Michael Moss was a welder until degenerative disc disease forced him into an early retirement. In 2011, he moved to Arizona for the climate, landing in the small Navajo County city of Show Low.
What followed was a series of surgeries that sandwiched the broken vertebrae in the middle of his spine between 24 screws in his neck and six lag bolts in his lower back.
When the heavy, opioid-based painkillers doctors prescribed him left him emaciated and like a "zombie," he turned to medical marijuana. But the high-potency medicine he needed cost as much as $400 a week. That was unaffordable on disability pay, so he started growing his own.
After a bad experience buying seeds, Moss decided to start selling them himself to offer a better alternative. These days, the 48-year-old entrepreneur is bringing in an estimated $1,000 a month by selling seeds openly on the internet.
“I’m just trying to help people. No one was there to help me,” Moss told Phoenix New Times.
The business is not illegal because the seeds are marketed as "souvenirs," he said, according to advice he received from an attorney with a prepaid legal service.
However, postal authorities say there is no such loophole, and that Moss could face serious repercussions.
Moss is one of the few U.S.-based cannabis seed vendors and offers what he said is the largest seed collection in Arizona. He has 100 different strains he sells through his website and hopes to have added an additional 100 by next year. Among the payment options accepted: Venmo, Facebook Pay, a Walmart wire transfer and mailed checks. Most of his earnings go back into the business, he said.
While a growing number of states, including Arizona, have legalized recreational or medical marijuana, transporting marijuana products across state borders is a federal offense. Members of Arizona's cannabis industry joke that the seeds to start state-approved grow ops blew across the border from California in the wind.
Moss openly admits to mailing seeds across state borders. He buys seeds from growers in Washington, California, Oklahoma, and Michigan. People in Oklahoma made up his biggest customer base for a while. While there are "seed banks" in Europe, purchasers carry the risk of having their seeds intercepted by customs officials if not properly disguised. Seeds shipped within the United States don't have that problem.
After consulting with lawyers at LegalShield, a prepaid legal insurance service, Moss said he believes what he is doing is legal as long as the seeds are sold as souvenirs or collectors items to people over the age of 21. His website and pop-up stores carry disclaimers saying as much.
“Once they leave me, it’s up to [buyers] to abide by their state laws,” Moss said, acknowledging that he will help offer general advice about cultivating cannabis to anyone who calls.
Not only is Moss operating in the open, but his Venmo feed is public, showing the names of purchasers and their order numbers. Discretion isn't in the business plan: He used some of his savings to get a car decorated with weed decals and the name of his business, MossMSeeds. Soon, he's going to add neon lighting to the ride and a smoke machine. He gave an interview to the White Mountain Independent for an article about his business last month, and Moss comes to the Valley on weekends for events and podcast interviews.
"I’m a handicapped, disabled guy trying to keep myself well and it’s just a plant," he said. "The wheelchair is coming. That’s why I’m trying to make a mark."
Plant or not, federal authorities don't take kindly to distributing pot seeds in the mail.
Liz Davis, a spokesperson for the Phoenix division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said that while marijuana is legal in some states, it's federally illegal under the Controlled Substances Act and cannabis seeds are therefore illegal to mail. The inspection service aggressively pursues people who traffic in all forms of illegal narcotics, she said.
"Honestly, as Postal Inspectors, we don’t really care what someone purports to be selling. If it is illegal to mail, it is illegal to mail," Davis wrote in an email. "Our mission as inspectors is to ensure the mail is safe for our employees and our customers. Whether stated as a souvenir or having an agricultural purpose, it is still a controlled substance and therefore nonmailable. USPS Letter Carriers have been killed delivering parcels containing controlled substances. If it is a nonmailable item, we do not want it in the mail."
Davis added that if New Times shared Moss' name and contact information, they would investigate further. New Times declined her offer. But Moss isn't hiding.
Phoenix cannabis attorney Tom Dean said Moss is facing serious legal jeopardy.
“My advice to him is not to do it,” said Dean, a former legal director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) who has practiced cannabis law for over 20 years. Even if someone has a "clever" defense, most don't get a chance to use it because that would require going to trial and facing mandatory prison time if it doesn't work. Instead, they take a plea deal. In this case, “there’s no grey area,” Dean said.
When New Times asked Moss about what Dean said, he cited a different website selling seeds that claims marijuana seeds are legal in Arizona since they don't contain THC or CBD. He also pointed out that he had obtained a license from the state to sell agricultural seeds at his lawyer's advice.
That's no good, according to Dean. For one, un-sterilized seeds are explicitly considered marijuana for the purposes of Arizona and federal law, meaning that selling them within Arizona requires a license. Even if selling seeds was legal in Arizona, transporting them between states and in the mail is a federal offense.
“The seed dealer's license doesn’t mean he can sell illegal drugs,” Dean said.
It's unclear how much emphasis federal or state authorities may put on cracking down on people like Moss, Dean said. But based on how they've handled medical marijuana, local law enforcement may face pressure from the cannabis industry to crack down on unlicensed growers and avoid a free-for-all. People who buy from Moss are unlikely to face prosecution, but it's not out of the question.
"Good intentions are not a defense. Being mistaken is not a defense. And law enforcement could care less about that kind of thing," he said.
While Moss is small-time compared to some other online seed vendors, the federal government has cracked down hard on similar businesses in the past.
In 2005, Western District of Washington U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, now mayor of Seattle, had the head of the British Columbia Marijuana Party extradited to the United States on charges of selling marijuana seeds to Americans through the mail. Marc Emery claimed to be making $3 million a year from the sales and was eventually sentenced to five years in prison.
David Williams, the general counsel for the law firm Davis Miles McGuire Gardner, PLLC, which provided Moss his advice through LegalShield, said he could not comment or acknowledge whether Moss was a client of the firm due to attorney-client confidentially. In an email sent to Moss, and shared with New Times, he said they provided him limited advice but do not comment on their work to the media.
Despite Dean's warning, Moss said on Wednesday he plans to continue his business based on the advice he says he got from the LegalShield attorney and what he's read online.
“It is kind of concerning, but at the same time I’m going to keep doing what I got to do," he said. "If they want to pick on a disabled guy over a plant … I’m a disabled guy who doesn’t want to be on pain meds and this is what helps me.”
“I bet he never Googled it,” he added of Dean.
In an interview the next day, Moss told New Times he had Googled local cannabis attorneys, calling as many as he could. He spoke to one on Thursday morning who told him he was at some risk but that the lawyer's "gut feeling" was that authorities wouldn't come after him. That made Moss feel better. At the attorney's recommendation, he's going to start including the disclaimer from his website in each package.
“I feel a lot safer at this point,” Moss said.
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