SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Bryan Davies, an evangelical Christian with a long, drifting beard, is the CEO of a family business that doles out marijuana and spirituality in fragrant, faithful harmony.
His Canna Care dispensary, one of Sacramento’s longest-operating medical marijuana providers, is as renowned for its political activism at City Hall and the state Capitol as it is for its calls to prayer.
California’s medical marijuana industry has drawn people from mortgage brokers to car salesman, from hippies to computer geeks, into the marijuana trade. But Canna Care may well stand out for its singular devotion to serving up cannabis with Christ.
As some marijuana businesses shrink from the spotlight in the face of a federal crackdown that has shuttered hundreds of California dispensaries, Bryan Davies and wife, Lanette, are running radio and newspaper ads touting nightly prayer sessions in their marijuana store.
“Please join us, it’s the least we can do,” Bryan says in a current radio spot, adding, “May God’s will be done.”
The people who show up, generally in small numbers, for 6 p.m. prayers find an establishment that handles up to $2 million in medical marijuana transactions a year and has given out more than 3,000 Bibles. Customers looking for Purple Kush or Super Silver Haze can also share recitations of the Lord’s Prayer.
The couple classify the operation, in a modest warehouse in north Sacramento, next-door to a church, as a nonprofit, saying they donate to community charities and medical marijuana advocacy groups.
Bryan, 57, who opened the dispensary in 2005, never prayed to go into the marijuana trade. Instead, he says he feared Satan was at work when a doctor suggested he try cannabis for a disabling bone disease, ankylosing spondylitis, that caused spinal curvature and searing pain and led him to give up his truck-washing business.
Bryan said he believed he was succumbing to evil when he first got the idea of opening a pot dispensary. But then, he insists, the Lord interrupted him in prayer to assure him it was divine will.
Lanette, 55, who normally shares her husband’s spiritual devotion, wasn’t at all sold on this vision.
“He kept telling me that God was telling him to do it,” she said. “I thought he was insane.” For a time, she said, she kept her job as a credit and collections coordinator at The Sacramento Bee, because “I thought somebody needed to support the family when he went to jail.”
But not long after, Lanette joined the marijuana store after their daughter Brittany was diagnosed, at age 15, with a different bone disease, chronic recurrent multifocal osteomyelitis, that causes lesions and painful inflammation. She said she saw Brittany “in convulsions, begging to die.” A doctor augmented Brittany’s prescription medications with a recommendation for medical marijuana.
Brittany, now 22 and a student at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, appeared in a Fox 40 commercial in 2010, the first known mainstream TV ad for a pot dispensary. She says she continues to battle the condition, but talked about cannabis giving her “a way to live” in a spot that included people with diabetes, HIV and hypertension.
The couple’s son, Don, 26, who studied biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz, works as a Canna Care technician, using a microscope and computer screen to examine marijuana strains to ensure they are free of fungus.
The family doesn’t adhere to spiritual practices of a small marijuana faction that views the cannabis plant as a religious sacrament. They consider marijuana but a useful healing aid.
To that end, Lanette runs Canna Care’s lobbying group, “Crusaders for Patients Rights,” which pushes the state for medical marijuana legislation and lobbies cities to permit dispensaries. She played a key role in negotiations as the city of Sacramento passed regulations in 2010 that, at the time, allowed 38 dispensaries to stay in business.
Canna Care has spent $15,000 since July on Christian-themed radio spots and newspaper ads, including display advertisements in The Bee expressing the dispensary’s “humble honor to assist those in need of cannabis therapy.” A Fourth of July ad, with the Ten Commandments, celebrated “a Nation under God.”
Bryan said not everyone is pleased with the dispensary’s religious theme. He got a call recently from a man “saying we were right-wing, radical Christians.”
He says the caller was only partly right: He describes himself as a Republican whose politics span an arc from Occupy Wall Street to the tea party. His wife is a Democrat. They provide medical cannabis to believers and non-believers alike.
Most people coming into their dispensary don’t stop to pray. But some come specifically for Canna Care’s Christian orientation. Last year, Bryan said, a man with a cancer diagnosis came in, conflicted and ashamed over finding himself in a pot store.
“I went to church every day. I paid my tithes,” Bryan recounted the man saying as he dropped to his knees before the cannabis counter. “And yet they tell me I’m going to die.”
“You didn’t ask for cancer,” Bryan said he assured him. “You didn’t ask that cannabis could help you out. Obviously, it was God’s will.”
These days, the couple is praying for the Internal Revenue Service, which is seeking $875,000 in additional taxes from Canna Care for 2006-2008 under a 1982 tax code that targets illegal drug dealers. The government is invoking the code to deny routine business deductions for medical marijuana outlets.
Canna Care refused a settlement offer “for an amount that would have been acceptable,” said Lanette. She said they made “a moral choice” to fight the case, which is to be heard in U.S. tax court next year.
Recently, in the pot store lobby, between the Toys for Tots donations barrel and a sign declaring, “God Bless Everyone, No Exceptions,” Smith joined in clasping hands with dispensary workers in white physicians coats. Along with Bryan and Lanette and another daughter, Rebecca, 21, they bowed their heads.
Just as they were starting, Manal Nassef, 37, who is suffering from thyroid cancer, came in for medical marijuana. Nassef is Muslim. She asked if she could join in. As the others offered a Christian prayer, Nassef offered one in Islam.
“It feels good to pray,” she said, “to heal yourself.”