The Death of C3 Cannabis Collective

The inside story of a medical cannabis dispensary's last days and how the City of Walnut Creek ignored pleas of mercy and shut it down.

The C3 Cannabis Collective in Walnut Creek supposedly had the law on its side. The first medical marijuana dispensary in the wealthy suburb’s history fully complied with the state’s medical marijuana regulations. It had hundreds of patients, whose ailments included arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cancer, depression, chronic migraines, anxiety, insomnia, seizures, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more. It had a business license and was even a member of the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club. But on March 22, the city killed it.

In a year in which California voters may legalize marijuana with no “medical” strings attached, the closure of C3 offers yet another example of a growing intolerance of medical cannabis dispensaries throughout the state. According to Americans for Safe Access, more than 120 California cities and towns have now banned them.

Three days before it was shut down, the Contra Costa Chapter of Americans for Safe Access issued a press release, inviting journalists to visit the collective on its next-to-last day of business. It was something not typically seen in the mainstream press — a peek through the other side of the green glass door. So on a sunny March 20, this reporter went to witness the death of a pot club.

The C3 medical marijuana collective building, with its brick and tan stucco exterior, was as nondescript as could be. Nestled in the middle of a light commercial district between a chiropractor’s office and the local Planned Parenthood, the collective’s front door and windows were made of reflective glass, and there were no signs or banners anywhere. The only two clues that something was different about 1291 Oakland Boulevard were the uniformed guard outside the door and a “No Trespassing” sign by the steps.

Inside, the collective’s reception area resembled a doctor’s office waiting room. The couches were green and cozy, the furniture sharp and modern, and the walls, adorned with framed pictures of aspen trees. The tables and shelves were loaded with cannabis-related publications, and a large corkboard teemed with community flyers and a signup sheet for free Reiki healing sessions. The dispensary area was in a small but comfortable room, with two glass display cases, a couple of steel storage cabinets, and a cash register. The delicious scent in the air smelled of citrus and grapes.

Hanging on the wall behind the admissions desk were framed copies of C3’s still-valid Walnut Creek business license and state Board of Equalization seller’s permit. The collective also displayed permits from the building department and the county fire department, along with notices of its federal tax identification number and official nonprofit status. The collective operated in accordance with California’s medical marijuana laws — Proposition 215 and SB420. It was HIPAA compliant. Clearly, someone had jumped through a few hoops.

Brian Hyman, the executive director of C3, is a tall 25-year-old with pierced ears who was dressed in a suit and tie to greet a reporter. He had almost a calculated mellowness, one hand was in his pocket and the other poked the air as he talked. It was obvious how emotionally invested he was in the collective. The inheritance from his deceased mother had funded C3. He also said he had spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting the city, and it was clear that he was taking the council’s efforts to destroy his dream personally. “They’ve taken all the fucking herb and burnt it under me,” he said. “Is it because I don’t play golf with them? Is it because I don’t have season tickets to the lectures? Lives are being ruined because they fail to act with common sense and, as a result, patients are forced to suffer.”

Hyman said that he chose to set up the fledgling collective in Walnut Creek because it had no law on the books about medical marijuana dispensaries. But he had no idea what he was in for. “Ever since C3 first began to operate in Walnut Creek, the city’s hostility toward medical marijuana and the collective has been relentless,” he said. Down the hallway was the proof. Hyman had proudly hung the hundreds of rectangular city zoning citations on the wall like trophies. “Relentless,” he repeated.

The beginning of the end for C3 was late last summer when the Walnut Creek City Council discovered it had unknowingly granted a business license to a cannabis collective. Because there were no city ordinances at the time prohibiting marijuana dispensaries, Walnut Creek officials decided to use city zoning laws to shut C3 down. Accusing C3 of violating minor zoning infractions, city officials began issuing a $500 fine for every day it remained open. C3 refused to pay and attempted to file an appeal, only to have city officials claim there was nothing to appeal because no hearing had been held. As the collective’s tab climbed to $60,000, the city filed suit in Contra Costa County Superior Court.

Walnut Creek Assistant City Attorney Bryan Wenter said the city’s actions had nothing to do with medical marijauana. “The only issue the city was ever concerned with was zoning,” he said. “It was land use.” Still, the message was clear. Within a month of filing the suit, the council passed a temporary ban on all marijuana dispensaries just to drive the point home.

And as the collective and its staff continued to protest the fines and assert their right to operate under state law, the city stonewalled. Hyman said officials refused to hand over copies of the licenses of other business in the area, ignoring discovery requests from the collective’s lawyers who insisted that the services C3 offered were remarkably similar to others in the zoning district. When C3 offered to go to mediation, city officials refused. When C3 asked for a conditional use permit until the city could enact an ordinance about medical marijuana dispensaries, the city wouldn’t grant one. Council members promised to conduct a work study on the possible effects of marijuana dispensaries, but then put the zoning administrator who originally ruled against C3 in charge of the committee. It was a stacked deck from the beginning.

Frustrated and tired of being marginalized, C3 patients and supporters crashed the December 1 City Council meeting, a mostly ceremonial affair to certify the recent election results and appoint the new mayor, Sue Rainey. Although city officials warned it “might not be the best night for public communications,” the patients chose to speak anyway.

A young woman who identified herself as Christy told the council that without cannabis, she literally would be too sick to eat. “If [C3] wasn’t there, I don’t know how I would be able to deal with everything that’s wrong,” she said. “They help the community. … They help me. I can’t drive to Berkeley or Oakland. So if they move, I’ve got nowhere to go to get my medication.”

Bruce Reckel, a 52-year-old resident of Pleasant Hill, leaned on his arm braces for support as he spoke. “I’m a homeowner, a business owner, a practicing Roman Catholic, and a Republican,” he said. “I am also a member of the C3 collective, and I’m very distraught to learn that there’s the possibility that they might not be allowed to go forward. The medication that I receive there helps me with my appetite, helps me to sleep, and, most importantly, allows me to combat pain.”

Steven Chagrin, C3’s Rotary Club sponsor, told the council that “by seeking to close the C3 collective, you’re denying legal and beneficial care to patients who seek relief from chronic pain and other quality of life conditions. … It’s not right nor humane to deny patients and community members a medicine which the collective safely provides.”

Scott Candel, the collective’s attorney, said he had spoken to officials from the City Attorney’s Office, and they had made it clear that they received their “marching orders” from the city council. “If the city wins, what is it accomplishing?” Candel asked the council. “That a cancer patient won’t be able to get their medicine that helps them get through chemotherapy?”

But the city’s actions spoke volumes. The next day, the C3 testimony was not included in the official recorded minutes of the meeting.

On February 25, Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin issued a temporary injunction in favor of Walnut Creek, ordering C3 to shut down within thirty days. In his decision, Baskin wrote that the collective had failed to show that grave and irreparable harm would be done to the patients if it closed. He apparently was unmoved by written statements to the court from 150 of the collective’s members, pleading to keep it open. They came not only from Walnut Creek, but from numerous cities east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Many are refugees from nearby municipalities that have enacted bans or don’t have dispensaries — Antioch, Concord, Danville, Lafayette, Martinez, Oakley. They’re construction workers, waitresses, mortgage specialists, and corporate vice-presidents, many of them longtime members of the community.

In the end, after spending more than $30,000 of the taxpayer’s money and staff time on the lawsuit, the city had won.

Back at the collective, things had taken a turn for the personal. During the interview with Hyman, mournful collective members kept interrupting to wish him luck. Most were leaving with a bag of the last of the day’s two available strains — Trainwreck and a Kush hybrid. Over the next fifteen minutes, the only patients that came through the door were two fortysomething men and a woman with a degenerative back disease. “The city has made no attempts to communicate with the collective or the patients,” said Hyman, waving goodbye to an older female patient. “I’d be surprised if they could even recognize the building.”

As the interview ended, a staff member emerged from the back room and announced that C3 had sold out of pot for the day. Hyman nodded and explained that because of the looming injunction, the collective hadn’t been able to stock enough weed to meet its members’ needs.”It’s frustrating,” he said after waving good-bye to another cannabis patient. “It’s difficult to sit there and tell people that there’s nothing I can do.”

After the interview was over, Hyman gave the C3 staff the go-ahead to close down for the day. It took about fifteen minutes in all, but then again there wasn’t any pot left in the building.

“So what now for C3?” a reporter asked Hyman. He paused for a minute before answering. There’d been talk of getting a measure on the November 2 ballot, but the immediate plan was to continue with the court case — if he could find the money to keep fighting.

No one said it, but the chance of that happening appeared slim. And one was left to imagine C3 patients, many of them elderly or infirm, going back to copping dime bags on the corner.


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