The Marin cannabis complex


Almost everywhere in Marin, except perhaps in Fairfax, where Lynnette Shaw runs the only legal medical marijuana dispensary in the county, there’s strong opposition to dispensaries, though citizens vote overwhelmingly in favor of both medical and recreational marijuana when pot is on the ballot. How to explain that seeming paradox? Is Marin hypocritical or bipolar, or is it following the dictates of its own moral compass?

The story of marijuana in Marin has been complicated ever since hippies and back-to-the-landers began to grow, smoke, transport and sell it. All of the above is still against federal law. Yet California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996 and recreational marijuana in 2016. Not surprisingly, ever since 1996 there’s been a “Green Rush” across much of the state, and especially in the so-called Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Lake, Trinity and Humboldt Counties. The area produces more marijuana and takes in more pot dollars than any other region in the United States.

Marin is a kind of island in a sea of marijuana. To the north, Sonoma grows huge crops. To the south, San Francisco is a beehive of activity, with dispensaries in almost every district and indoor grow operations and gigantic marijuana warehouses spread across the landscape.

Marin appears to be going against the grain when it comes to marijuana, though tons are transported through the county on the way to San Francisco and the East Bay. But the marijuana that travels by truck and car is mostly undetected and invisible.

District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who was born, raised and educated in Marin schools and at Chico State University, doesn’t claim to be an expert on marijuana, but he’s well informed on the subject. As an elected official, he’s had to think long and hard about dispensaries and delivery services. Marijuana isn’t at the top of his list of causes. Though he cares a great deal about water and the environment, he said that first and foremost, he wants free preschool programs for toddlers and help for seniors. But marijuana isn’t at the bottom of his list either, and he’s glad that patients can legally grow up to six plants.

Still, Rodoni approves of Marin’s ban on the cultivation and distribution of recreational marijuana, since on the whole he’s cautious when it comes to cannabis.

“Our county located potential sites for dispensaries and invited proposals, but in the end we didn’t issue any permits. There was considerable opposition from local communities,” he said. 

Indeed, over the last few years, there has been more vocal and visible opposition to dispensaries in West Marin than in any other part of the county. In the San Geronimo Valley and Marshall, citizens objected to outsiders who wanted to set up pot businesses in their neighborhoods. “If there’s a dispensary anywhere in the county, there has to be proper lighting and parking,” Rodoni said. “You can’t have a dispensary close to a school or even near a pathway to a school.”

Opponents of dispensaries come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Amos Klausner, an artist and graphic designer, believes that medical dispensaries are largely incompatible with the kinds of family values important to him and his neighbors. Born and bred in New York and educated in Boston, he now lives in the San Geronimo Valley. 

“I’m not a crazy straight-arrow,” he said. “I’ve been smoking pot for a long time.” Indeed, he has a medical marijuana card, drives to Oakland, buys cannabis at Harborside, the giant dispensary, then returns to Marin and smokes pot at home. 

Klausner isn’t anti-cannabis. He just doesn’t want dispensaries near schools, bus stops, housing for people on fixed incomes and places where kids congregate.

Like Klausner, Jeff Hickey, who lives in Inverness, has used marijuana for a variety of medical conditions, but isn’t a huge advocate of dispensaries or delivery services. “I did get some good advice once from a delivery service,” he explained. “But for the most part I can’t afford dispensary prices and, in some ways, [dispensaries] might not be as needed now as they once were, since lots of people here grow their own.” But Hickey’s biggest complaint is with the NIMBYs who don’t want pot in their neighborhoods. “Marin liberals talk a good talk,” he said. “But when it comes to marijuana, they’re not liberals at all.” Like Rodoni, he believes that pharmaceuticals pose more osf a social problem than does marijuana. “Kids go to the family medicine cabinet and help themselves,” he said.

The medical marijuana users at Marin Alliance, Lynnette Shaw’s Fairfax dispensary, are walking advertisements for their drug of choice. On a summer afternoon, Jim from San Anselmo bought four different strains at $10 a gram to help with his multiple sclerosis. Carmen, also from San Anselmo, purchased several strains to manage the pain caused by a car accident and to alleviate her depression and anxiety. For Joy, cannabis has helped with stress. A former pilot in the U.S. Air Force said he once grew weed in the hills of Marin, but that he now lives where cultivation is impossible.

“Pot helps me a lot,” he said. “I just don’t like the idea of kids using it.”

Shaw skewers two urban legends about marijuana. First, that the presence of a dispensary brings down property values. Second, that dispensaries attract undesirable elements.

“I don’t see any undesirables in my dispensary,” she said. “In fact, we have removed the dealer in the alley who sold on the black market.” She added, “In parts of Northern California, the price of pot has helped to drive up the price of land.”

Last year, Dr. Larry Bedard, a retired physician who sits on the board of the Marin Healthcare District, offered a resolution that called on Marin General Hospital to explore the possibility that doctors recommend marijuana to their patients and that the patients be supplied with it. The board voted 2-0, with three abstentions, to investigate the feasibility of the proposal. The same year, the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, D.C. reaffirmed its long-held position that marijuana has no medical benefits and insisted that it remain on the federal government’s list of “Schedule I” drugs, along with LSD and heroin. 

According to Dr. Bedard, Marin General has done little if anything to make his idea a reality, though patients use cannabis anyway; various dispensaries, as well as friends and family, deliver it to them. 

Dr. Bedard says that the hospital is afraid the federal government would cut its funding if marijuana were to be part of its pharmacology. No hospital in the U.S. recommends marijuana. For Dr. Bedard, it’s as much a civil liberties issue as a medical issue. Recently, the word “cannabis” was deleted from the title of a talk he gave about marijuana to residents at the Redwoods in San Rafael. Like Marin General, the Redwoods was afraid it would lose federal funding. “There’s still plenty of reefer madness,” he said.

Dr. Bedard made his own use of marijuana public in 2009, after he retired from the medical profession. “I probably would not have come out of the cannabis closet if I still had a practice,” he said. “There likely would have been sanctions against me.” And he doesn’t have much hope. “Ninety-five percent of doctors know little if anything about marijuana,” he said. “They don’t know that no one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana.”

Next year, Dr. Bedard will convene a conference in Marin about cannabis—mainly for patients, rather than doctors. “They know that marijuana isn’t the gateway drug to heroin,” he said. “Opioids are, and doctors have been prescribing them for years.” 

Charles Schultz, who lives in Marshall and has a radio show on KWMR, thinks he might have a solution to the cannabis conundrum. “Grow your own,” he said. “I feel the same way about tomatoes. I know marijuana isn’t evil, but it’s fetishized and holds people back from seeing what’s really going on in the world and doing something about it.”


Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War” and an occasional contributor to the Light. He lives in Santa Rosa.