There’s always a fall guy. That one who sticks his neck out, rolls the dice, walks the fine line, then gets busted while others doing the same thing go free.
Pierre Werner says he’s that guy.
Werner is known for his gigantic Dr. Reefer billboard signs that dot the Las Vegas Valley. This legitimate medical marijuana referral service that he started has helped legalize hundreds of Nevada patients who rely on marijuana to treat their ills.
But he went too far. Werner, a three-time convicted felon with a past in drug deals, caved in to temptation and opened up an all-in-the-family pot dispensary on Pecos Road in Las Vegas and started to sell some of the hydroponic strains to some of the very patients he legalized, including undercover police officers.
And that landed him in federal prison.
Two weeks ago, the 42-year-old Werner was released from Terminal Island just outside of Los Angeles where he served more than 22 months.
He was one of nearly a dozen pot dispensary owners caught in raids carried out in Las Vegas in the fall of 2010 by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency with help from undercover officers from the Metropolitan Police Department.
But it was Werner who got the stiff sentence — 41 months.
“The feds did me dirty,” he said from inside his Las Vegas house, where he’s living with his mother these days while he looks to reinvent himself. “It’s time for somebody else to take up the cause.”
Pierre Werner someday could be viewed as an anomaly in local history if the medical marijuana movment keeps up its pace. Nevada next year will start licensing and taxing medical marijuana dispensaries for the first time. Twenty-two states have legalized its use to treat medical conditions and more are on their way. Many proponents are suggesting that the legalization of the drug for recreation use might follow.
In an interview last week, Werner talked about his time in prison and what has happened in the medical marijuana business since his time. He also talked about where he’s going from here.
CLUBHOUSE ON AN ISLAND
Terminal Island is a low-security federal prison that, by Werner’s own admission, doubled as “a virtual clubhouse on an island.”
It had a better view of the ocean than some coastal residents had from land, he said.
It had workout facilities and cable TV. Werner, a bilingual native of El Paso, Texas, would tune in each week to “Pablo Escobar: Patron de Mal,” a popular Colombian television series on the life of the drug lord who was killed in the early 1990s.
Prisoners didn’t pass time in cells with bars, Werner noted. They slept in college-like dormitories.
After 10 p.m. it was “lockdown time.” That’s when they would play poker or read books.
“I preferred to read books,” Werner said. “I had at least 30 marketing books sent to me. I thought I knew a lot about marketing from Dr. Reefer but those books turned me into a pro.”
It’s the same prison that that housed such infamous people as Chicago’s Al Capone in the late 1930s, New York City mobster Henry Hill in the 1970s — after whom the 1990 movie “Goodfellas” was based — and Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor who openly advocated the use of psychedelic drugs, ultimately coining the phrase: “Think for yourself and question authority.”
TARGET DR. REEFER
Werner isn’t as well known as those criminals and no movie deals are yet in the making, but he’s a local celebrity in his own right, at least among those who use marijuana for medical reasons.
While his criminal rap sheet reads like just about any other drug criminal’s, from possession of methamphetamine in the late 1980s in Carlsbad, N.M., when he was 18 to getting busted in New Jersey for possession of 170 pounds of marijuana in his early 30s — it was perhaps the “cat and mouse game” between him and federal authorities that made him somewhat of a hero.
At the crux was freedom of speech and freedom to advertise in a state where medical marijuana was already legal. And yet every time Werner put up one of his Dr. Reefer billboards, agents saw it as an affront to their careers and tried to take it down, he said. And if it wasn’t the feds, he said, it was the Mormon Church, which actually did succeed in taking down one of his billboards that stood on its land at Decatur Boulevard and the Las Vegas Beltway.
And yet the First Amendment often prevailed and Dr. Reefer’s referral company went gang busters for a long time, hooking up patients with appropriate doctors for diagnoses, then filing the paperwork with the state in order to secure medical marijuana cards for a fee of $300 to $400 each. At last count, Nevada had well over 3,000 medical marijuana patients, many of whom were made legal under Werner’s business.
Werner, who owns the Dr. Reefer trademark, said he’s amazed at how popular the movement has become, even while he was incarcerated.
“That’s when all of the dispensaries started to open up, when I started legalizing the people,” Werner said. “The name was just something I struck by accident. It was a combination of ‘Reefer Madness’ along with the fact that you needed a doctor to get your card. That’s where it was all born, but I had no clue that it would take off like it did.”
OVER THE EDGE
But Werner, who sold the Dr. Reefer company to a buddy after he was incarcerated, didn’t do time in prison for the medical marijuana cards. Rather, he couldn’t resist the urge to provide the “medicine” to the patients who had nowhere else to turn to.
So Werner, who has operated medical marijuana dispensaries in Boulder, Colo., and Santa Barbara, Calif., opened up his own dispensary in Las Vegas. That dispensary was raided in September 2010.
Brought down in the raid was Werner’s mother, Reynalda Barnett, now 62, who sold 4.8 grams of pot to undercover officers and received a four-month federal prison sentence. His younger brother received probation.
But because Dr. Reefer was actually owned and registered in Werner’s name, he was slapped with the heaviest sentence of all, even though he was living in Boulder at the time.
The raid came at a time when pot dispensaries were at an all-time high in the Las Vegas Valley, nearly 50 of them operating clandestinely, according to U.S. Attorney Dan Bogden. Bogden said Werner was just one of a dozen owners who were arrested by the federal government between 2009 and 2010.
If Werner hadn’t been a three-time felon at the time of his November 2011 sentencing by U.S. District Judge Philip Pro, he probably wouldn’t have received the sentence that he did, Bogden said.
Werner served his first stint in the Nevada State Prison System, in the High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, for operating marijuana grow houses in Las Vegas, for which he did nearly two years.
He claims he has emerged as a “new man” and is in “the best shape of my life” after his latest stint in federal prison.
He even flexes his six pack abs for the camera.
Doing the time for the crime wasn’t nearly as difficult as having to endure the months of rehabilitation classes at Terminal Island, where he had to admit that he was addicted to marijuana. He said medical marijuana has always been a medicine with which he treats his bipolar problems.
“It was this government propaganda that they kept shoving down my throat,” said Werner. “That’s what really got to me. When are people going to wake up and realize that medical marijuana can actually help people? Well, I’m giving it all up. Somebody else is going to have to take up the cause.”
These days, as part of condition of release, Werner is working with well-known weight loss Dr. Ivan Goldsmith, helping drive more traffic to Goldsmith’s business, Trim Care. Goldsmith said he believes in second chances and believe “People can be redeemed. I was asked to take Pierre under my wing and he did a great job for me.”
Werner posted videos on YouTube for Goldsmith, driving more traffic to the doctor’s website, even managing to get him the moniker on Google as “Best Doctor in Las Vegas.”
“He’s got a real knack for Web marketing and search optimization,” said Goldsmith, who has been friends with “Pierre” for a long time. “Business is now booming.”
Werner, who is now opening his own DrPageRank website, laughs at his work, saying he liked the fact that if you Google Viagra and Las Vegas, Goldsmith will appear at the top of the page. Hence, his new website, “Dr Page Rank.” The marketing technique was the same one he employed while owning Dr. Reefer, he said.
As for the future of medical marijuana, Werner is trying to wean himself off it all.
“If you really want to make money, try to own a casino,” he said.
He warned interested entrepreneurs to “look out” as Nevada starts licensing and taxing medical marijuana dispensaries all over the state starting in 2014.
“If you’re getting into the business next year and you plan on opening a dispensary, it could be a trap. The feds can come in at any time and ruin your life. It doesn’t matter what state law says. You could serve 20 years in prison for it. Twenty years. For marijuana. Think about that.
“I consider myself fortunate.”
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512.