Neighborhood lore has it that before Ken Estes set up his medical-marijuana club, the property used to be a whorehouse. The neighbors wish it still was. Back then, the customers walked in, took care of business, and got out. Bad shit never went down at central Berkeley’s local brothel — certainly nothing like what happened on the afternoon of June 5.
At 2:37 p.m., roughly ninety minutes before closing time, a gray Honda pulled to the curb and two Latino men got out the car and stepped up to the guard. One topped out at 250 pounds and wore a plaid button-down shirt; the other was a skinny kid in a T-shirt. The guard walked back to the door, and shouted for Estes’ brother that there were two guys at the door to see Ken. His brother cracked open the door, took a look, and leaned back to yell for Estes. At that point, the guard noticed the two men creeping up to the door. “No no, you can’t come in here!” he reportedly shouted. Then he saw the gun.
Mr. Plaid jammed a black pistol into the guard’s back, and the T-shirt pulled out a kitchen knife with a four-inch blade. According to the police report, they forced the guard through the door, rushed into the club, and screamed at everyone to lie face down on the floor. Everyone did except for one man, a wheelchair-bound patient who had come to get his legally prescribed dose of reefer and now had a gun in his face. The two men trashed the place and finally found the stash after prying open a locked file cabinet. As terrified neighbors called the cops, the thieves ran out of the club, jumped in the car, and floored it.
It was the third armed robbery at 1672 University Avenue in ten months.
You get into a lot of creepy stuff when you hang out with Ken Estes. You get burglaries, armed robberies, police raids, and felony charges. You also get allegations of cocaine dealing, tax fraud, and spousal abuse.
The thing is, Ken’s a really nice guy. With a tanned face defined by a sandy goatee, long blond hair, and a disarming air of candor and vulnerability, he seems the very picture of California easy living. It’s only when you notice the wheelchair supporting his shriveled legs, or the limp handshake born of two decades of nerve damage, that you catch a glimpse of the tragedy that has been his companion since 1976. Shortly after a motorcycle accident left Estes paralyzed below his chest, he became a devoted advocate of medical marijuana. He carefully organized his club to offer every possible comfort to the sick or dying.
Berkeley Medical Herbs, which didn’t exactly traffic in St.-John’s-wort, operated out of a cute little cottage that neighbors call the “hobbit warren.” A modest wooden fence fronts the street and a path leads through a mulch lawn to a white security door. Beneath the rich, sloping redwood ceiling, a spacious brick fireplace keeps patients toasty-warm in the winter. Once a week a woman comes in and provides free massages on a table in the corner. And unlike other East Bay pot clubs, most of which stress a clinical pharmacy’s atmosphere, patients can sit down and light up right there, beneath rustic paintings of Jimi, Janis, and Jerry. If it weren’t for the crime that has plagued his club’s operation, Estes might be the patron saint of Berkeley stoners. “We have the best prices and the best medicine.” he boasts. “If you know buds, we have the bomb.”
But ever since Estes first got involved in the medical-marijuana movement, men with drugs, guns, and evil intent have followed him everywhere he goes. They have robbed him, exploited his generosity, and endangered the lives of everyone around him — even his three children. But “Compassionate Ken,” as his friends call him, doesn’t seem to learn. He always picks the wrong friends.
At least that’s Ken’s side of the story. His estranged lover, Stacey Trainor, told a darker version to the Contra Costa district attorney’s office. She alleged that Estes is a former coke dealer who lied to secure his club’s lease, that he has a Berkeley doctor in his pocket who will sell pot prescriptions for $215 a pop, and that up to thirty percent of his customers buy his product without any medical notes at all. Police and University Avenue merchants, meanwhile, claim that high-school kids used to line up for a taste outside Estes’ club, and that his security guards scared away neighborhood shoppers and even got involved in fights on the street. His fellow cannabis-club operators even tried to drive Estes out of town.
Whether Estes is a character out of The French Connection or one out of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, he couldn’t exist without the peculiar politics of Proposition 215, which decriminalized medical marijuana in California. In the six years since its passage, mayors, district attorneys, and state officials have been so focused on protecting patients from federal prosecution that they’ve neglected to implement any sort of regulations about how pot should be distributed. No state or local agency or mainstream medical group has offered any comprehensive guidelines on who should hand out pot in what manner. As a result, medical pot is not just legal, but superlegal, perhaps California’s least-regulated ingestible substance. And yet marijuana remains a powerful intoxicant with a vast underground market, one whose dealers inhabit a shadowy criminal world populated by dangerous men.
In the absence of official regulation, it has fallen to pot-club operators themselves to craft some sort of system. Over the last six years, groups like the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative and the Alliance of Berkeley Patients have, through a series of trials and sometimes embarrassing errors, arrived at a protocol for verifying medical ailments, providing security from criminals, and operating safely in quiet residential and commercial neighborhoods. But however sensible their rules may be, they have no means of forcing club operators to abide by them. All they have is a gentlemen’s agreement.
Ken Estes broke that agreement, whether by design or neglect. And no one may have the legal power to make him stop.
Estes is that rare breed of Bay Area native who spent his teenage years here in the ’70s and didn’t smoke pot. Born in Martinez, he moved to Concord and became a star athlete at Ygnacio Valley High. He excelled at soccer and was offered a scholarship to Santa Clara University, but that all changed one day in 1976, a month after he graduated from high school. Estes was riding his motorcycle back from a Walnut Creek McDonald’s, where he worked as a manager, when a car swerved into his lane and hit him head on. Estes flew over the car and broke his neck. The damage was so extensive that for the next two years, he couldn’t even move his arms. He struggled through physical therapy hoping to regain just enough mobility to kill himself.
Estes was wracked with chronic pain, living in a rehab center and dependent on others to bathe and clothe him. The morphine and the pills didn’t help, and he began to waste away. “I probably got down to a hundred pounds, and I’m six feet,” he says. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, the physical pain was horrible, a nightmare. But about six or eight months into it, a group of Vietnam vets I was in rehab with were smoking marijuana. They said, ‘Look, man, we know you’re not eating or sleeping, why don’t you come over here with us?’ I said no, ’cause I was still thinking about keeping my body clean. But they said, ‘Man, they’re popping pills in you and morphine. This is a lot less than that.’ So I said, ‘Alright, lemme smoke.’ That night, I slept all night. When I woke up, I ate. They brought the doctors in, they said, ‘Lookit, he’s eating!’ My doctor wrote it on the chart, he wrote that this marijuana is doing what you want the pills to do.”
After that first toke, Estes put his life back together. He regained limited use of his arms, enrolled in junior college, and by the early ’80s was offered another scholarship, this time to UC Santa Cruz. Estes decided instead to open a string of tanning, hair, and nail salons in Concord and Davis. He met his future girlfriend Stacey Trainor while she was working at a mini mart next to one of his salons. “I kept coming over there, and she would always have the banana drink ready for me, get the burrito ready,” he says. Within a month of their first date, Trainor left her husband and moved in with Estes. Together they would raise three children.
But something always bothered Estes. Before he began growing his own, he typically took his business to Haight Street or Telegraph Avenue. It was a dangerous pastime; just because he wanted to relieve his discomfort, he was mugged three times and occasionally suffered the indignity of being dumped out of his chair. In the ’80s, as AIDS swept through the country, Estes began clipping press accounts of “Brownie Mary,” the elderly woman who used to walk the halls of San Francisco General Hospital, handing out marijuana-laced treats to the terminally ill. Slowly, he began to think that this wasn’t just a drug, but a cause. In 1992, he signed over his share of the salons to his business partner and started distributing pot, going to demonstrations, and working to decriminalize medical cannabis. “Everyone thought I was crazy, but I said I wanted to pursue this,” he recalls, “I’m tired of being looked at as a doper, as a pothead, as somebody less than somebody else because I used marijuana.”
Yet as Estes became a fixture in the medical cannabis scene, his life became increasingly chaotic and dangerous. At the very time that Proposition 215 liberated thousands of medical-marijuana smokers from prosecution, Estes began a long, almost farcical slide into crime. Even scoring on street corners didn’t compare to what was to come. “No guns in the face at that point,” he says of his early years. “That came later, with the medical-marijuana movement.”
Estes began his cannabis activism by volunteering at the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative. From the beginning, the co-op has been at the cutting edge of the movement; where San Francisco clubs have a looser, anarchic spirit, it’s all business at the Oakland Co-op, whose members have pioneered security and medical protocols with a determined air of professionalism. Jeff Jones, the co-op’s executive director, doesn’t even smoke pot. Growing up in South Dakota, Jones watched his father waste away and die from a terrible illness and vowed to find a way to bring medical marijuana to the terminally ill. Jones first joined the co-op in 1995 and soon found himself making home deliveries of dope to AIDS and cancer patients. If Estes is a creative but befuddled libertine, Jones is rigid and dogmatic. From the start, the two rubbed one another the wrong way.
After passage of Proposition 215, the co-op emerged from the shadows and began distributing pot out in the open. But no one had any idea how to go about it. There were simply no rules; one day medical pot was illegal, the next day it wasn’t.
Proposition 215 is one in a long series of brief, poorly conceived initiatives whose implementation has proven to be a giant headache. The “Compassionate Use Act of 1996” offers no guidance on how pot should be distributed; indeed, the initiative is a single page in length and merely encourages the federal and state governments to “implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all patients.” Six years later, no one in Sacramento has figured out what this means.
No state agency has ever issued binding directives on how to distribute pot, or to whom. Until the California legislature passes a law to govern distribution, neither the attorney general nor the state health department has the legal authority to innovate any such protocols. “Proposition 215 did not address prescriptions,” says Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer. “The initiative did not authorize or spell out any specific scheme for dispensing marijuana. Nor did it say who is entitled to it, or how much marijuana is required for which ailment. I think everyone recognizes that Proposition 215 was not the best-written initiative. But the voters passed it.”
With the state paralyzed, it has fallen to local governments to regulate medical marijuana. But most localities have adopted a strictly laissez-faire approach and done virtually nothing to ensure that the distribution of pot adheres to the spirit of Proposition 215. The portion of the Berkeley municipal code governing medical pot, for example, is so ridiculously lax that it plays right into the city’s worst stereotypes, and yet it’s as strict as virtually any other Bay Area city. Although the code limits the amount of pot a club can have on hand, there are no provisions limiting how close a pot club can be to a school, or requiring doctors to conduct an actual evaluation of patients, or requiring background checks for pot distributors — which is standard practice for anyone who wants to run a liquor store. Yet the code does encourage pot clubs to “use their best efforts to determine whether or not cannabis is organically grown.”
City Councilmembers Linda Maio and Dona Spring say the city can’t even write up a specific-use permit for cannabis clubs, because doing so would violate federal law. The end result is that medical pot is actually less regulated than candy bars, which must at least have their ingredients printed on the wrapper. Anyone can distribute medical pot anywhere, in any fashion they please, and virtually no one is watching them.
Club operators disagree on whether this is good or bad. Jeff Jones wants the government to step in and bring some common sense to pot’s distribution. “We thought the government would get involved in distributing medical marijuana as per the state law,” he says. “I never though that five or ten years later, we’d still be operating in a vacuum.” Others worry that if the state takes a firmer hand, a conservative governor or attorney general might interpret the law so narrowly as to effectively recriminalize medical cannabis.
But everyone agrees that since the government hasn’t set up rules, club operators must police themselves. The Oakland Cannabis Buyers Collective was at the forefront of this effort, keeping and verifying patient records, hiring security guards, and establishing a rigorous dual-identification system, in which patients had to pass through multiple checkpoints. “To be a member, they had to turn in a note from a licensed physician that we could verify,” Jones says. “Even cancer and AIDS patients had to renew the note every year. They were a little mad about this, but we had to confirm that their medical status hadn’t changed, and they still needed our services.”
Once Oakland officials were assured that, unlike at San Francisco clubs, patients would never smoke dope at the site, relations between the co-op and the city have generally been cordial. The city council contracted with the co-op to distribute pot to seven thousand patients on its behalf, and the co-op’s membership cards became the definitive means of identifying medical pot patients throughout the East Bay. Jones even teaches classes on medical marijuana to recruits at the Oakland police academy. “We’ve never given them a reason to question what we’re doing here,” he says, “The local police like us because we give them an alternative to going out on the street. Our group have never done anything that has been deemed illegal, and we’ve never gotten complaints from anyone — except the federal government.” Berkeley’s three clubs went through the same process, experimenting with various security and patient-verification protocols. In the beginning of 2001, the Berkeley Patients Group on San Pablo Avenue, the Cannabis Buyers Cooperative on Shattuck, and the Patients Care Collective on Telegraph formed the Alliance of Berkeley Patients and agreed upon a ten-point platform. This included organizing as a collective or nonprofit, contacting physicians to confirm a patient’s medical condition, scrupulously keeping patient records, hiring security guards, and maintaining good relations with their neighbors. “We agreed to police ourselves, so we don’t have to have any outside regulators that might not have the patient’s best interests in mind,” says Berkeley Patients Group member Don Duncan.
There was just one problem: none of these regulations had the force of law behind them. Even the police, hamstrung by a city council cognizant of the overwhelming public support for medical pot, can do virtually nothing to crack down on rogue clubs. If someone wanted to hand out pot like candy, no one could stop him. His neighbors along University Avenue soon figured this out.
Accounts differ as to what Estes did when he first showed up at the Oakland co-op’s door in 1995. Some say he taught the co-op’s pot cultivation classes; others claim he weighed out the baggies and sampled the wares to categorize their potency. Estes says he did both. But one thing seems clear: he and Jeff Jones didn’t get along. “Jeff always thought Ken should cut his hair — look more appropriate for you guys, the media,” says one co-op member who asked not to be named. “Ken was like, ‘You know, I don’t have to look right for the press. I’m a patient.'” Jones won’t say much about what he thought of Estes, but Estes recalls, “Jeff said, ‘Look, if you cut your hair, you’ll go places around here.’ I said, ‘C’mon, you’re sounding like the people on the streets I’ve been dealing with for years. You’re sounding like the conservative white guy who doesn’t like anyone lookin’ different from himself.’ So yeah, we had a lot of trouble. I told him one time, ‘I wanna get out of my chair and beat your ass.'”
Whether the Oakland co-op itself was entirely above-board is a matter of some dispute. According to Trainor’s statement to the Contra Costa DA, the co-op paid Estes in pot and unreported cash. “Part of the marijuana he received as payment from the club he would sell to other people, including persons who had no medical prescription for marijuana,” her statement reads.
Jones denies paying Estes in under-the-table cash, but refuses to comment on whether he paid Estes with dope. Estes claims he received a paycheck, not cash. But he acknowledges the pot-for-labor arrangement. “I got herb for working,” he says. “They gave me herb, that was the trade-off. I worked there till it closed, and then I went out and opened my new shop.”
In October 1998, the feds managed to get an injunction prohibiting the Oakland co-op from dispensing marijuana. The co-op fought it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it eventually lost. Jones and his lawyers are preparing a new challenge, but except for a one-month period during which the injunction was lifted, the co-op has not handed out a dime bag since 1998. Seven thousand patients needed another supplier, and Estes jumped in to fill the void.
But he needed customers, so Trainor says Estes called a friend who worked there. This employee gave Estes the names, addresses, and phone numbers of five hundred patients, and Estes soon started drumming up customers. No one at the co-op knew the two had done this; certainly the patients had no idea that their confidential information was being bandied about like just another mailing list. Estes concedes he made no effort to call their doctors and confirm their medical condition — he just started making deliveries to anyone with a card from the Oakland club.
By the time that Estes went into business for himself, he, Trainor, and their three children had moved to a house in Concord, where he began growing pot to supply his growing army of patients. On September 20, Concord police officer David Savage took a call: Estes’ neighbor claimed that she could see a bumper crop of pot plants growing in his backyard. Savage stopped by and peeked over the fence. Later that afternoon, he returned with a search warrant.
Savage’s police report indicates that he found pot everywhere. He found roughly fifty plants in a makeshift greenhouse in the backyard. He found an elaborate hydroponic system in the garage; behind sheets of dark plastic, dozens of plants were growing on plastic trays and in children’s swimming pools; grow lights wheeled back and forth on a track hanging from the ceiling. He found baggies of weed stuffed in desk drawers and scattered along the floor, and plants hanging in the closets. In the master bedroom, underneath a crib where one of the children slept, Savage found two garbage bags with dried marijuana in them. “None of the growing and dried marijuana was in a secure place,” Savage wrote in his report. “Most of the marijuana was accessible to the children in the residence. Estes told [me] he was not concerned with the children having access to the marijuana because ‘They know it is for daddy.'” Estes denies leaving bags of dope near his children’s cribs.
But Savage didn’t know what to do with Estes. Estes had an Oakland co-op card certifying him as a patient, as well as patient records indicating he was a legally valid caregiver. How much dope did Proposition 215 allow him to have? “They got a judge on the phone, and I talked to the judge,” Estes says. “I said, ‘Please don’t make me pull these plants out. These are good strains with medical benefits.'” In the end, the cops confiscated the plants and the growing system, and ratted him out to Child Protective Services. In deference to Proposition 215, they left Estes with three plants and an ounce for his own use. But Estes complains Savage took all the kind buds, and left him just a bag of leafy shit.
Fifteen months later, the cops would be back. By then, Estes had bought some property near Clear Lake, and Trainor had moved up north with the kids, growing more dope in a shed behind the house. Meanwhile, Estes’ cousin Tim Crew had moved into the house to help him grow a crop that dwarfed his prior stash. This period marks the beginning of one of Estes’ most foolish habits: keeping massive amounts of drugs and money lying around. “People told me, ‘Don’t put more than a certain amount in the bank, or you could get in trouble,'” he says. “We had a lot of money, and I kept it with me. I’d hide it in my closet, hide it in my suitcase. I just didn’t want to put it in a bank.” As more and more people got hip to Estes’ stash, his cavalier attitude would provoke a spate of armed robberies that left his University Avenue neighbors terrified.
The first robbery happened in Concord on January 1, 2000. Neighbors called the cops and reported that several men had burst out of Estes’ house and raced down the street, leaving the door ajar. When Concord officers arrived at the scene, they found that the front door had been forced open. They also found no fewer than 1,780 marijuana plants in various stages of cultivation, even after the break-in. This time, the cops wouldn’t be satisfied with confiscating his stash. The DA charged Estes with four felony counts of possession and cultivation of marijuana for sale, and will probably argue that the volume of pot on hand proved that he was an outright dealer, not a medicinal caregiver. His trial is set to begin on August 5.
With the heat coming down in Concord, Estes eyed Berkeley. Taking out a business license and a zoning permit to sell “herbs and other homeopathic remedies,” Estes set up shop at 1672 University Avenue. From the very beginning, Berkeley Medical Herbs was characterized by his permissive business style. Michael “Rocky” Grunner showed up at Estes’ door just months into his new operation and handed him a bag of quality product. Estes says Grunner told him there was more where that came from, and he was certainly happy to buy it. Grunner began hanging out at the club, and Estes thought everything was working just fine. The massage table was up and running, patients were streaming through the door, the smoke was flowing freely. But over time, a tense, nervous atmosphere infected the club. Finally, Estes claims, a friend came to him and broke the bad news: Grunner was dealing crank out of the back room. Estes says he promptly threw Grunner out of the club.
But the club’s neighbors were beginning to worry about the sketchy new element. Machinist Richard Graham is a longtime area resident and has been known to take a hit upon occasion. But he even he draws the line at Estes’ way of doing business. A few months after Estes opened the club, Graham dropped off a package mistakenly delivered to the wrong address. When Graham asked the man behind the counter how business was holding up, he offered to set him up with a physician for $200. “I asked them how their operation works, and they told me you just need a note from the doctor, and we have a doctor, and you can get a note for just about anything,” Graham says. “Then he told me the prices, the registration fee to get the note, $200 per year. I got what I thought was an aggressive sales pitch. He said their doctor will help me get it. He looked at me and profiled me, said ‘You’re 51, you’ve got arthritis, we can help you.’… I just got the impression that these are people in it to sell marijuana as a business. I didn’t feel that these were people motivated to help sick people, which I think other people are. It was a decidedly unclinical atmosphere, let’s put it that way.”
In fact, Estes’ operation was so unclinical that it even advertised in the Berkeley Daily Planet. Superimposed over the image of a big fat bud, the club announced that it had plenty of pot for sale, listing killer strains such as “Jack Frost, Mad Max, Romulin, G-Spot, and more.” Other club operators groaned in dismay when they read the notice: “One-source shopping for all your medicinal needs! First visit, first gram free with mention of this ad!”
Soon, kids were lining up outside, neighbors and police report, and the club’s busiest hour was between three and four in the afternoon, when Berkeley High students got out of class. “The biggest complaint was the kids going in and out of there,” says Lieutenant Al Yuen, head of the Berkeley Police Department’s Special Enforcement Unit, which handles narcotics investigations. “We looked into that and watched kids going in and out. We never caught him selling to kids without a card. He claims that the kids had medicinal cards, but he doesn’t keep records on who he sells to. … He was advertising in the papers, he allowed tons of kids going though his place. He didn’t have a screening process, didn’t have security.”
In fact, Trainor told the DA’s office that Estes sold his product to anyone with the cash. She estimated that seventy percent of the club’s buyers were patients from the Oakland co-op, and that the other thirty percent were recreational users. And Trainor alleged that even many of the so-called patients may have had fraudulent doctor’s notes. She claimed that Estes referred everyone without a card to Dr. Frank Lucido, a Berkeley family practitioner who allegedly charged a fee for every note. “Estes would tell his buyers to go to Lucido, give him $215, and he would give the person a prescription. … Trainor said that regardless of whether a buyer told Estes they had a medical problem or not, Estes would refer the buyer to Lucido to get the prescription.”
Trainor said she knew how Lucido operated because she went through the process herself. During her interview, she meticulously described her visit from start to finish. “Trainor went to the doctor’s office, where she met a nurse who collected $215 from her. She was brought into an exam room, where she waited until Lucido came in and asked her what she wanted. She told him she had a bad back and wanted a prescription for marijuana. Trainor said the doctor performed a mini physical, checked her blood pressure, and had her bend over backward to check the condition of her back. … Lucido then wrote her a prescription for marijuana. Lucido did not ask her questions about treatment or diagnosis from any other physician. Lucido gave her no advice on the amount of marijuana to use and did not advise her of any other therapy or medication that might treat back problems. Lucido did not tell her to come back for a follow-up exam.”
For a while, Estes says, he even accepted photocopies of Lucido’s notes, and neighbors used to find them littering the sidewalk in front of his club. One neighbor, who asked not to be named, still has a copy of one such note from Lucido’s office. The patient is a mere 21 years old and suffers from back pain.
Lucido says he used to write such notes and rely on patients to provide verification later. But he says he discontinued that practice two years ago, and now requires independent verification of his patients’ ailments from another physician. Lucido says Estes has been a headache for his medical practice. Two years ago, the doctor says, Estes printed business cards that claimed he was working in conjunction with Lucido. The physician says that as soon as he found out, he had a lawyer call Estes and tell him to stop making that claim immediately. “I’m not connected with the clubs, and I don’t refer people to the clubs,” he says. “I’m sure people mention my name, but it’s never the case that we work in conjunction with each other.” Lucido said he couldn’t remember Stacey Trainor.
Why is Trainor telling so many tales out of school? It all began two years ago, when she began an affair with Rocky Grunner. The feud culminated on August 31, 2000, when Trainor swore out a temporary restraining order against Estes, claiming that Estes threatened to kill her. When the Lafayette cops arrived at his house to serve it, they found more plants growing in the basement. Back went Estes into the pokey, and the cops even raided the club and seized product and financial records. Two months later, Lafayette narcotics agents raided Grunner’s own house and seized seventeen pounds of marijuana. Trainor eventually broke off her affair. Grunner could not be reached for comment.
Six months ago, as Estes became the subject of a Contra Costa district attorney investigation, Trainor met with assistant district attorney Phyllis Franks and county investigator Tony Arcado. Over the course of several hours, she told the story of their life together. According to her statement, Estes didn’t start his new career dealing medical pot — but cocaine. “After selling the tanning salon, Estes earned income by selling cocaine,” Arcado wrote in his summary of Trainor’s interview. “Trainer [sic] said the income from the cocaine business ran out in 1993, and Estes switched to selling marijuana.”
Estes vehemently denies the charge and claims that Trainor, who declined to comment for this story, is lying as part of a child-custody dispute. “That’s false, not true at all,” he says. “No, I didn’t sell the salons, I didn’t sell cocaine. She was lying because she thought she was moving to Canada with the kids, and she thought that before she left, she could throw a bunch of stuff in the mix to mess me up in court. Because she downright hates me for dumping her.”
It was bad enough when neighbors watched police raid the club and kids line up for weed — then the robberies began.
On the evening of Friday, October 12, 2001, the club was winding down after a long day when someone knocked on the door. An employee pulled the door open and stared straight down the barrel of a silver handgun. “We opened up the door, same as for everybody: ‘Hey, what’s up?'” Estes says. “The guys came in. They put everybody on the ground and took everything.”
Time was running out for Estes. The kids and the police raids were bad enough, but now men were waving guns around and racing off with drugs. At the time, Estes had no security guards, no iron gate on the door, just a lot of cash and pot. Soon, the other pot-club operators came a-callin’. The robbery put new heat on all of them as City Councilmember Linda Maio started making noises. Don Duncan from the Berkeley Patients Group visited the club and found it pleasant enough, but Estes had clearly failed to implement even basic security procedures. “There weren’t a lot of people around, the club was fairly deserted, and that was a security challenge,” Duncan says. “And the front gate was a problem.”
When Duncan suggested retaining security personnel, Estes responded by hiring a couple of guys he knew from around town. Neighbors and police representatives claim that this just made things worse. The men were not professional guards, and scared people away from the neighborhood by loitering on the sidewalk during business hours. Estes says the neighbors are giving way to their own racist fears. “If you talk to them, they’re big, soft, easygoing guys,” he says. “But unfortunately they’re black. And in this society, you think of black as criminal. So the moment you see black people standing around, looking at your ID, I guess it looks like a crack house. I have black friends, and that seems to be held against me. None of the other clubs seems to be scrutinized as much as me.”
Not only did the guards not sit well with the neighbors, they also didn’t stop the crime. On the evening of December 13, 2001, as the guards had drifted back into the club and Estes’ employees began stacking the chairs, one last patient, a young woman, knocked on the door. As an employee opened the door for her, he glanced down to his left and saw three men crouched low. The woman turned and walked back to the sidewalk and the men rushed through the door. One pulled out an Uzi submachine gun, and the second robbery in two months was under way.
The thieves probably wouldn’t have kept coming back if there hadn’t been so much to steal. Estes refuses to say how much pot was lost during the first robbery, but he says he kept an average of three pounds of dried marijuana in his store at all times. “Some of it was in ounces, some of it in eighths, prepackaged in a variety of amounts,” he says. “Plus we had hash, we had kief, we had oils and other extracts from marijuana. We had baked goods, brownies, carrot cakes, Reese’s peanut butter cups that were done like that. We had everything.” At $65 an eighth, that meant thugs could make off with about $25,000 with one quick hit, to say nothing of the cash he kept on hand.
With this, the city had finally had enough. City Councilmember Linda Maio convened a neighborhood meeting about the club — which Estes didn’t bother to attend — and told the rest of Berkeley’s cannabis dispensaries to bring their colleague to heel. “I called Don Duncan and his folks and said, you guys have to be part of the solution here,” she says. “It’s not okay that this happens, and it’s not acceptable if this is just a rare thing. Don knows that this is not acceptable — he understands that this would jeopardize the whole movement if it’s allowed to get worse.”
Estes’ new office manager, Dorrit Geshuri, sat down with City Manager Weldon Rucker and police officials, and other Alliance members, and together they hammered out a series of reforms. On January 2, Geshuri agreed to the following terms: the club would only operate five hours a day; less than a pound of dope would be on the premises; newspaper advertising would stop immediately; a professional security company would be retained; and security cameras would be installed.
The final robbery on June 5 spelled the end for Ken Estes. Despite his promise not to keep more than a pound of pot at the store, neighbors report that during the getaway, the robbers’ duffel bag was so heavy that they had to drag it down to the car. As for the security cameras, club officials claimed that they had mysteriously broken down that day, and there was no film of the incident. Estes had used up his last store of good faith, and even the other clubs agreed he had to go.
“I don’t think Ken is a bad guy, but it’s no longer appropriate for him to operate in Berkeley,” Duncan says. “The consensus of the Alliance is for Ken to leave the city, to either move on or find another career. That conclusion has been some time in coming. We’re happy to have him as a friend, but it’s in the best interest of the patients that Ken close for real.”
Duncan’s abandonment has left Estes fairly bitter. “Yeah, they don’t want the competition,” he says. “They can keep the prices high, and they can control the game. It’s business, it’s all about business. If you’re Starbuck, you want Peet’s out of town.” Still, Estes has finally agreed to get out of town. He, his brother Randy Moses, and Geshuri have signed a lease at a new club in Oakland, near the corner of 18th Street and Broadway, where he promises to tighten up security. The numerous car dealerships have given in this part of town its historic name, “Auto Row,” but it should really be called “Pot Row.” Virtually all the pot clubs in Oakland are clustered in this neighborhood, and they’re not happy to see Estes join them.
If Estes wants to defy Jones, his new neighbors, the cops, and the entire city of Oakland, there’s not much anyone can do about it. Linda Maio was at a loss when it briefly looked like Estes had decided to stay in Berkeley; she ineffectually threatened to circulate a petition and prepare a nuisance complaint. As for, say, an undercover operation to catch Estes selling to customers without a valid doctor’s note, she never considered that option for a second, and police won’t say whether they did. If this the best local government can do, Estes is in the clear.
But medical marijuana’s era of raw capitalism may be coming to an end. State Senator John Vasconcellos has drafted a new bill regulating the industry, and now that it has the support of both the California District Attorneys’ Association and the California State Sheriffs’ Association, Governor Davis has indicated that he might sign it. The bill would establish a statewide registry of medical-marijuana patients and caregivers, who would receive a card certifying their medical status. Physicians would submit candidates for medical pot to the county Health Department, which would approve or reject applicants based on a review of the accuracy of the medical records. The state Department of Health Services would develop regulations that define how much pot dispensaries can grow and store, bypassing the many nebulous questions surrounding how pot clubs currently get their wholesale product. Although the bill’s primary intent is to protect patients facing reactionary and unjust arrests, the bill could have the secondary effect of regulating cultivators. This may explain why Californians for Compassionate Use, the organization that thought up Proposition 215, has joined the Committee on Moral Concerns in opposing the bill.
But get this: the registry system is strictly voluntary. Vasconcellos’ bill is more focused on reining in the police, and so it barely dwells on reining in medical-pot cultivators. The new cards offer absolute protection from scary Modoc County sheriffs, but in return both patients and caregivers must operate responsibly. For operators in progressive cities such as Berkeley and Oakland, who already can move in the light of day, there’s no incentive to sign onto the deal. And so, through a strange accident of history, marijuana seems likely to remain the least-regulated ingestible substance in California.
Of course, good old-fashioned drug laws may solve the Ken Estes problem for us. Assistant district attorney Phyllis Franks of Contra Costa County is preparing to try Estes on four felonies stemming from the Concord raids, and if convicted, he’ll be out of business.
This brings up the final legal question unresolved by Proposition 215: how do prosecutors determine whether someone is a legally sanctioned caregiver, or a drug dealer? The answer is there is no answer. District attorneys around the state have relied on counting pot plants; if you’ve got too many, you must be a dealer. How many plants is too many? No one knows. While a handful of cities such as Berkeley have capped the amount of pot cannabis clubs can have on hand, prosecutors more typically eyeball the plants and make a simple judgment call. That’s what they’ve done with Estes, but the system is hardly precise.
If Estes is convicted, he will pay a terrible price for this lack of precision; the charges carry a possible prison sentence of three years and eight months. But his complex reputation also could be laundered overnight. When Estes turned himself in, forty demonstrators accompanied him to the station, and his image — the martyr of medical marijuana, persecuted by vindictive prosecutors — was flashed across the nightly news throughout the Bay Area.
Stacey Trainor’s allegations aside, Ken Estes seems a kind, generous man, ready to take you into his company at a moment’s notice. But nothing out there can protect us from his tendency to trust the wrong people, of whom there are still plenty in the shadowy, twilight world of marijuana. Estes admits he’s made some mistakes, and vows to improve his operation. “We began something here, and we didn’t know where it would go,” he says. “I’ve made mistakes in retrospect, but we tried to work it out. Stacey and all that stuff was a big problem — I had no problems before that. I believe I know who’s behind this, the robberies. All this stuff that’s gone on has happened since Stacey went to the police, and the police believed her. They told me that many times women turn on their drug-dealing boyfriends, and this seems like a case of that. I wish I could have hired better people, but I can’t say that I would have done anything different. I really didn’t foresee the criminal element making its presence like it did. But I can only do so much.”
And should Estes revert to his old, seat-of-his-pants ways, we may have no choice but to put up with him.