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The longneck of the law

The feds see a drug rule violation in the bottle caps of a brewer in Weed. Take a chill pill, residents say.

May 29, 2008|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

WEED, CALIF. — This town is in a tempest over a bottle top.

The federal government is telling the owner of a small brewery here that the pun he's placed on caps of his Weed Ales crosses a line.

"Try Legal Weed," the caps joke.

The U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau says those three little words allude to marijuana use.

Vaune Dillmann, owner of Mt. Shasta Brewing Co., says he was just trying to grab attention for his beers and this tough-luck place in the morning shadow of Mt. Shasta.

But in the two months since he received a warning, the 61-year-old brewer has found himself in a David-vs.-Goliath struggle, cast as the little guy.

The bureau's bureaucrats have told Dillmann he needs to stop using the "Try Legal Weed" bottle caps. If he doesn't, he could risk fines or sanctions. His worst fear: being forced out of business.

A balding former cop turned saloon owner and then master brewer, Dillmann isn't one to back down.

"This is ludicrous, bizarre, like meeting Big Brother face-to-face," he grumbled recently. "Forget freedom of speech and the 1st Amendment. They are the regulatory gods, a judge and jury all rolled into one. This is a life-or-death issue for my business."

Besides, he said, the town itself was named for a man, not a plant. Abner Weed was a lumber baron who served as a state senator from these parts a century ago.

Officials at the tax and trade bureau say they have no desire to run Dillmann out of the brewing business, insult the residents of Weed or sully the memory of its founding father.

But the agency does intend to keep an eye out for alcoholic beverage labels violating the regulatory rules, said Art Resnick, a federal spokesman.

Dillmann's label faux pas, Resnick said, was twofold: "We consider it to be a drug reference, and find it to be false and misleading to the consumer in terms of what may or may not be the properties contained within that product," Resnick said.

Folks in Weed -- population 3,000 -- know whom they're rooting for.

"It's just plain goofy to me the federal government is making so much of a fuss over this," said Mayor Chuck Sutton. "I can sort of understand their point, but it all seems a little overboard."

"Government is keeping us safe from bottle caps," mocked the headline above an editorial in the Record Searchlight newspaper of Redding, an hour's drive south down Interstate 5.

"Let's get real," the editorial concluded, "anyone old enough to legally buy a six-pack . . . is mature enough not to be dragged into a life of drug-addled debauchery by a message on the bottle cap."

Siskiyou County Supervisor Michael Kobseff also came to Dillmann's defense, saying the town was proud of the brewer and his accomplishments, including the economic stimulus his business had brought to an area still recovering from the timber industry's decline.

On the bottle caps in question, "Try Legal Weed" is surrounded by the slogan "A Friend in Weed Is a Friend Indeed." To Dillmann's supporters, that spells civic boosterism, not drug pushing.

Not that weed isn't being pushed inside the city limits.

Weed has a tradition of exploiting the double-entendre of its name. A pithy placard on the way out of town announces "Temporarily Out of Weed." Gas stations sell "High on Weed" T-shirts. (The town, after all, is at an elevation of 3,500 feet.)

Though the town is no counterculture haven, the metal entry arch downtown is something of a stoner stopover. Summer days find traveling pot aficionados playfully posing for snapshots under the archway's sign, "WEED."

Dillmann, whose family has deep roots in the community, helped erect that sign in 1988 and is quick to note he has never inhaled the illegal stuff. His wife is a longtime grade-school teacher whose forebears homesteaded in the 1880s. His grown son is a firefighter.

Still, he's happy to tap into cheeky reefer references to win a sliver of market share in a bruising business. His bottled brews include Shastafarian Porter (a wink and a nod to Rastafarians) and Mountain High IPA.

Since he began brewing five years ago in an abandoned former creamery, Dillmann has built a business with half a dozen employees, a tasting room with carved-wood bar, a growing distribution reach all over the Golden State and a blossoming reputation for tasty microbrews.

So far, more than 400,000 beer bottles have proudly worn the "Try Legal Weed" caps.

Regulators caught up with the caps in February, as Dillmann was seeking label approval for his Lemurian Golden Lager. They issued a rejection sheet citing several typeface technicalities and one deal breaker: the words "Try Legal Weed."

So far, no one has ordered Dillmann to recall any previously capped bottles. But he recently took delivery of another 400,000 caps. If they can't be used, he'll be out $10,000. That's no small change for a small business like his.

The controversy has, via the Internet, raised the ire of beer lovers all over. Dillmann has received more than 1,000 letters, e-mails and phone calls, almost all in support. He's also tapped his local congressman, Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico), and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who pressed regulators.

Dillmann has appealed, with a decision expected by Sunday. He vows not to cave, and expects a long, expensive legal battle if need be. He says he just wants to keep his caps and not lose his shirt.

What irks him most, he says -- even more than the feds' lack of a funny bone -- is what he considers a double standard.

While stomping on him, Dillmann says, the government treats Budweiser with kid gloves, despite the fact that "This Bud's for You" also could be mistaken for marijuana slang.

"They sell Bud. We sell Weed," he said. "What's the difference?"

--

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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