OAKLAND — Even the novice medical cannabis grower can sprout perfect pot if those at iGrow selling the "big bud boxes" have it right. These new stainless steel containers will be on display at the new cannabis growing superstore in Oakland during a "Cannaland" party Monday.
"Basically, a person can roll the box into a garage or basement or backyard, hook up the water and electricity, and begin growing cannabis plants. They are entirely self-contained," said Dhar Mann, the 25-year-old owner of iGrow. "Each one comes with surveillance systems so you can remotely monitor your grow operation. It also creates less of a nuisance for neighbors, and they require little or no home modification."
Medical marijuana remains a violation of federal law, but such new technology and festivals could make it appear that the medical cannabis culture and industry are flourishing as though California's November initiative to legalize recreational adult use was already rolled up.
"(The festival) is more about the celebration of the plant and the culture," Mann said. "It's a great demonstration to see just how many people the plant brings together and how many businesses it inspires."
He touts the benefit of pot to alleviate pain, quell nausea in cancer patients, assist with sleep and alleviate anxiety.
"Even for some recreational users, it has indirect medical (benefits) that may or may not be obvious to them," Mann said. "But (the festival) is more to raise awareness about the plant rather than taking a stance on medical vs. recreational uses."
At 4:20 p.m. Monday, the eve of the "420" counterculture holiday, more than 50 vendors will be outside the store selling everything from T-shirts to bongs. There will be a costume contest, entertainment, food and likely some smoke in the air. Those with a doctor's recommendation card can consume on the premises Monday night, but cards will be checked, iGrow officials said.
Under a City Council resolution, Oakland limits patients to 72 indoor plants with up to 32 square feet of canopy, or up to 20 outdoor plants at any stage of development, and as much as 3 pounds of dried marijuana.
But that could all change.
The state's "Tax Cannabis Act" is on the November ballot. If approved, California would become the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults. The measure would also give local governments the authority to regulate and tax pot sales.
IGrow officials say a big draw for the big bud boxes is the opportunity to alleviate grow-room fires, which are increasingly common in Oakland.
"There are fires. People rent houses without letting the landlord know what they are doing, and then they start their grow," said Tom Del Sol, co-founder of GrowOp Technologies. "And the neighbors would determine that there was something going on, and there can be problems."
In late December, a fire at a former fortune cookie factory in downtown Oakland led to the discovery of at least 1,000 marijuana plants worth about $500,000, police said. Authorities said the small fire was sparked by an electrical malfunction in the 7,000-square-foot building that had not been a working fortune cookie factory, bakery or retail outlet for at least a year.
Last October, an overloaded electrical box sparked a small fire at a West Oakland commercial building where hundreds of pot plants were flourishing under grow lights. There are many other examples of similar fires in Oakland and other cities.
Oakland police don't know the exact number of grow operations in the city. But they get the attention of police and firefighters only when there is a crime or a fire, police spokesman Officer Jeff Thomason said. Police said there are indoor marijuana growing operations of varying sizes — from a few small plants to thousands of flourishing ones — across the city.
Another big draw for the boxes is that just about anyone can grow medical marijuana — or anything, for that matter — inside the containers, Mann and Del Sol said.
"With this, you don't need to know anything," Del Sol said. "We've got the support of the Grow Squad (workers at iGrow trained in growing marijuana) and UniCan."
A portion of the iGrow warehouse at 70 Hegenberger Loop is sectioned off for the 25 online classes offered by the University of Cannabis, or UniCan, also recently launched and run by Mann. Courses cover everything from the "Global History of Hemp" to "Sharpening Your Green Thumb" to "The Brain, the Body & the Bud." Classes, which run from $40 to $60, may be taken at iGrow or on one's own computer.
Even with events such as Cannaland and other similar festivals held worldwide, there is no federal support to legalize pot.
Last year, the Obama administration relaxed its prosecution guidelines for medical cannabis but President Barack Obama's drug czar has said the White House strongly opposes any efforts to legalize marijuana.
"Marijuana legalization, for any purpose, remains a nonstarter in the Obama administration," Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said last year. "It is not something that the president and I discuss. It isn't even on the agenda."
Locally, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman declined to comment on whether agents would monitor upcoming cannabis festivals.
"We don't discuss our enforcement operations," spokeswoman Casey McEnry said. "We target the large-scale distributors, traffickers and cultivators. That is our mission. That is what we do at the DEA."
While the anti-medical marijuana crusaders have long complained that just about anyone with a sore neck can get a doctor's recommendation for a medical marijuana card, iGrow employees said they won't discuss growing medical cannabis unless someone has a valid California identification and a medical recommendation or patient identification card, General Manager Justin Jorgensen said.
"I think there are different severities in conditions that people use cannabis for," Mann said. "They use it for more serious things such as cancer and glaucoma, even down to anxiety and sleep deprivation. And even for its nonmedical use, it's still a safer alternative than alcohol."
Indigo Moonstar, of San Francisco, said he considers himself a "top-ranked amateur" at growing cannabis. He recently put a deposit down on the 12-foot-long container, which he plans to put on a friend's property in Santa Cruz. In that city, he said, each person with a medical marijuana card can keep a 100-square-foot area for growing medical cannabis, he said.
When the unit is complete in six to eight weeks, Moonstar said he'll pay $9,000 for it. He believes it will pay off.
"There's definitely a higher return on the investment in growing cannabis," he said. The unit will help him monitor pH levels and help with pest control, he added.
The iGrow containers also could be used by medical marijuana dispensaries. Oakland has four medical cannabis clubs, the maximum allowed in the city. The city is, however, in the process of trying to revoke the permit of one dispensary.
"A dispensary can take one of these and drop it in their parking lot and start growing certified, safe and organic medicine for their patients," Del Sol said.
Not all of the three dozen people who have put down deposits on the units are planning to use them to grow pot. Derrick Sowden, owner of two Bella Cucina restaurants in Orange County, is going to purchase the long-haul truck model to grow tomatoes and other fresh produce for his restaurants.
"I've grown organically all my life, and I thought it was a good medium to have control over the products we are serving to our guests," he said.
The self-contained growing units come with lights, water systems, motion sensors, alarms and fire sprinklers. They range from 12 feet long to a 53-foot, refrigerated 18-wheeler that was retired because of a sluggish trucking industry, Del Sol said. Prices range from $9,000 to $60,000.
"It's a turnkey system," Del Sol said. "You plug in electricity and hook up the water, and everything is in place to start growing."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
70 Hegenberger Loop, Oakland