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Legal victory is the capper

Owner of Mt. Shasta Brewing Co., ordered by regulators to stop topping bottles with the slogan 'Try Legal Weed,' wins on appeal.

September 02, 2008|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The brewer who dared market "Legal Weed" has won.

Vaune Dillmann took on federal regulators this year when they ordered his Mt. Shasta Brewing Co. in the Northern California town of Weed to stop topping beer bottles with caps bearing the play on words, "Try Legal Weed."

Regulators cited federal law prohibiting drug references on alcoholic beverages.

A plain-talking 61-year-old former cop, Dillmann refused to back down, and his high-spirited appeal drew widespread media attention as well as support from beer lovers and civil libertarians far and wide.

Now, facing a storm of bad publicity and the prospect of a drawn-out court battle, authorities at the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau have quietly reversed course. The agency finalized approval of Dillmann's controversial cap Thursday.

At first, Dillmann thought the fight might put his brewery out of business.

"They acted like Big Brother. They said I was guilty of a thought crime," Dillmann said of his six-month battle with the authorities. "But it's over. Weed fought the law, and Weed won!"

In a recent letter to Dillmann, the agency's assistant director conceded that the phrase refers to the brand name of the microbrew and said it does not mislead customers by alluding to a slang word for cannabis.

Art Resnick, an agency spokesman, said the switch in stance demonstrates the due process in the agency's appeal process, adding that "the system worked as it should."

Federal regulators, he said, "pride ourselves in working with industry members. We are not in the business of putting anyone out of business."

In fact, sales of Dillmann's brews have doubled in the six months since the controversy began. Dillmann said his small brewery -- located in the morning shadow of Mt. Shasta, just across Interstate 5 from downtown Weed -- now has to play catch-up just to fill all the orders.

But what's been good for business hasn't necessarily been good for the soul. Dillmann said his fight with the feds took a toll on his family -- in particular his wife, Barbara, who retired just over a year ago as Siskiyou County's superintendent of schools.

The fight with the regulators was "embarrassing and exhausting," he said. "It's been a whirlwind of ups and downs, frustration over whether we might be closed down or sanctioned."

Still, Dillmann conceded he took pleasure in the support his cause received.

He got 1,400 e-mails from beer aficionados and won backing from Weed's mayor, the city attorney and a county supervisor.

He also earned a lot more than the proverbial 15 minutes of fame, appearing on Fox News and in newspaper headlines as far away as Saudi Arabia. Among those who saw the reports and got in touch were his old high school football coach and two old girlfriends in his hometown of Milwaukee.

Most of the folks back home in Weed -- population 3,000 -- couldn't understand what the fuss was about. The little town has been marketing the double entendre of its name for years, with gas stations selling "High on Weed" T-shirts and a sign at the town's exit reading "Temporarily Out of Weed."

In fact, the town's name refers to Abner Weed, a local lumber baron and turn-of-the-20th-century state senator.

He's also the namesake of Dillmann's prized Abner Weed Ale, which is among those he plans to enter Sept. 13 in a brew fest in Sacramento. Last year, his Shastafarian Porter won first place.

Each bottle he brings to the festival will bear one of those shiny gold caps with the black-stenciled words that made Dillmann's last six months both harrowing and hilarious.

--

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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