Woodacre collective grows healing, less psychoactive herb

David Briggs
A medical marijuana collective in Woodacre says it produces plants with with THC levels below those of 50 years ago and much higher healing properties.

Synergy Wellness’s medical marijuana farm is tucked away in a leafy corner of Woodacre. Healthy cannabis plants bask in the afternoon sun on the property’s back deck, but most of the operation is carried out inside a specially-built grow house. Sequestered in a long windowless room, the 50-some plants are currently in their “vegetative” or summertime state, bathed in the hot light of eight 1,000-watt bulbs for 18 hours a day and plunged into darkness for the rest.

“They’re sleeping right now,” Leonard, who manages the farm and on whose property the collective’s greenhouse sits, told the Light on a tour. “But let’s just take a peek.”

Although the three-year-old collective is legally allowed to grow six mature plants for each of its approximately 200 members, the current operation is enough to supply the dried herbs, edible tinctures and topical ointments used by its patients. And staying small has other benefits, too. The registered, tax-paying entity is permitted under California law, but, like all medical cannabis growers or dispensaries, Synergy Wellness violates the federal ban on pot, and the small size helps it fly below the radar.

Since the end of last year, federal agents have forced the closure of hundreds of medical cannabis collectives, forcing many patients to scramble for other providers. But Synergy Wellness isn’t a typical pot shop, and is unlikely to draw federal attention. Still, its manager prefers to be cautious.

Sliding open a door, Leonard darted a green-hued flashlight over the slumbering plants, their leaves rustling from the gentle stirring of an overhead fan. The rustling, and the surreal green hue, made them look almost animate. Each bush grows in a 12-inch planter, and is immaculately tended. The bushes vary in height and appearance, showing the diversity of the 15 different strains being cultivated.

Most plants on the recent tour were in their third week of flowering. They begin life as cuttings, and are coaxed toward maturity in an adjacent nursery room in a “clone machine,” an apparatus that allows the proper exposure to air and water so strong roots can become established. When it’s time to get the mature plants ready to harvest, Leonard cuts their light exposure down to a 12-hour cycle to simulate the onset of autumn, which will force the plants to flower.

“They’re thinking, ‘Oh, winter’s coming, better make some babies,’” he said.

Unlike many indoor cannabis growers, Synergy Wellness does not use hydroponics, due to the non-organic and synthetic fertilizers that method involves. Leonard prefers growing indoors because it allows for more control when producing organically, and keeps out bugs and other pests. Staying organic and free of contaminants is especially important to this collective, he says, which focuses largely on treating the severely and chronically ill.

“We’re mostly focused on people with cancer, or other specific ailments,” Leonard said. “They’re not looking to get high. They’re here to heal.” He said patients often come to Synergy Wellness after a frightening diagnosis, or in the grips of painful and difficult treatment.

Sitting with Leonard in his living room, which doubles as a kind of intake area for the collective, patients submit their doctor’s recommendations and identification, which are checked to make sure they can qualify as members.

The tranquil living room is decorated with orchids, Buddha statues, a photo of the Dalai Lama, and Leonard’s own bronze sculpture art. Once admitted, Leonard offers advice on which variety might best suit a patient’s needs. Samples are kept in glass apothecary jars for members to smell. The dried plants in one jar had a crisp herbal scent, like lemon verbena, while another smelled strongly of blueberries.

Synergy Wellness focuses on cannabis varieties that are low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical responsible for the plant’s psychoactive effects, and high in cannabidiol, or CBD, which has been linked to reduction in nausea, pain and anxiety—and, some say, may slow cancerous growth.

As dispensaries across the state close as a result of federal action, cannabis detractors have often argued that the product available today is “not your grandmother’s pot,” as many cannabis varieties have been cultivated to carry greatly elevated levels of THC.

Common marijuana in the 1960s usually carried less than five percent THC. Modern recreational strains, which show THC levels as high as 20 percent, also show negligible levels of CBD, Leonard said. Many of his plants, on the other hand, are what the industry has dubbed “CBD-rich,” with as much as eight percent CBD and THC levels lower than those found 50 years ago.

But John Redman, executive director of Californians for a Drug-Free Youth, isn’t impressed. “There is no way for a consumer to know what they are getting from these places,” he said. “They say they test these “strains” in a lab, but there’s nothing, no one to check it. No one to regulate it. This isn’t regulated. It isn’t medicine. And it’s against the law.”

Groups like Mr. Redman’s, who would like to see the closure of medical marijuana collectives, have had a lot to celebrate in recent months. Last fall, federal prosecutors declared war on California’s dispensaries. By exerting pressure on landlords, brick-and-mortar pot shops across the state were either forced out of business, or out of the public eye.

The Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, founded in 1990 in Point Reyes Station as the Hemp Renaissance Council before moving to its longtime Fairfax location, shuttered in December. Two more local dispensaries, The Green Tiger and The Green Door, both in Novato, were forced to close this spring.

In April, federal prosecutors threatened as many as 300 dispensaries with prosecution and asset forfeiture for allegedly violating federal law prohibiting marijuana distribution. And last month, a new ban on dispensaries in Los Angeles forced the closure of more than 750 storefront collectives, with more set to close statewide.

For some, there is little distinction to be made between the legal dispensaries, such as Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, which also offers yoga, acupuncture and naturopathy, and the illegal grow sites run by drug cartels and other criminals.

But there is a world of difference between the large and often firearm-guarded sites, such as those raided two Septembers ago by agents on Mount Tamalpais, and the medicine-driven gardens of local collectives, of which there are likely more than 200 in West Marin.

The Compassionate Use Act of 1996, or Proposition 215, gave Californians the right to obtain and use cannabis products to treat “cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief,” as recommended by a physician. It protected patients and their caregivers from prosecution, and encouraged state and federal authorities to provide safe and affordable distribution.

In 2003, California Senate Bill 420 clarified Prop 215, and also provided greater protection. The law allowed for the issuance of state ID cards for medical cannabis users and caregivers (sometimes more readily accepted by law enforcement than a doctor’s note) and also recognized the right of those individuals to “associate collectively or cooperatively to cultivate medical marijuana.”

In Marin, ID cards are acquired through the county records department and cost $113.

“The state’s priorities and the federal government’s priorities are not in line on this issue,” Sean Kensinger, a deputy district attorney, said. Adding that local and state authorities did not intend to pursue medical cannabis collectives, he said, “the idea was not to create marijuana businesses, but to ensure that patients could get safe access to their medicine. Patients should not be paying street drug prices, either. They should be covering the cost of production, plus some extra as needed.”

Worries persist over easy access and abuse of the drug, especially by youth, and detractors cite studies that pot serves as a “gateway” drug and can lead to dependency, especially among young people. But many argue that the possibility of abuse should not serve to punish legitimate patients who, they say, have come to rely on the herb for relief from illness, chemotherapy treatments and other drug-related side effects.

An 82-year old West Marin resident and a member of the Synergy collective, who preferred to remain anonymous, began using medical cannabis tincture two years ago as part of her treatment of several ailments. She suffers from pain and heart palpitations that kept her from getting a good night’s sleep, but she says taking the Indica tincture in warm goat’s milk before bed has greatly helped her get the rest she needs.

“I was fearful because I had never used it recreationally, but my fears were alleviated when my doctor suggested that he give me authorization,” she said. It proved to be a great natural remedy, and came without negative side effects, she added. “Since then I have been able to lessen my pain by adding high CBD tincture to warm milk. I have wonderful deep sleep without a hangover.”

Before becoming a marijuana farmer, Leonard was a trained body worker and artist with an engineering background. He had used and been treated with Chinese herbs, as well as homeopathy, in the past, and began using cannabis to treat back pain. He said his favorite part of running the collective is being able to offer help to sick people.

“A lot of people come to me who have basically been told to go home and die,” he said. “It’s wonderful when I can make suggestions that help people, to see them come back a few months down the road looking better, having put on weight, greatly improved. We’re a prime example of what the law was intended for. We’re here to provide medicine. People just looking to get high wouldn’t even like my product.”