Lots of pot paraphernalia, activism on display at HempCon 2010

Actor-comedian Cheech Marin joins Cheryl Shuman, executive director of NORML90210, the Beverly Hills chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, at a news conference for HemCon at the Los Angeles Convention Center Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010.
Actor-comedian Cheech Marin joins Cheryl Shuman, executive director of NORML90210, the Beverly Hills chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, at a news conference for HemCon at the Los Angeles Convention Center Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010. AP Photo

It is only a matter of time before marijuana is legalized in the state of California. That is what the hundreds gathered Sunday at the Los Angeles Convention Center for HempCon 2010 heard from one of the event's speakers.

James P. Gray, a retired Orange County Superior Court judge, said that there are two compelling reasons why people's opinions about marijuana legalization are changing -- money and violence.

Gray cited a California State Board of Equalization official's estimate that the licensing and sale of marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol could generate around $1.3 billion for the cash-strapped state.

And as the violence that is plaguing Mexico starts creeping north, people will tire of the crime and seek an end to the war on drugs.

"I guarantee you that two years after we pass (legalization) we will lock arms together and be astounded that we could perpetuate such a failed system for so long," he said. "It will become so obvious to us that not only should we have done this in November, but 20 or 30 years ago."


West Hollywood and Oakland are examples of cities where elected officials, law enforcement and dispensary operators work together to provide patients with safe access to medical marijuana, Gray said.

Gray was one of a series of speakers and panelists that spoke about a wide array of marijuana-related issues at HempCon 2010. A spokesman for Mega Productions, which promoted the "Medical Marijuana Show," said that over 50,000 people were expected to attend the three-day event, which ended Sunday.

Around 100 booths that sold every imaginable type of pot paraphernalia, as well as tattoos and piercings, filled the crowded, yet smoke-free, showroom.

A business consultant who was offering his services at the event fielded a steady stream of questions from people asking him about the paperwork and legalities involved with opening a dispensary.

The tax accountant, who asked not to be identified, said that while the current atmosphere in L.A. makes it difficult to open a dispensary, "it is not impossible. Not if they come to me."

After California voters approved Proposition 215, also known as the Safe and Compassionate Use Act of 1996, people with a doctor's recommendation were legally allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes. The legislation also allowed dispensaries to open to provide patients with safe access to marijuana.

Currently, Los Angeles is forcing hundreds of the city's dispensaries to close after the Los Angeles City Council passed a law on Jan. 26 that put a citywide cap at 70 dispensaries.

The business consultant said that 90 percent of the dispensaries in L.A. will be operating without a license come March 14.

A burning desire to open a dispensary is what drove David to HempCon.

The 51-year-old college educated Vietnam veteran, who only gave his first name, said he was looking for a professional to help him wade through all the bureaucracy that is involved with opening a dispensary.

"I used to grow back in the day when having one plant was a felony," David said.

He said that the cultivation collective he was part of during the 70s called it quits after they attracted the attention of federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents. With his children now grown adults, the fear of gun-toting DEA agents traumatizing his children has subsided, so he now plans on getting back into cultivating marijuana.

"I'm a rebel," David said. "I'm not discouraged by all the (horror) stories I hear."

Steele Smith has one such horror story.

The Orange County resident is currently under indictment for marijuana cultivation. His case is being tried in federal court and is the first of its kind in the nation that is being allowed to use the medical marijuana argument as a defense, he said.

Federal statutes hold that marijuana is illegal to possess or grow in any amount and therefore trumps any state law that sanctions pot for medical use. Therefore, prosecutors will often portray caregivers as "drug dealers" at trials, Steele said.

"Our judge felt that wasn't right, that the jury needs to know that we are caregivers operating under California law, providing medication legally under a corporate structure," Smith said.

Smith credits the judge's decision to the fact that the collective he is a part of has its corporate structure in place.

"Many say that they have (a corporate structure), but few can prove it," he said.

Smith said he has spent $80,000 on legal fees to date. He was arrested in May 2007 and indicted that following November.

"I expect (my case) to either be dismissed or I expect to win," he said.

Smith said events such as HempCon raise awareness and allow vendors to share their goods.

"I think this is a good thing," he said.

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