As a regional manager for a national power-tool company making six figures, Bob Riedel took a sizable pay cut in 2009 when he opened a medical-cannabis dispensary called Mother Earth's Alternative Healing Cooperative Inc.
"I'll be honest, the uneducated opinion I had of this business, the money looked great," he said. "But after digging into it, I realized that this was going to be like a Red Cross."
By the time U.S. attorneys in 2012 pressured Riedel's landlord to evict Mother Earth, the 46-year-old entrepreneur had become passionate about helping people who were sick.
"When you deal with people who are at the worst of the worst of their lives ever, dealing with the biggest thing that they've ever had to deal with, it changes your perspective," he said.
Today, Riedel works as the general manager of a large hotel in San Diego. But he said he refuses to give up on reopening the dispensary.
"Personally, it's frustrating. We've done everything right," he said. "But nothing can compare to the individual patients out there that are suffering. I'm not dying from cancer or AIDS, so how can I compare what I'm going through?"
For two years before getting into the cannabis business, Riedel lived with constant pain due to a severe back injury. Doctors gave him steroid injections in his spine and put him on a regimen of pills, including Fentanyl and Oxycontin.
His wife, Coe Riedel, said the opiate-based medication had a dramatic effect on her husband that resulted in violent mood swings and memory loss. "We took our kids to Hawaii," she said. "He doesn't even remember the trip."
Riedel said that what he does remember is feeling out of control. "One moment I would look at my wife and be telling her how beautiful she was, and the next moment, I would be calling her the most obscene names in the world, like I had split personality."
When Coe, with whom Riedel has four children, threatened divorce, he started to rethink his life.
"I took myself off some of the drugs and went through the withdrawal process," he said, "I mean, serious shaking, serious physical withdrawals."
In search of alternative pain relief, he said he came across a Bible passage that described what he interpreted as a cannabis-based balm. Riedel said he smoked pot in college but hadn't thought much about the drug for more than a decade.
"I reproduced the lotion and applied it," he said. "It had no mood-altering affect, but I was pain-free. I was functional."
The relief provided by the balm made such an impression on Riedel's family that, several months later, in June 2009, they opened a dispensary in Fallbrook. In Riedel's quest to share what he calls a "miracle drug," they even joined the local chamber of commerce.
"I believe in big business," the fiscal conservative said. "I believe in corporations. I believe, at the end of the day, pharmacists need to get involved; research needs to happen."
Today, Mother Earth has been closed for more than a year, but the family believes a recent shift in federal posture could change everything.
"We're closer than we have been in a long time to reopening that location," Riedel said. "The landlord's basically waiting for clarification from the feds."
In August, the U.S. Department of Justice issued the most recent in a string of public memos directing regional U.S. attorneys on how to address states' medical- and recreational-cannabis policies.
The statement leaves broad discretion to regional federal authorities, but it says states that permit and strictly oversee cannabis cultivation and distribution are less likely to "threaten federal priorities." The memo reads, in part:
"The Department's guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems ."
Advocates hailed the memo as a welcome change, but its implications for California are far from clear.
Hoping to reopen, Riedel approached his former landlord, Wing Avenue Investments LLC, but the property owner wanted assurance that federal prosecutors would leave him alone.
At the request of Wing Avenue Investments, Duncan Hunter, a Republican who represents El Cajon in Congress, sent a letter to Laura Duffy, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, asking for her interpretation of the recent memo. Duffy has yet to respond publicly, and both offices declined to comment on further private communication.
Despite some optimism, short of legalization or statewide regulation, federal prosecutors might continue to target dispensaries and growers.
"California is at a major disadvantage due to its lack of a state regulatory structure," said Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association. "It puts us behind states like Oregon and Nevada that have passed a state regulatory system in the last year."
Federal prosecutors will likely continue targeting dispensaries, said Michael Cindrich, defense attorney and president of the San Diego chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
"I think San Diego County has what the federal government is looking for, but because we have no state support for that, I don't think the memo applies," he said.
In response to the recent Justice Department memo, Duffy released a press statement in August that recognized a role for regulation but signaled a need for statewide rules: "The Department's guidance strongly emphasizes the need for states to implement robust and effective regulatory and enforcement systems."
However, Lance Rogers, Riedel's attorney, argues that if regulation is the criteria, Mother Earth should be allowed to operate.
"I think that San Diego County has the strictest, strongest form of regulation in the entire state of California," he said. "And the enforcement, in terms of regulation of Mother Earth, was very real."
Under an ordinance adopted in 2010 by the county Board of Supervisors, Mother Earth was the only dispensary ever licensed by the Sheriff's Department. Riedel moved Mother Earth into an industrial warehouse on a patch of county land inside the city of El Cajon, in part to satisfy a long list of provisions. He installed security cameras, reinforced glass and kept detailed records of where the cannabis was coming from.
Because of its regulated status, primary-care physicians were referring patients to Mother Earth, Riedel said. "I believe we did things above and beyond any ordinance that they could ever come up with."
However, at the same time, concerns were building from law-enforcement officials around the country. And in 2011, the Justice Department released a memo that called for targeting of all moneymaking operations.
In California, joint task forces between local and federal agencies cracked down on growers and dispensaries. Regions without strong local politicians advocating for medical-cannabis distribution were hit the hardest.
In San Diego, Duffy went after dozens of operations, including Mother Earth, which served more than 3,500 patients, and whose president, Coe Riedel, brought home about $80,000 a year. The Riedels fought a civil battle in federal court and even filed for bankruptcy as a way to stem eviction. However, hearing an appeal from the landlord, who feared losing the property to federal authorities, a judge granted permission to move ahead with the eviction.
In August 2012, Mother Earth was forced to shut its doors for the foreseeable future.
"The day that we closed, a woman went up to my husband and said, What am I going to do now?'" Coe said. "You have given my husband an extra year of life.' She was just crying so hard, and we didn't know what to tell her."