Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Former smugglers now legit at medical pot convention

LOS ANGELES â€" Three decades ago, Bruce Perlowin was smuggling
hundreds of thousands of pounds of Colombian marijuana to California in
fishing boats passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. His childhood
friend, David Tobias, was trafficking dope across turquoise Caribbean
waters to Florida and Georgia.

On Saturday, at a Los Angeles medical marijuana trade show teeming with
entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on California's legal pot market, the
two chums were reunited as business consultants marketing "solutions for
an emerging industry."

Their Medical Marijuana Inc. booth is one of scores of competing
exhibits at Hemp Con 2010, a three-day event promoters say will draw
30,000 visitors to the Los Angeles Convention Center this weekend. The
once unfathomable expo signals the reach of California's fast-budding
cannabis economy and the intense lure of both pot seekers and
entrepreneurial dreamers to get a toke of the action.

Inside the 70,000-square-foot exhibit space Saturday, an Azusa sheet
metal worker and his cousin, a former cultivator, were marketing $35,000
to $105,000 Tow and Grow trailers for growing medicinal weed.

A Santa Ana leasing agent was pitching retail space for marijuana
dispensaries in a glistening new building. A retired Los Angeles lawyer
was marketing a home delivery company for medical cannabis users. A
communications specialist was selling a telephone service that gives
driving directions to get any marijuana patient, anywhere in California,
to the closest pot store.

"Thousands of jobs are being created in this industry overnight,"
exulted one convention speaker, Michael Lerner, publisher of the Kush
pot magazine in Southern California and operator of dailybuds.com, a
site billed as "the Facebook for medical marijuana."

"The movement has happened. We're not stopping now," he said.

Amidst it all, marveling at this new, seemingly wide-open business world
were Perlowin and Tobias, chairman and vice president of Medical
Marijuana Inc. The Orange County firm sells training seminars in
marketing, accounting and tax compliance for people running marijuana
dispensaries or cultivating the crop.

Two guys who each served nearly a decade in prison for pot smuggling
â€" Perlowin in California and Tobias in Georgia â€" are now
telling newcomers in the trade how to go legit.

They even developed a special "tax remittance card" that pot shop
employees can scan to make sure they pay California sales tax on all
marijuana transactions. And their company is publicly traded with an
over-the-counter stock â€" listed as MJNA â€" for "Mary Jane

"This is a lot less stressful," said Perlowin, a purported Northern
California pot king who authorities said was once raking in $16 million
a year from marijuana trafficking. "I'm not a fugitive. And I don't have
to hide."

While no longer involved in any marijuana distribution, Tobias wonders
if their past misdeeds as pot smugglers could have helped pave the way
for today's medical marijuana market. Voters approved the Proposition
215 medical use law in 1996. Dispensaries sprouted in abundance over the
past year as the federal government signaled it wouldn't target outlets
serving pot patients in states that allow medical use.

"Really, without guys like us," Tobias mused Saturday, "it may have
never come to this."

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Peace Officers Association, a
group gearing up to fight a marijuana legalization initiative expected
to be on the California ballot in November, found little about the
massive trade show amusing.

"I think it shows the fraudulent nature of the medical marijuana law,"
Lovell said. "When people voted for Proposition 215, they thought they
were voting to ease the pain of the terminally ill. But it was creating
a subterfuge in order to sell dope.

"The fact they're holding a trade show at the convention center really
underscores that reality."

Convention promoter Edwin Kwong, whose Mega Productions firm previously
staged tattoo expos and computer, home and auto shows, said he knew he
had a sure-fire convention draw with medical pot. He spent $200,000 in
advertising, posting 15 Hemp Con billboards along Los Angeles and Orange
County freeways and running 700 radio and 40 television spots to promote
the event.

"I'm always at the forefront of a new trend," he boasted.

Cousins Rick Probsti, 42, and Nick Parks, 37, are hoping they're ahead
of the market as well. Probsti runs an aluminum fabrication shop. Parks
says, discreetly, that he knows a little bit about marijuana

Together, they led convention attendees Saturday through a demonstration
trailer bathed in hydroponic lights and meticulously equipped with
growing trays, irrigation and air filtration systems. They have sold two
units since starting their business in October.

The cousins say they have no interest in cultivating pot themselves.
Instead, they see themselves as outfitters for California's marijuana
rush â€" just as earlier entrepreneurs made fortunes clothing and
supplying gold-seeking 49ers long ago.

"We don't want to be the gold miners," Probsti said. "We want to be Levi

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