Mike Rubin lives on borrowed time. The 40-year-old northeast Pennsylvanian native was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2010. In 2011, Rubin endured four months of brutal chemotherapy, only to have the tumors in his neck and shoulders return three months later.
His doctors recommended another round of chemo, this time combined with radiation. But Rubin had other ideas. The first round of chemo had ravaged his body and mind. After researching all of his options on the internet, he rejected sound mainstream medical advice and elected to treat his cancer with cannabis.
“They thought I was being an idiot,” he told me last week, sitting in the small living room in the modest south Redding rental he shares with his wife. “I thought I was doing the right thing.”
Against his family’s wishes, Rubin headed west, followed shortly by his wife, first to Colorado, then to Oregon, states that had legalized medical marijuana in the previous decade.
Within months he realized he was going to have to grow his own cannabis to cut down on the cost of treatment. Colorado was too expensive, Oregon had too many regulations. In July, 2012, he and his wife settled in south Redding, where, at the time, the outdoor cultivation of medical cannabis was legal for qualified patients.
Rubin suffered through the trials and errors faced by all beginning growers, as well as the north valley’s insufferably hot summers and the inevitable russet mites. But the former landscaper has a knack for gardening, and was soon producing enough outdoor cannabis to supply his annual medical needs.
As far as Rubin is concerned, he made the right decision switching to cannabis. Seven years ago, the last mainstream doctor who examined him said he’d be dead within five years if he didn’t seek conventional treatment. Yet here is, still hanging on.
But any progress Rubin may have been making was seriously thwarted last May, when the city of Redding implemented a total ban on all outdoor cannabis cultivation — recreational or medical — within city limits. Rubin says he frantically called city council members, city staff, anyone who could tell him if the ban truly applied to medical marijuana patients. He got only one call-back and no solid answer.
So, like many outdoor growers in Redding last year, medical and recreational, Rubin took a chance and planted his crop despite the ban. The Carr Fire rained ash on their south Redding neighborhood for days, but they escaped any serious damage. In early October, Ruben was looking forward to a successful harvest in several weeks’ time.
That’s when city of Redding Code Enforcement supervisor Steve Willkomm arrived unannounced at the back of Rubin’s property and began taking photographs of his backyard.
Rubin approached Willkomm and asked him what he was doing. He says the code enforcement officer asked him how many plants he had going. “You can talk to the lawyer,” bluffed Rubin, who didn’t have an attorney at the time, before he reluctantly invited Willkomm onto his property.
As Willkomm photographed his garden, which included nine mature plants and 31 small seedlings in 1-gallon pots, Rubin explained he was a cancer patient, that he’s been growing his own medicine and treating himself right here in south Redding, legally, since 2012.
Rubin says Willkomm claimed he’d never met an actual, honest-to-god medical marijuana patient before and seemed sympathetic to his plight. According to Rubin, the code enforcement officer agreed to give him two weeks to eradicate his crop—enough time to finish it off—and promised him he wouldn’t be cited as long as he followed through. As Willkomm left the property, they shook hands on it.
But several weeks later, after Rubin had harvested all his plants, Willkomm sang a different tune. Rubin says that after calling to say he was on the way over for a “friendly visit,” the code enforcement officer came to his house and issued him a $40,000 citation.
Rubin objected to no avail.
“All he kept saying was, ‘I never said I wouldn’t cite you. This is what the people voted for. This is what the people voted for.’ ”
When city of Redding Code Enforcement supervisor Steve Willkomm returned my phone calls and email, he mostly confirmed Mike Rubin’s account of their encounter.
He also contradicted himself on two key points: Whether or not he gave Rubin the opportunity to eradicate his crop immediately and avoid a stiff financial penalty, and whether such an opportunity to comply exists.
In his email, Willkomm wrote, “We generally do not cite everyday, because most persons agree to cooperate and abate the outdoor grow.”
That seems to imply that cooperative citizens are given a chance to abate their grows and avoid a heavy fine, but both Rubin and Willkomm confirmed that offer was never made. Rubin wasn’t being uncooperative, he just asked for two extra weeks to finish his crop. Willkomm might have said no. He didn’t.
“I was never given a chance to comply,” Rubin says.
Yet when I talked to Willkomm on the phone, he told me, “There’s no chance to comply. Anybody growing outdoors will be cited.”
The city of Redding Cannabis FAQ says violators can be fined “up to $1000 per plant/violation.” I asked Willkomm if that “up to” means code enforcement has discretion when setting fine amounts. He noted the fine was previously $100 per plant and then contradicted himself again.
“We have the discretion,” he said. “Everybody that is found moving forward will be fined $1000 per plant. We’re sending a strong message that outdoor cultivation is not allowed and we don’t put up with it. It’s offensive.”
In his email, Willkomm said Code Enforcement cited 34 citizens for outdoor cultivation last year, with fines ranging from $1000 to $46,000. He also said no one complained about Rubin’s grow to code enforcement; he just happened to see it as he was driving by. That’s why he stopped.
On the phone, Willkomm confirmed that he told Rubin he could have been fined $40,000 per day. The total fine would have been $840,000, nearly $1 million.
Rubin said the code enforcement officer wished him well as he left.
Welcome to the New Prohibition
If you thought draconian punishments for cultivating marijuana disappeared with the passage of Prop. 64 in 2016, think again. While the Adult Use of Marijuana Act permits anyone over the age of 21 to grow up to six plants, it also grants counties and municipalities the power to “reasonably regulate” personal outdoor and indoor cultivation.
Although Prop. 64 passed with 57 percent of the vote, a significant portion of California’s medical marijuana community opposed it because they predicted many counties and cities would act quickly to ban outdoor and indoor cultivation under the guise of “reasonable regulation.”
As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened, according to a three-part data-driven series published last year by the Orange County Register.
“Under Prop. 64, cities can ban all outdoor marijuana gardens,” the Register reported. “And our records show that nearly three-quarters of California cities have done so, with 354 out of 482 cities limiting home marijuana grows to inside the house or to an enclosed structure in the yard.”
Make that 355 now that Redding’s joined the outdoor ban club, and like many of those cities, Redding has also placed significant restrictions on indoor cultivation, including ventilation and lighting requirements, building permits and a yet-to-be-determined license fee.
There are essentially two forces driving the bans: fear and greed.
On the one hand, after 80 years of government-sponsored anti-marijuana propaganda, many local officials as well as ordinary citizens remain concerned about public safety should the demon weed be completely unleashed.
On the other, large-scale marijuana businesses and local governments worry they can’t maximize profits and tax revenues if California’s enormous black market isn’t stamped out, and, god forbid, ordinary citizens can grow their own marijuana.
That’s why Redding implemented its outdoor ban and indoor restrictions at the same time it opened the door for a limited number of cannabis retailers and other marijuana-related businesses. If protecting public safety and maximizing profits and tax revenue means trampling on the rights of legitimate medical marijuana patients like Mike Rubin, so be it.
Sitting in a plastic lawn chair in his living room, the soft-spoken Rubin does indeed look trampled upon. The tumors in his neck and shoulders are plainly visible above the low collar of his t-shirt. He claims the elongated lumps are in a reduced state now thanks to cannabis.
“When they get bad, they swell up like a ring of meat around my neck,” he says. “I look like a hunchback.”
Like many medical marijuana patients, Rubin is deeply immersed in the existing medical research on cannabis, most of which takes place outside the United States, since cannabis remains a controlled substance under federal law. He has closely followed the pioneering work of Israeli cannabis researcher Dr. Dedi Meiri and the Czech Republic’s Dr. Ethan Russo.
After seven years of experimenting on himself, Rubin has discovered his Hodgkin’s lymphoma responds best to cannabis strains high in THC. But narrowing down the exact strain that works best has been a chore. The 30 small seedlings he was cited for were his attempt to “shogun it on the strains,” in order to create new hybrids through cross-pollination and save the seeds for next season.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “It correlates directly to what I’m pulling out of the garden.”
After harvest, he converts some of his buds into cannabis oil using the ethanol cold extraction method. He then either smokes the thick, sticky oil with a dab rig or loads it into gelatin capsules to swallow. He also juices raw buds. He figures he consumes about 2 grams of high-THC cannabis per day.
“I can actually feel it in my tumors, you can pretty much see it,” he said. “These big tumors stretched all around my neck. My biggest reduction [in tumor size] is from the raw cannabis fruit smoothies with whole bud.”
He’s realistic about the limits of cannabis. It hasn’t made his tumors disappear, but it has shrunk them down to a more manageable size. It also alleviates some of the symptoms that accompany Hodgkin’s lymphoma such as chronic fatigue and lack of appetite. The former 200-pounder’s weight has stabilized at 150 pounds.
“It’s been a very scary thing,” he says. “I could be doing something stupid, or I could be doing the right thing. You can’t really say cannabis cures cancer.”
Now, with Redding’s outdoor ban, Rubin faces another frightening prospect. His rental home doesn’t have space for an indoor grow, and even if it did, he couldn’t afford the cost for permits. He’s on permanent disability and his wife works full-time. They live comfortably, but are by no means rich.
Rubin estimates purchasing the amount of quality cannabis he needs at one of the three marijuana dispensaries currently operating in Shasta County, including the recently opened Synergy in Redding, would cost $30 to $60 per day.
“I can’t see keeping that up for more than a month,” Rubin says. “After a month, I’d have all my valuables sold and I’d be in the street.”
That leaves Rubin with no options when his present supply of cannabis runs dry. He still recoils when recalling his experience with mainstream medical treatment.
“Steve Willkomm is going to force me back into chemotherapy and radiation,” he says grimly.
The Trickle-Down Legal System
Rubin and his wife were at first stunned by the $40,000 citation they received from the city of Redding, an almost inconceivable amount to pay given their means.
Then they sprang into action, scraping together as much money has they could, draining their savings accounts. They came up with $5,000, and hired Redding criminal defense attorney Keith Cope three days after receiving the citation.
When I called Cope, the first thing he told me was that he would have advised Rubin not to go public with his case, if his client had asked him, which he didn’t. Given that Rubin is going public, the longtime local attorney agreed to talk in general about the case.
Cope began by noting the American Medical Association, which opposed medical marijuana as late as 2007, now fully endorses medical research on cannabis and its removal from Schedule 1 on the Controlled Substance Act. Redding was once going along with the same flow.
“Redding had been among the most progressive cities at dealing with cannabis,” Cope said. “Twenty dispensaries in Redding once functioned well for the right group of people. But in 2011, Redding changed course, and became very cautious about implementing laws.”
Through defending medical marijuana clients, he’s learned from experts about both the “sheer propaganda” promulgated against cannabis by the federal government and it’s medicinal potential. Cope said he owns stock in a number of pharmaceutical ventures exploring medicinal cannabis.
“I don’t use the stuff,” he said. “But that hasn’t prevented me from seeing its value to my clients and their families.”
Cope said the city of Redding’s $1,000-per-plant fine is excessive, let alone $1,000 per plant per day. It may also be unconstitutional. In a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year, Timbs vs. Indiana, all nine justices found that the Eight Amendment’s excessive fines clause extends to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.
In other words, California’s counties and municipalities can’t charge excessive fines for participating in an activity the state has declared legal and call it “reasonable regulation.”
The city of Fontana found that out last year, when a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of a medical marijuana patient ended with the judge ordering the city to revise its overly restrictive indoor cultivation regulations.
But justice doesn’t move swiftly. It sort of trickles down.
“It hasn’t filtered down to local municipalities like Redding,” Cope said, speaking about the Timbs vs. Indiana decision. “They have yet to get a grip on that case and what it means at the local level.”
When justice does finally trickle down, Cope is confident Rubin will be fairly treated. Eventually, an administrative hearing will be held to determine just how much the cancer patient will be fined, if at all.
“When that happens, we’ll have a really good result, I hope,” he said.
Meanwhile, once a month, Rubin gets a $40,000 bill from the city of Redding. Every two months, it goes up 1.5 percent. He’s growing impatient, and wants the ordeal to end.
“I moved across the country to Redding specifically to do this,” he said. “I want people to be able to grow six plants. When you have someone with cancer, it should be very easy to differentiate. I just want to be left alone with six plants.”