Pot delivery

Brian Reichle lights a joint he just received from Speed Weed, which delivers medical marijuana to thousands of customers in Los Angeles and Orange counties. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times / June 16, 2014)

Brian Reichle couldn't have gotten a pepperoni pizza much faster.

Needing to replenish his stash of pot one recent afternoon, the Burbank resident dialed Speed Weed. Within the hour, a driver arrived with a white paper bag carrying a gram of cannabis, 10 joints and a handful of pot-infused candies and cookies.

"They come to my house, and they're in and out," said Reichle, 39, a comedian who spends about $100 a week on medical marijuana. "I shouldn't have to go to a store."

Once a small, word-of-mouth phenomenon, mobile marijuana businesses now number in the hundreds across Southern California. Nationwide, pot delivery services have nearly tripled in three years, from 877 to 2,617, according to Weedmaps, a Yelp-like online directory for pot businesses.

Weed on wheels offers patients convenience and owners a cheaper alternative to running a brick-and-mortar shop. Delivery services see huge potential for growth.

"I still believe 75% of marijuana patients don't know delivery is a thing," said Speed Weed owner A.J. Gentile, 42, a Bronx native who also works as a voice-over actor. "It's safer to engage this way. You don't have to go to a sketchy dispensary. That's why we get so many female customers."

The proliferation of delivery services is fueled in part by city efforts to reduce the number of dispensaries. About 200 have closed in Los Angeles since voters approved Proposition D last year, a spokesman for the city attorney's office said.

Under the measure, dispensaries and their landlords can be prosecuted if the shops aren't properly registered or if they fail to operate a legal distance from public parks, schools, child-care centers and other facilities.

As a result, the owners of closed stores sitting on piles of unsold inventory figure they have little choice but to start a delivery service.

"It's the balloon theory," said Jeff Raber, founder and president of the Werc Shop in Pasadena, a cannabis testing lab. "They think taking down all the dispensaries will make it go away. But it's not going away. It's going to morph into something else."

California cities have mostly allowed the services to operate freely. State medical marijuana laws don't mention delivery services, which, like dispensaries, require patients to join as members of a collective.

A few cities, including Riverside, have banned marijuana delivery. The L.A. city attorney's office said mobile businesses are prohibited under Proposition D, but it has yet to prosecute any.

The law defines a marijuana business as including "any vehicle" used to distribute marijuana, but it is more generally aimed at using zoning regulations to limit the number of storefront dispensaries.

Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said cities should consider supporting the business model. Delivery services, he said, help eliminate unwanted storefronts.

"Storefronts are a pain," Kleiman said. "Do you want a weed store in your neighborhood?"

Many delivery services consist of nothing more than a lone driver carrying a tackle box filled with pot. In Southern California, traffic often restricts a day's deliveries to about a dozen. Profits are limited, and drivers regularly battle fatigue on jammed freeways.

"It was such a grind," said the owner of a Santa Ana dispensary who used to deliver alone several years ago before hiring a dozen drivers.

The owner, who declined to be named out of concern for his family's privacy, said many weed dealers, including himself, offered delivery long before medical marijuana became legal. "I'd always be driving to someone's house," he said. "People would page me on my beeper."

After registering and showing a doctor's recommendation, Speed Weed customers order off the company's website or call its delivery line. The L.A.-based firm has up to 25 drivers and several offices across the region, allowing for quick deliveries.

The company was founded in 2011 after owner Gentile studied operation manuals for Domino's Pizza, Papa John's Pizza and FedEx. He learned how to build a network of hubs to limit the amount of marijuana or cash that any one driver carries, a precaution against robbery.