Marijuana shop draws fire

February 28, 2005

Michael G. Mooney, Modesto Bee

Over-the-counter marijuana is being sold in Modesto -- all you need is a California ID and a prescription from a doctor practicing medicine anywhere in the state.

But how long the marijuana store will last is anyone's guess. The City Council is expected a week from today to consider an urgency ordinance banning such marijuana dispensaries.

While state law allows marijuana sales for medicinal purposes, federal law does not. In 2001, the U.S.

Supreme Court ruled against marijuana sales by the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative -- but the conflict between state and federal law remains unsettled.

Monday, city officials seemed surprised to learn that a marijuana dispensary had opened.

'We had heard rumors a business was getting ready to open, but we had no name, no exact location,' City Attorney Michael Milich said.

California voters legalized marijuana for medicinal use in 1996, and guidelines for medical marijuana possession took effect Jan. 1, 2004.

California Healthcare Collective Inc., with a business license from the city, began offering marijuana for sale in October at 304A McHenry Ave., just north of Five Points.

Monday, the store opened in a new location: 1009 McHenry Ave., in a strip mall at Fairmont Avenue, across from the old Elks Lodge.

'Medical cannabis is just one of our all-natural products,' store manager Brannan Lambert said. 'We sell natural soaps, candles and flea repellent.'

Lambert said the store offers two forms of marijuana: 'In extract form, which is eaten, and grade A medical cannabis in its natural form.'

He gave no details about sales or number of customers.

Monday, no marijuana could be seen on display in the store. No signs advertised the drug. Lettering on the door simply identified the business by its name: California Healthcare Collective Inc.

Milich said City Hall knew 'there was local interest in opening such a business.'

Last fall, a city planner said he had received a telephone call from someone asking whether the city regulated such retail outlets, also known as hemp, or cannabis clubs. Cannabis is Latin for marijuana. The planner said the caller neither identified himself nor followed up with the city.

Lambert, however, said his company has been in regular contact with city officials and received a business license, allowing it to sell medicinal marijuana along with other 'health care' products.

Joann Bertolotti, the city's customer services supervisor, confirmed Monday that California Healthcare Collective had received a city business license but said no one from the company disclosed that it would be selling marijuana.

Had city officials been aware of that, Bertolotti said, 'we would have brought it to the attention of the police department and our city attorney.'

Nothing on the company's business license application, City Manager George Britton said, indicated that marijuana would be offered for sale.

'The business is listed as 'retail sale of health care products,'' Britton said. 'Nothing is reflected on the license that shows it is a cannabis club.'

'Not much support for that kind of thing'

Councilman Will O'Bryant, chairman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee, said the panel last month discussed -- in general terms -- the sale of marijuana through retail outlets.

'I can tell you, no one at that meeting expressed much support for that kind of thing,' O'Bryant said, adding that the committee had no problem recommending a ban.

'I think there's probably going to be a fight on this one,' he said. 'Modesto is very conservative when it comes to things like that. I think the people will be behind us on this.'

O'Bryant noted that cannabis extract is available in pill form at pharmacies, so there should be no need for stores selling marijuana.

A Modesto pharmacist confirmed the availability of cannabis extract prescriptions, to relieve pain and stimulate appetite, usually to cancer patients. The pills do not cause the euphoria that comes from marijuana, the pharmacist said.

Milich said the proposed ordinance to ban the retail sale of medicinal marijuana was just one of several options presented to the committee.

'We've been doing our homework,' Milich said. 'We have been talking to cities who have (retail outlets) that dispense medical marijuana about the criminal problems associated with that.'

Those problems, according to Milich, range from:

'People standing around outside the facility and smoking marijuana in public' to 'patients being robbed of their marijuana as they leave the facility' to 'patients selling marijuana to nonpatients.'

Milich continued: 'We're not saying that's the case here. (But) we think there are enough documented cases of criminal behavior that would justify banning (retail marijuana outlets) in Modesto.'

Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at 578-2384 or mmooney@modbee.com.



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