Cannabis Deserts

Vermont Legalization Cannabis Now Magazine

Even in states that are home to some of the best cannabis on Earth, access to medicine can be a challenging dilemma.


Many people think of California as a veritable utopia for cannabis aficionados and in many ways they’re right. The Golden State is home to some of the finest cannabis genetics in the world and remains a mecca for the best and brightest minds in the industry. While people in prohibition states are waiting by the phone and hoping their shady dealer brings the same stuff as last time, they imagine Californians are at the candy shop, holding up a line out the door, vacillating between whether to purchase the Mango Kush, Cake Badder wax and medicated cherry chocolates or the Cherry Chocolate Kush, Mango wax and medicated cake.

Like many regional stereotypes, there are a few kernels of truth to the notion that Californians are spoiled by easy access to quality medicine, but the whole truth is a bit more complicated and a lot less pleasant.

California pioneered the legal application of medical cannabis in 1996 with Proposition 215 – the first law of its kind in the United States. While the industry has undergone expansions and faced challenges in the ensuing two decades or so, the intention of voters was clear: people living in California should be free to use cannabis as a remedy for any ailment it alleviates. Yet, local jurisdictions have massive leeway when it comes to restricting the sale and cultivation of cannabis. And it’s not merely a West Coast phenomenon – states like Massachusetts, Michigan and a host of others deal with this issue as well.

 Cannabis Deserts

Melanie, 40, is a high school teacher who relies on cannabis to manage her crippling anxiety. About seven years ago, she discovered that using cannabis – particularly indica dominant strains – provided her with massive relief, making her life possible without pharmaceuticals.

“Untreated, my anxiety gets to the point that I can’t even leave the house,” she says. “It makes it impossible to sleep and when I get no sleep, I can’t do my job the next day. It’s absolutely debilitating.”

But, where Melanie lives in the town of Pacifica – a small coastal community south of San Francisco – there are currently no cannabis dispensaries.

Pacifica is located in a part of the county that has been historically resistant to Proposition 215 and the attendant cultivation and sale of cannabis. In fact, many cities in the county have outright bans on dispensaries. Similar to people who live in “food deserts” across our nation – areas which the U.S. Department of Agriculture describes as devoid of “fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas” largely due to a lack of grocery stores – residents in these regions are deprived of helpful medicine.

While the town of Pacifica itself has no specific laws governing dispensaries, it still has yet to license even one storefront to date – making them de facto illegal. States like Massachusetts are receiving similar crossed signals and mixed messages about patient access and the law. While 63 percent of Bay State voters approved a medical marijuana program last year, which called for up to 35 dispensaries, so far only 15 have been approved and just two are actually open for business. This has left the state’s entire patient population relying on two providers (and of course the black market) for their medicine.

Delivery Assistance

For patients in counties with uneven laws, delivery is really the only legal option. Generally speaking, the drill is the same wherever you order from – similar to ordering pizza for delivery. You get your patient info verified, check out a menu on an app or website, place an order by phone or online and wait for your items to arrive. And, like many aspects of the cannabis industry, big business is already in the process of stepping into the cannabis delivery game. Delivery services like Eaze, billed as the “Uber for pot,” garnered media attention in 2015 after receiving funding from a capital investment firm affiliated with Snoop Dogg.

Melanie says even with delivery options, there’s still the matter of price and location – obstacles that previously hindered her access.

“Some of [the delivery services] had decent medicine, but it was a hassle to get delivery to Pacifica. They’d want to tack on a 4 percent charge for delivery or there would be a $250 minimum or something,” she says. “The worst were the ones that made me order 24-48 hours in advance. When I’m having a bad day, I can’t wait two days for relief. This is about my quality of life and my ability to do my work.”

Then, about seven months ago, Melanie discovered Emerald Phog (EP), a Pacifica-based collective and delivery service. From that point on, access was no longer an issue for her. Now, she says all it takes is a call to Emerald Phog’s co-founder Joe Kerr and she has the medicine she needs in as little as 20 minutes.

“The longest I’ve ever had to wait was an hour,” she says.

Removing Obstacles

Kerr’s eyes smile through his fashion-forward rectangular prescription frames. His polished professionalism is undeniable, but he harbors the mischievous grin of an overgrown teenager, totally stoked at all times to be legally growing and selling cannabis for a living. But, it wasn’t always smiles for Kerr, who once owned three art galleries on Bourbon Street in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina washed away a lifetime of hopes and dreams.

“After all that, I kind of lost it for a while,” he says. “I was taking pharmaceutical antidepressants and everything and it wasn’t helping much. A doctor friend of mine told me that cannabis might help, so I tried it and it worked.”

Kerr started Emerald Phog with his partner, master grower Ron Antonelli, a tall, athletic man with chiseled, angular features and a quiet intensity.

“I pretty much started growing before I started smoking,” he says in a mellow deadpan. “I had a buddy of mine give me a little grow box as collateral on a car, but he never made good on the agreement, so I kept it and started growing. Turns out I’m pretty good at it.”

Touring EP’s grow space, Antonelli unzips a tent enclosing his plants and it’s evident that “pretty good” is a distinct understatement. Inside, a gorgeous array of budding Black Ice colas sprawl upward towards the electric lights, their fan leaves sprawling up and out with the unmistakable vigor of a thriving plant. All of Antonelli’s plants benefit from his “all organic, no chemical anything” approach, which he says largely consists of letting the plants do their thing without interfering.

There’s absolutely not a “hands off” approach to the specialized care each of EP’s patients get from the always helpful Kerr. During the interview, he fields two or three phone calls from patients – clearly devoted to helping his patients access needed medicine – and sets up deliveries for later in the day, which he and Ron mostly handle themselves.

Melanie says she is deeply thankful for the quality care and personal attention she gets from Emerald Phog and hopes they won’t be forced to stay delivery-only forever. Kerr and Antonelli say they are in the process of lobbying Pacifica officials for a permit to open a storefront, reasoning that many patients in the area like Melanie would benefit from better access.

“I teach at a school in a city that has dispensaries, but I worry about running into my kids coming out of one,” she says. “And honestly, I shouldn’t have to leave home. I love it here in Pacifica – everything about it. I just wish the city would remove the obstacles between me and the medicine I need to live a productive, happy life. It’s the only thing missing out here.”

Originally published in Issue 18 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE

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Greg Zeman is the Associate Editor of Cannabis Now Magazine. His previous editorial credits include Staff Writer at a national political news site (Politix), Editor-In-Chief of a bilingual San Francisco newspaper (El Tecolote) and Founding Editor of an investigative journalism non-profit (Bay News Movement). His writing has been featured in SF Weekly, SF Evergreen, 3200 Stories, Offbeat and elsewhere. He wakes up at 4:19 but doesn't leave the house until eleven past seven.

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