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.