SFGate / Don Thompson / 12,16,2011
The customers of Magnolia Wellness pot shop could have called it buzz-kill Black Friday. More than 100 lined up early Friday for an unusual giveaway: free pot and plenty of munchies to help with the aftermath. As pleased as they were with the gift, they were also sad that their pot shop was going out of business.
"I know you’re all sad, but everyone should have a smile because it’s free stuff!" yelled Darrell Coffman, who was determined to fire up the long line of customers just before the doors opened for the last time at 10 a.m.
"It’s going to go down like a Bob Marley concert in here! I’m feelin’ it!"
The medical marijuana cooperative, which owns the pot, is located 20 miles east of Sacramento and is among dozens of dispensaries that are closing after the state’s four U.S. attorneys announced in October that they were cracking down on cultivation and retail sales.
The giveaway of one gram of marijuana was part thank you to the cooperative’s members, and part political protest against the federal crackdown on California’s 15-year-old medical marijuana law, store spokesman Steven Lee said. "We have to take a bigger, more dramatic political step," Lee said. "We’re not here to break the law. We’re here to potentially change it."
The dispensary’s landlord was among those targeted by federal prosecutors, who sent letters to dozens of dispensary owners and landlords that warned that they faced criminal charges or seizure of their assets if they did not shut down.
Prosecutors also discouraged cities and counties that had started licensing and taxing marijuana shops. This month, Sacramento County supervisors passed a zoning amendment that makes it clear that the shops are no longer permitted.
Brenda Helzer, a cancer survivor wearing her Magnolia Wellness sweat shirt, burst into tears as an employee came up to give her a hug. She was first in line, arriving 2 1/2 hours before the shop opened. "I didn’t come for the freebies — I came for you guys," she told an employee, wiping away tears.
The marijuana helps Coffman deal with his bipolar disease and depression, said his longtime girlfriend, Tracy Glover, who said both are unemployed. "We’re broke right now for Christmas," she said softly. "We’re just going to get the freebies because we both need the medicine." Glover said she used to be ashamed to use pot, before she found it worked better than prescription drugs to control her depression and anxiety.
The store also offered about a 15 percent discount on larger quantities to help customers stock up for an impending federally induced drought on weed. And they could grab coffee, doughnuts, bagels and finger food to go.
For Samuel Williams of Sacramento, it was like Christmas came early.
"Something for free, I figured, why not?" said Williams, who said he is on disability because of his arthritis. "That’s all I’ll be able to afford today."
Phones at the 2-year-old shop hadn’t stopped ringing since the giveaway was announced. Employees have taken calls from as far away as Oregon. Lee has had to explain that a gram is enough for about two marijuana cigarettes, hardly worth the drive from hundreds of miles away. Lee said employees are shocked by all the attention, because the end-of-business activities are a continuation of what the 40,000-member cooperative has been doing all along.
It’s always given away free marijuana to those suffering from cancer, AIDS and other diseases, or to those who simply couldn’t afford to pay. And it regularly provided free food before holidays year-round, he said, fostering a welcoming atmosphere for members who came in for the companionship as much as for the drugs. "We’re not outlaws," Lee said. "We’re not trying to be rebellious. We’re just trying to make a stand for our patient base." Now, customers will have to travel to Sacramento to get their pot. The cooperative’s director is drafting an initiative that would let Sacramento County voters overturn the supervisors’ zoning decision, Lee said.
Its members also want to unseat supervisors who voted to change county zoning laws. And they will support planned legislation and perhaps a statewide initiative backing California’s medical marijuana law.
Prosecutors have said that many marijuana dispensaries have evolved in recent years into giant enterprises offering exotic cannabis products to those who obtain medical marijuana cards on the flimsiest of pretexts.
The industry had ballooned in an atmosphere of lax enforcement of federal drug laws until they announced the crackdown.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declined comment about Magnolia’s free giveaway. An unmarked sheriff’s patrol car sat discreetly across the street as security guards let 16 customers at a time in to pick up their free gram from a lobby wrapped in evergreen garland surrounding a Christmas tree.
Coffman emerged carrying three doughnuts and a brown paper bag with a gram of "Crazy Ape," all free. "This is some really good indica, so I’m going to be able to get really medicated," he said.