas stations. At least three ship to clients around the state using private prescription-drug couriers.
Although delivery of medical marijuana is not a new phenomenon, advocates say the growth of these services could be a game-changer in the state's pot war, which pits law enforcement, elected officials and community groups in some localities against dispensary owners and patients.
And these businesses could increase in popularity if voters approve an initiative on the November ballot that would legalize pot possession.
Bigger slice of the pie
"They're delivering the product better, cheaper, more discretely and probably at a higher profit rate than dispensaries," said Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which advocates legalization. "These delivery services are starting to grab more and more market share."
A question remains on whether these services are legal. Some local and federal officials say delivery services violate the 1996 Compassionate Use Act that legalized medical marijuana in California for qualified patients, as well as other laws. The services are viewed as a way to circumvent local regulations clearly banning dispensaries.
"They're transporting drugs," said Tommy LaNeir, director of the National Marijuana Initiative, which is funded through the White House's drug policy office. "It's a trans-shipment operation that's trying to bypass the ordinances that have been set up by cities and counties. It's as simple as that."
The exact number of delivery services operating in California is unclear, since the state does not keep a registry of medical marijuana distributors or outlets. In April, 758 services advertised direct delivery of marijuana to patients on Weedmaps.com, a commercial listing service.
Those numbers have nearly tripled in the past 18 months and grown by 39 percent since February, as more counties and cities began regulating storefront dispensaries or banning them outright, according to Justin Hartfield, owner of Weedmaps.com.
More than half the couriers who advertised in April said they were located in the Los Angeles region. Other services clustered around metropolitan regions, such as San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento — with most regions experiencing steady growth. The number of couriers advertising within L.A. has jumped from 110 to 161 since February. San Diego saw an increase from 68 to 101 over the same period.
A total of 129 cities and nine counties in California have all banned medical marijuana dispensaries. An additional 96 cities and 13 counties have moratoriums, according to Americans for Safe Access. Yet, in many of these "dry" communities, pot delivery services appear to be flourishing. The number of couriers advertising in Riverside County, for instance, has increased from 76 to 105 since February.