MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In the years since California legalized medical marijuana, Californians have largely relied on storefront dispensaries to get their product. As we've reported this week in our series about the changing nature of marijuana use, a backlash is now under way. A new ordinance in Los Angeles means hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries must close or risk criminal charges. And other cities and towns in California have banned dispensaries altogether.
But all of this has accelerated another trend: businesses that offer to deliver pot directly to homes and workplaces. Michael Montgomery reports.
MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: At a one-room packaging facility east of San Francisco, a worker in latex gloves pulls four brilliant green pot buds from a vacuum-sealed bag. She delicately places them on a small scale as her boss looks on.
He's a local real estate developer who publicly uses the assumed name of Matthew Lawrence for his marijuana business.
Mr. MATTHEW LAWRENCE (Real Estate Developer; Marijuana Deliverer): This is Elvis as it's known so it's a - I believe this is lemon haze, and she's weighing out these eighths right now and putting them into the containers and labeling them.
MONTGOMERY: Lawrence says the different marijuana strains will be shipped to customers around the state in unmarked packages.
Mr. LAWRENCE: Any order that's placed by 1:00 p.m. gets there by midday the next day.
MONTGOMERY: This might seem like an illegal drug den, but it's really part of a growing trend in California: medical marijuana delivered to your door. And no one has gone as far as Lawrence in trying to build a legal statewide delivery network. Lawrence says his company - named c420 - has signed up a thousand patients since April. Some are seriously ill. Others are what he calls the suits.
Mr. LAWRENCE: They have families, they see each other on the baseball field, and they really don't want to be seen going into a dispensary just because they get migraines and they like to smoke a little marijuana once in a while in order to alleviate that condition, or whatever their condition might be.
MONTGOMERY: We found hundreds of marijuana delivery services now advertising on websites like Budtrader and Weedmaps. And not just in California. Allen St. Pierre is with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, an advocacy group. He says in many states delivery services are a growing alternative to brick-and-mortar storefronts.
Mr. ALLEN ST. PIERRE (Executive Director, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws): As these Main Street dispensaries raise the ire of law enforcement, local politicians, delivering patient-to-patient or business-to-patient would appear to be the trend that is emerging around United States.
MONTGOMERY: Driving the trend in California is a growing abundance of medical marijuana and a lack of statewide regulations covering how it can be legally distributed. So it's not surprising that many new delivery services are flourishing in places that have cracked down on storefront dispensaries, like Los Angeles.
Mr. DANN HALEM (Founder, Artists Collective): Right now, we're going to a patient's home, and I'm going through my Garmin GPS to find the best, most fuel-efficient way there.
MONTGOMERY: Each week, Dann Halem logs hundreds of miles on L.A. freeways to fill phone and Internet orders. Halem says he founded the nonprofit Artists Collective delivery service when he saw how dispensaries were underserving seriously ill patients.
Mr. HALEM: The people who medical marijuana is truly meant for are not well enough to go into a store to get it in many cases. So it's absolutely critical for there to be delivery services in some way, shape or form.
MONTGOMERY: Halem says most of his patients aren't on death's door, and the reality is that just about any adult in California can get a doctor's recommendation for medical pot, or, for that matter, go into the delivery business.
Mr. HALEM: To start a delivery service, whether your intentions are good or bad, you need a car, a cell phone and marijuana. That's not the way that we operate, but I'd say the majority of delivery services at this point essentially are just that. And they really are in a lot of respects glorified drug dealers, because there's no oversight, there's no accreditation, there's nothing.
MONTGOMERY: In fact, for some underground dealers, starting a medical marijuana delivery service is a way to come out of the shadows.
We met up with one former pot dealer who decided to do just that.
Unidentified Woman: I can show you that and you can just relax outside.
MONTGOMERY: On a recent afternoon at her home in an upscale section of Los Angeles, guests nibbled on a buffet of fruit, bagels and pastries while others crowded into a backyard studio.
Unidentified Woman: This is more indica. These are more sativa. These are joints rolled. These are bongs.
MONTGOMERY: The woman agreed to show us her operation provided we not reveal her name or where she works in Los Angeles. To comply with state law, she formed a nonprofit patients' collective last year. Then she started throwing parties like this one to transform her former customers into medical pot patients.
She had a physician on hand to evaluate the guests and then sign off on recommendations for medical marijuana - all for a hundred bucks each.
How much of this is legal is debatable. Advocates argue that laws enacted after California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996 cover transportation and distribution of medical pot, though not across state lines. But Joseph Esposito of the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office says state law doesn't sanction large-scale distribution.
Mr. JOSEPH ESPOSITO (Deputy District Attorney, Los Angeles District Attorney's Office): I don't see anything that suggests that when the voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, they envisioned storefronts, delivery services.
MONTGOMERY: Some longtime medical marijuana advocates worry that a legal free-for-all in delivery services is allowing unsavory elements to enter the trade.
Ms. LYNETTE SHAW (Director, Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana): We've had a lot of problems with - I call it the weirdo or the wing-nut crowd, who just look at this as a money-making operation.
MONTGOMERY: Lynette Shaw founded one of the state's oldest medical marijuana dispensaries in the Marin County town of Fairfax. The town tightly controls Shaw's operations, but those rules don't cover delivery services based outside the area.
Shaw says some of those services are trying to muscle in on her business, so she's asking local authorities to allow her storefront to make home deliveries in order to compete.
Ms. SHAW: I want to make sure my patients are safe, and when you call someone to your home that you have someone whose background is researched, that is insured, licensed, regulated.
MONTGOMERY: That's one reason Dann Halem of the Artists Collective in Los Angeles wants city officials to regulate the delivery trade.
Mr. HALEM: We would welcome oversight because we know that we qualify, and we have nothing to be afraid of.
MONTGOMERY: But at this point, Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine says the city's new medical marijuana regulations don't address delivery services.
Councilman DENNIS ZINE (Los Angeles City Council): This was never a factor in our debates.
MONTGOMERY: Zine says the move to restrict dispensaries was driven by complaints from community groups and law enforcement. And so far, there haven't been many complaints about delivery services.
Councilman ZINE: Who's going to complain? The person who's receiving is not going to complain. The person who's delivering is not going to complain. The neighbor is not going to complain because they don't know what's going on.
MONTGOMERY: That could be changing. This week at least one L.A. city councilman called for emergency action against marijuana delivery services. A decision by the council is pending.
For NPR News, I'm Michael Montgomery.
SIEGEL: Our story was produced as part of a collaboration between member station KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.