The Cannabis Trail Blazer Series: An Inside Look at the Hope Dealers at Freedom Grow
Although Prop 215 was passed in California in 1996 setting the stage for the world’s first large-scale, highly successful medical marijuana market, in the early 2000’s it was still the wild west and entering the quasi legal grey market cannabis ‘industry’ was nothing more than a pipe dream for most.
Around that time, however, two passionate cannabis advocates were helping to blaze the trail for medical marijuana in California, and when their paths eventually crossed, sparks really began to fly.
Although she is not an actual M.D., Dr. Dina earned her nickname from her longtime friend, Snoop Dogg himself. You see, Dina was making moves in the West Hollywood weed game way back in 2001-02 and actually opened the first medical marijuana physician’s office in Southern California in a WeHo hotel lobby.
Business boomed and within three months she had a total of six offices up and running… but she had a problem. Every newly registered patient had the same question – where could they go to get their medical marijuana?
In those days, there was literally one MMJ dispensary in LA, and let’s just say it was not the most inviting place to visit. Dina saw the need for true safe access to cannabis in SoCal and, still in her first year in the industry, opened her first dispensary commonly referred to as “The Sunset Shop”, located on Sunset Strip just a puff away from iconic locations like The Whiskey, The Viper Room, and The Roxy.
The clientele at the highly popular Sunset Shop included some of the most famous celebrities and musicians in the business, but it was here on Sunset Boulevard that Dina would get to know one particular patient who would impact her life forever.
When the Compassionate Use Act passed in ’96, there were many Californian cannabis advocates that had already been bucking the law for decades by illegally cultivating the plant in a dangerous personal protest against the prohibition of pot.
A weed warrior since the 1960’s, Stephanie Landa never needed the government’s permission to do what she felt was right. However, she did quickly recognize the opportunities that presented themselves in the new legal medical marijuana market and applied her green thumb to the growing industry.
One day she walked in to one of Dina’s doctor’s offices to help a friend get their MMJ recommendation, and she walked out as a new vendor for the Sunset Shop. Before long, she and the late, great Mickey Martin were supplying nearly all of the top-shelf, fully branded products at the incredibly popular SoCal dispensary.
Life was good.
Then the call came that nobody wants to receive.
In 2002, Dina was notified that Stephanie’s Bay Area grow op had been raided by law enforcement officials from the city of San Francisco. At a time when cannabis was still a dangerous word to toss around, Landa had gone through the arduous process of gaining permission from the city for her grow but they raided her anyway and turned her case over to the Feds knowing that Prop 215 and local agreements would be a useless defense against the anti-cannabis United States government.
“We set up two blocks from the police station because they told us to stay close so that they could help us if we got robbed,” recalls Landa, “we didn’t know they’d be the ones robbing us.”
The ruling came quickly and the “sweet Jewish lady from the Valley” as Dina describes her was given an unforgiving five year prison term over a victimless crime involving a plant.
‘I was in shock,” says Dina, “I was terrified. To me, it was the closest it had ever come. I always thought it would never happen to me because I’m a sweet girl and I’m not out to hurt anyone but that was thrown out the window because Stephanie is the same as me.”
“That was my ‘wow’ moment like, holy shit, this is real”
Up until that point, Dina had always operated in as lawful a manner as the vague language of Prop 215 and SB 420 would allow. Before Stephanie’s raid, Dina didn’t know anyone who had been arrested or sent to prison, especially for weed.
As understandably naïve as she may have been about life behind bars, Dina did know that putting money on a prisoner’s books could not only help them obtain the basic necessities of life like soap, combs, toothbrushes, clean drinking water, palatable food, phone calls home, postage stamps, and dozens of other items that most of us take for granted, but could serve as a lifeline to the world outside to let them know that someone still cares and is thinking about them and their well-being.
Because her case was handled by the Feds, rather than the state, Landa was not eligible for parole until she had served at least 85% of her sentence… and she served it all.
Upon her release, adding injury to insult, Landa was diagnosed with cancer. But, unrepentant in her love for cannabis, she attacked the disease with proper doses of high potency cannabis oil and wiped it out completely. Today she is five years cancer free, the same amount of time she was locked up, and her drive to help others in similar situations has never been stronger.
A story of 2nd chances…
When Dina and Stephanie reconnected, Stephanie began to inform Dina about what her experience was like behind bars. For example, she was only allowed to purchase six bottles of water each week. A healthy diet would require her to drink several per day, but she wasn’t allowed to have enough for one per day.
She explained to Dina that she had started the Landa Prisoner Outreach Program that involved managing books (or money accounts) for prisoners, organizing letter writing campaigns, and other grassroots attempts to try to normalize life inside for these prisoners.
This effort was funded solely by donations.
One weekend, Dina was working in a booth at a High Times Cannabis Cup and she saw Stephanie walking around the event with a sign requesting donations for prisoners currently locked up for non-violent cannabis-related crimes.
Dina took a hundred dollar bill from her own wallet and put it in Landa’s jar.
At the end of the weekend, Dina saw a Facebook post from Stephanie saying that she had worked to raise $123 for cannabis prisoners at the High Times Cannabis Cup.
Dina knew that she had put in the lion’s share of that amount and asked Landa if she really struggled to get donations at the cash-flush festival. Landa admitted that virtually nobody at the event donated, and that $20 of the total was her own money.
This infuriated Dina, who knew firsthand how much money Southern California cannabis dispensaries were making in those days.
“This is wrong,” said Dina, “this is really wrong. We have all these people making money off this plant but we can’t give back to the ones that got taken?”
That day, Freedom Grow was born.
Let’s have a lemonade stand!
The two pioneers decided to create a 501c3 non-profit charity organization and rather than rely on the unpredictable generosity of the cannabis community, they relied on its easily predictable battle with cotton mouth. They opened lemonade and beverage stands at the top cannabis events and festivals up and down the state and pushed 100% of the proceeds back to the prisoners who needed them the most.
The funds go onto the prisoners’ commissary books to ease life on the inside as much as possible, but in particularly generous years Freedom Grow is able to donate to like minded organizations like the Parents 4 Pot Christmas Drive to help the families that have been torn apart by the war on weed by providing a bit of holiday joy.
Freedom Grow also proudly supports Can-Do Clemency, a vitally important organization that works tirelessly to help free non-violent drug offenders from unjust sentences.
Together these organizations, and others like them nationwide, truly provide a full circle of support for the cannabis prisoners who are otherwise being left behind by today’s legalization movement.
The most incredible feeling
“A lot of the people that we have advocated for in the past five years have gotten out,” says Dina.
“They’ve come by my dispensary. I’ve met them. I’ve hugged them,” she adds, “It’s the most incredible feeling to meet someone whose picture you’ve held on a sign.”
These days, Stephanie takes care of most of the administrative work involved with Freedom Grow. By handling it all between the two of them, the organization can direct all funds to the prisoners who need them and avoid the high overhead costs that bog down many well-meaning charities.
These two ladies have a resolve that is uncommon in legal cannabis,but when the weight of the world starts to wear them down, when the task before them seems too grand, they need only to look to the people that they are helping for inspiration.
“The government put me in prison for five years,” says Landa, “how could I possibly forget the people who are in jail now?”
One such prisoner is named Michael Pelletier.
Michael is serving life without parole because of cannabis.
He is also wheelchair bound, paralyzed from the waist down.
An avid painter, his only solace these days is in his art, and so the ladies at Freedom Grow do what they can to keep his palette, and spirits, bright.
For a full year, Pelletier worked on a large scale painting for his friends at Freedom Grow. The entire project was done in almost complete secrecy, as the cannabis leaves in the design would not have gone over well with the powers that be at the prison. Fortunately, he had one friendly guard who would allow Michael to work on his piece while he was on duty. Once it was complete, he was able to mail it to Dina.
That picture still hangs in Dina’s office and guides her to this day.
She told us, “All we’ve done is given this guy hope and that might be enough for him. That was something that was lost. So when I look at that picture, I just know I have to work that much harder.”
Dina’s days are mostly spent working at the most popular dispensary in Southern California – which she co-founded – at Alternative Herbal Health Services in West Hollywood, commonly referred to as AHHS WeHo with the ‘AHHS’ being pronounced like ‘Oz”.
Dina, who some say bears a striking resemblance to Dorothy, draws a clever analogy with the name in reference to the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.
“If a tornado picked up our dispensary from West Hollywood and dropped us off in Kansas, the Wicked Witch, or the DEA, would come get us and put us away for life. So the least we can do is try to help the people who were not as fortunate as us.”
People are still going to go to jail for pot
Aside from her noble efforts with Freedom Grow, Stephanie Landa has pretty much retired from the cannabis industry. Dina is still blazing the trail, and with two legal dispensaries and a third on the way, her operations are the epitome of legal and legit.
But even though the entire nation seems to be rushing toward some form of cannabis legalization, with regulation comes laws, and with laws come crimes, and we are already seeing the black market swell in the wake of California’s attempt to legalize the adult recreational use of cannabis.
It is far too easy for those new to the industry, or those with short memories, to forget how dangerous it was to be associated with the cannabis plant just a short time ago. In fact, in vast swaths of our country, it is still as dangerous as ever.
As for Prop 64 in California, voters were led to believe that if it passed it would provide legal relief for cannabis users and hopefully level the playing field of racial disparity in cannabis-related arrests.
Has it worked in that regard?
“On the street level, yes,” says Dina.
In other words, for the average end-user, things are safer under Prop 64. You can have a sealed tamper-proof package of cannabis buds on your passenger seat and get pulled over without legal repercussions.
But both Stephanie and Dina sadly agree that, in the long run, the tangled web of rules and regulations will lead to more weed-related incarceration on the supply side of the industry as old school growers, extractors, and dealers who feel left out by the astronomical entry fees required to be legal just keep doing business the same way they have for so many years.
We are already seeing this disparity in opportunity turn the industry against itself, as legal entities who are heavily invested in compliance feel undercut by tax-dodging free-wheeling black market competitors.
This only serves the prohibitionists and only puts more people in prison for a plant.
What am I doing in prison? Are you kidding me?
Stephanie and Dina have seen firsthand just how confusing and frustrating it can be for a cannabis prisoner when they see large corporations now moving into the industry that got them locked up.
As Stephanie points out, those with life sentences are placed in maximum security facilities where every day is about survival. Violence, lockdowns, and solitary confinement are daily realities for many non-violent weed warriors who want nothing more than to go home and get a second chance.
“Most people I talk to, first of all, don’t even believe that I went to jail,” says Landa, “and second they say that people don’t go to jail for pot.”
Freedom Grow has made it their mission to battle this misconception with education, and they need our help.
Will you take the POW challenge?
As more corporate cash flows into Cali’s legal cannabis market, these companies would do well to earn some respect from the grassroots by recognizing those who paved the way for this movement and who paid a price higher than any investor’s fees.
Organa Brands recently stepped up to do just that by naming Freedom Grow as the beneficiary of a local charity golf tournament. They have pledged to donate $20,000 to Freedom Grow, money that will help many pot prisoners to rediscover their own hope. But the fight never ends and your donations – of any size – are appreciated and needed.
At their website FreedomGrow.org you can learn more about this much needed campaign and how you can help. There is a DONATE button right on their homepage, and your donation is always totally tax-deductible.
By adopting a cannabis POW you let them know that the cannabis community cares, that we recognize their plight, and that we will continue to fight for them and their rights as cannabis continues to push into the mainstream.
Donate, and make a difference, today.
The Beard Bros. Pharms “Cannabis Trailblazer Series” is a multipart installment that will highlight some of the heroes that have laid the foundation for the cannabis movement as we now know it. If you know of a worthy candidate for a Trailblazer profile, send us more info to firstname.lastname@example.org