May 29 2013 10:21 AM

Diabetic and cancer sufferer's journey from the Sydney waterfront to basketball greatness to the front lines in San Diego's medical-marijuana wars

Photo by David Rolland
If anyone embodies the cliché "larger than life," it's Ken Cole.

The 69-year-old stands out not only thanks to his 6-foot-4 frame, bald dome and dangling earrings, but also because of his elegant Australian accent. And it's not just how he talks; it's what he says.

During the past couple of years, Cole has emerged as a leader in San Diego's medicinal-marijuana movement, a community that's still struggling to be taken seriously by pockets of mainstream society. If Cole can't command the attention of the remaining holdouts, maybe no one can.

On April 22, Cole appeared before the San Diego City Council to comment on Mayor Bob Filner's proposal to legalize medicinal-marijuana dispensaries and spoke eloquently and passionately for nearly 10 minutes, without notes, about how he ran his Downtown nonprofit dispensary, about the problem of diabetes—from which he suffers— about the stranglehold pharmaceutical companies have on medical treatment and about how marijuana can help.

"I have an incurable form of bone cancer now, along with the diabetes," he told council members. "So, four months to four-and-a-half years or so to live is what they say. I don't believe that, but that's the diagnosis that I'm trying to fight. I don't want my wife to be sitting around looking at me lying around in a chair dosed up with morphine. Medical marijuana may not take away all of the pain that I get at the moment, but it wraps itself around it enough to let me sleep, so I can sleep through the night. I'm not supposed to be around a lot of people—the immune system's badly damaged. But what do you do when you're simply being inundated by people that are suffering such terrible, terrible problems? This is not a joke. This is not recreational."

As Cole finished, his voice quivered just a bit. "Nothing's achieved without passion," he said. "If you really believe in something enough, and you want to make it happen, then you pour your soul into it and you give everything you can. You know? You don't give very much when you give of your possessions; it's when you give of yourself that you truly give."

If he sounds like a motivational speaker, it's because that's what he is. He's traveled around for decades talking to people about team-building and coping with diabetes, drawing from his success as an athlete, coach and marketing executive.

At about 10:30 a.m. the morning after Cole spoke to the City Council, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, supported by San Diego County Sheriff's deputies, smashed through the glass door at 932 Sixth Ave. in the Gaslamp Quarter and raided Cole's marijuana dispensary, One on One Patients Association, and took everything—all the marijuana on the premises, all the patients' records and money.

Cole wasn't at the store when it was raided. His lawyers say employees saw masked gunmen arrive, and once they realized they were federal agents, they invited them in, but the agents busted through the front glass door anyway.

Amy Roderick, spokesperson for the DEA, tells a different story:

"We walked up to the front," she says. "They saw us coming. They locked the front door and ran into the secondary door. And we gave them a lot of time— more than we needed to—to have them come to the door and unlock it. And they did not. So then we had to make entry."

Cole's operation was one of the last of roughly 200 in San Diego to be raided since the local U.S. Attorney's office launched a major crackdown in 2011. Neither Cole nor members of his staff were arrested. He doesn't know what charges, if any, will come from it.

"It's an ongoing investigation," Roderick says, "so all I can tell you is that we did a warrant at his business, and we seized marijuana and client records, and it's being submitted to the U.S. Attorney's office for prosecution."


Cole grew up in the 1940s and '50s in a working-class family in Sydney, Australia. He says his dad, a union factory worker, was in his early 50s when he drank himself to death. Cole didn't have much use for school. "I just decided at about 7 or 8 years of age, for some reason, to stop going to school and only went to school when they played sport," he says. "So, I had close enough to no education at all."

He had his own factory job by the time he was 14 and was driving a truck on the waterfront at 15. His first sport was tennis. "I got to hit against the Spanish Davis Cup team when I was 15, or whatever, and could play against [them]," he says, "and so tennis I was very good at. … I won a tournament that should have catapulted me forward in tennis, and it didn't, and for some reason or another, I just decided: Ah, to hell with this, I'm not going to play any more tennis and I'll concentrate on basketball."

Smart move. By the time he was in his late teens, he was upwards of 6-foot-4, one of the big kids that the coaches coaxed to play alongside the more skilled players. Success came early. Playing power forward, he was on a state championship team in his first year and made the Australian national team within two years, traveling to the Philippines and across Southeast Asia: "It happened so fast."

That's when Cole began educating himself. "When I was on the road, I would read everything," he says. "I started reading everything I could get my hands on." When other players would hang around the hotel, he'd head down to a park and mix with the locals. "I started realizing there was a whole lot more to the world."

He traveled internationally during the next few years, playing against college teams in the United States. In 1964, he made the Olympic team and played for Australia in Tokyo; he turned 21 during the games. Cole made the Olympic team again in 1968, but Australia failed to qualify for the games in Mexico City. Before the advent of Australia's professional National Basketball League (NBL) in 1979, Cole played semiprofessionally in four states—New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia—from 1961 through 1972.

Cole and his wife Pauline, to whom he's been married since 1973, first moved to the U.S. in 1977, settling in Baton Rouge, La., to establish an outfit called International Basketball Corporation with Louisiana State University coach Dale Brown that operated basketball camps. He also took a six-month stab at coaching in Egypt, which he calls a "horror story."

It was in the U.S. that he stumbled into business. A friend coaxed him into a company that provided low-skill oil-field workers, an experience that Cole spun off into his own company for five years, contracting with large oil companies in Louisiana and Texas.

He and Pauline returned to Austra lia in the early 1980s so that Cole could coach in the NBL. A nice byproduct of the move was that he could get much cheaper medical treatment in Australia for his diabetes, with which he'd been diagnosed while in the U.S. The disease caused "chaos" for him for seven or eight years, he says; its effect on his feet required the use of a cane or a wheelchair until he managed to get control of it.

Through it all, he coached the West Adelaide Bearcats in 1983 and '84— reaching the finals in 1983—and the Adelaide 36ers in 1985 and '86. His team reached the 1985 finals and lost, but it was the 1986 season that cemented Cole's place in Australian hoops history and sealed his 2012 induction into the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame— not to mention bringing Cole his first marijuana-related controversy.

That 1986 team went 24-2, a mark that hasn't been equaled since, the two losses coming on last-second buzzer beaters. The team, dubbed "The Invincibles," won the league championship, but not before Cole was suspended by the club near the end of the season for smoking a joint in a Brisbane hotel room.

Cole says he smoked marijuana to help him sleep. "That was when my health was really starting to struggle," he says. He'd been at odds with management before the incident made frontpage news in Adelaide. Team owners wanted to fire him, but his players refused to play unless Cole was reinstated.

"It was an incredible period of time," Cole says, "because my players were saying, ‘When they introduce us for this finals game, come out last.' I used to just walk over and sit on the sideline and let the players get introduced, but they wanted me to come out this time, and I said, ‘You don't know what sort of reaction we're going to get—this is a conservative city.' But I'd been straight up about everything anyhow, so I wasn't hiding anything. So, when they introduced me and I came out, it was breathtaking. The place went berserk, and everybody started clapping, and then they started stamping their feet and banging on the back of the chairs, and they all stood up, and it went for four or five minutes, until I walked off the court. It was incredible."

Cole was named coach of the year but was fired after the season. He went on to coach for two other teams, the Newcastle Falcons and Sydney Supersonics, before returning to Louisiana. Back in the U.S., he was approached by some people who had a business using multi-level marketing—also known as pyramid selling—to sell a fruit-and-vegetable supplement called Juice Plus. Cole said the product worked for him, and thought it might help other diabetics, though it was controversial amid reports that it didn't offer the benefits the company was claiming. Cole opened the Australia market for the product before years later becoming disillusioned with the company.


Having traveled to San Diego on business—to investigate the potential for another health-related product—Cole decided to make a home here in 1998, settling in Coronado. He and Pauline lived in an apartment complex for the first eight years or so, until a home on the water became available for lease. It's a beautiful one-story house with big windows that look out upon San Diego's downtown skyline.

Cole says he's always been good at making money. But "I've never been able to keep any—I spend it as fast as I've got it, all my life," he says.

He says he couldn't afford what the homeowner's agent was asking, so he went straight to the owner and negotiated a lower rate by agreeing to a 10- year lease.

Cole says he "steered clear" of marijuana for a time after the incident in 1986, but once medicinal-marijuana dispensaries were sprouting all over San Diego, he was on the hunt for a place to get it. He was less than impressed by most of the businesses selling it, finding some of them kind of seedy and not terribly inviting. He said his children— he and Pauline have three—encouraged him to open his own marijuana business, pointing out that he knows its benefits as well as anyone.

He opened the nonprofit One on One Patients Association, in what had been the 932 Dive Bar, right around New Year's Day in 2011. He named himself president, his son Stacy vice president. They renovated the place's 1865-era bar, restored the original oak floor, laid carpeting in some areas, created a comfortable front reception room and an inviting back-lounge area where members could watch TV or linger over the menu of products. They bathed the club in soft, calming colors. They paid their employees $18 an hour or more, Cole says. (He himself made no pay at the start but eventually took a salary of roughly $1,000 per week.)

"We really didn't know anything about the industry," he recalls. "We knew nothing about where we get product or anything else. You know, it was real blind-leading-the-blind. So, we just tried to set it up on as much a regular-business basis as we could and get more and more and more knowledgeable about the product, and as we did, we began to refine things and just got bigger and bigger."

At first, they got marijuana wherever they could, usually in relatively small amounts, sometimes originating from as far away as Humboldt County. They tried to grow it themselves but quickly ended that experiment. "Well, we were fantastic at that," Cole says sarcastically. "We must have been one of the only people in history that managed to have, like, a 16-week grow and lose money. It cost us so much to do this, and the work was mind-boggling." Eventually, a couple of members of the collective provided the lion's share of the supply, and after the very beginning, it was all sourced locally.

Prior to opening, Cole says, he studied guidelines established in 2008 by Jerry Brown, then the state attorney general, and took note of the statements Barack Obama made about not spending federal resources on prosecuting people who are following state medicinal-marijuana law.

"After we did all of our due diligence, we thought, OK, we can do this. We can follow the law all the way through, and that's what we did," he says. "And, of course, about a year into it, they changed their mind, and from 220 places [in San Diego] it ended up virtually with only us."

The federal crackdown was good for business—for a while. "The numbers just kept building, and, of course, as they closed other places down left, right and center, obviously we reaped the rewards of that because a lot of people in real need had nowhere else to go," Cole says. One on One Patients Association had more than 13,000 members by the time of the DEA raid, he says.

Cole isn't sure why his dispensary outlasted so many others, but until the raid, he thought it was because the feds deemed it an operation that was in compliance with state and local rules.

While his business was growing, his health was deteriorating. About two years ago, Cole was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that builds in the bone marrow. His oncologist said at the time that he could live as little as four months longer or as much as four-and-a-half years. Cole's aiming for another 10.

Naturally, Cole got involved in the local movement advocating for regulations that would legalize the distribution of medicinal marijuana, and he didn't like the leadership back in 2011 or its direction. The City Council that year passed an ordinance that would allow for dispensaries in far-flung industrial zones, and the marijuana advocates hated it. Led by adult-entertainment mogul Randy Welty, a coalition of dispensary operators called the Patient Care Association mounted a successful drive to repeal the ordinance at the ballot box. Cole didn't like the ordinance, either, but he couldn't stand Welty and disagreed with the referendum.

"To me, it's one of these things [where] once you're in, once you can get the foot in the door and you're at the table now, you can find ways to start making adjustments that'll ultimately be for the good of everybody," he says. "Now, if you throw it out, all that you're doing is you're sticking your thumb in the eyes of people there that thought that they were doing the right thing and trying to get all of this done, and now they're going to turn against you."

Cole recalls a meeting of advocates that occurred in the evening after the City Council avoided an election by repealing its own ordinance. It was a celebration. Cole says he spoke up and told the group that, without a set of local rules, he expected a swift crackdown: They'd all be closed within six months, he predicted. He says he looked at the situation like a coach: Who's the coach of the other team, and what's his style? How is he going to use his players? What's the worst-case scenario? "So," Cole says, "by the time I get to start a game, I always feel I've played that game two or three times—nothing's going to catch me by surprise."

After his prediction came true, a handful of advocates approached him and, through a series of meetings, asked him to lead a new group. "I said to them, ‘I'll only do that if— I'll listen to all argument, all discussion and everything else, but if you want me to run this, then I'll make the final decision, no matter what. It won't be subject to challenge after that.' And they said OK." Cole called it a "democratic dictatorship."

Cole became president of United Patients Alliance (UPA) and, this year, worked with Mayor Filner on a new ordinance that would be less restrictive that the 2011 law. At that April 22 meeting where Cole spoke, the City Council, led by Councilmember Marti Emerald, essentially ignored Filner's proposal and resurrected the 2011 ordinance, suggesting changes that would make it even more restrictive.

Under Cole's leadership, the UPA's lobbying the council to loosen the rules on where dispensaries can operate, but if they're not successful, they won't burn the whole thing down like the advocates did in 2011. In Cole's view, something is better than nothing; it's a foundation to build on.

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