Medicinal-pot dispensaries open up and keep quiet

March 31, 2005

Kelly Davis, San Diego City Beat

An advertisement in last week’s CityBeat for a newly opened North Park medical-marijuana dispensary featured a hippie in a tie-dyed T-shirt throwing a peace sign, the words “weed” and “chronic” and the promise of a free “dub” with the ad—if the bearer has a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana, as required by law.

The guy behind the ad, Jon Sullivan, acknowledged it’s a little over the top and said future ads would be more subdued.

Simply running an ad, though, was a bold move in a city that hasn’t welcomed medical cannabis dispensaries in the past.

In 2003 the San Diego City Council put a cap on the amount of pot and number of plants medical marijuana patients and their caregivers could have on hand at any one time, but the law says nothing about cannabis clubs (also known as dispensaries). Neither does Prop. 215, the ballot initiative passed by California voters in 1996 to allow seriously ill people legal access to marijuana for medical purposes. The law encourages “state and federal governments” to come up with a plan that would give patients safe and affordable access to medical cannabis but stops short of explaining how that’s to be done.

“It was a poorly written law,” said Juliana Humphrey, a San Diego public defender who served on the city’s Medical Marijuana Task Force. “It gave no mechanism for people to obtain marijuana—it just lets them use it and that’s been the whole problem.”

Humphrey said she’s received calls from patients asking if she knew where they could obtain marijuana. Those calls have stopped coming, she said, because she put the message out that she didn’t know. Now a different type of call is coming in, from people interested in opening cannabis dispensaries and wanting to know how they can do it legally. That’s an easier question to answer. “The advice I give anyone who contacts me to say, ‘This is what we’re doing, how can we do it legally?’ is, you can’t. The court’s been pretty clear on that,” she said.

In 1998, then-California Attorney General—and obsessive Prop. 215 foe—Dan Lungren prevailed in a case against a San Francisco cannabis club, locking in a ruling that says patients can obtain marijuana only by growing it themselves or having someone else grow it for them and reimbursing that person for expenses.

Despite the ruling, cannabis clubs are fixtures in Northern California cities like San Francisco, which has roughly three-dozen of them (last week Mayor Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on new clubs when he found out one was about to open in city-subsidized housing). Oakland, once a hub for cannabis clubs—a portion of the city had been dubbed “Oaksterdam”—last year passed a law that allows only four licensed clubs at any one time.

Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and who holds a doctorate degree in drug policy from Stanford, says cannabis clubs have been operating for so long that, to an extent, they’ve become “de facto legal.”

“It’s been a long time since anyone’s heard of the cops going in and buying pot at a medical-marijuana club and then trying to bust them for over-the-counter sales, even though a strict reading of the law says they can do that,” he said. “I suppose [authorities] feel if they did it at one club, they’d have to do it at all of them, and they don’t want to do that.”

In San Diego, at least four cannabis clubs have opened in the North Park, University Heights and City Heights areas within the past few months. All but Sullivan’s have kept a low profile—they don’t advertise and they’re difficult to locate. They generate clients through word of mouth. Two club owners CityBeat contacted said they consulted with city officials and law enforcement before opening and were told to be discreet. Neither would say who exactly they talked to. City Councilmember Toni Atkins, in whose district all of these clubs are located, did not respond to requests for comment.

San Diego Police Lt. Cesar Solis, who heads the department’s Narcotics Division, said he’s aware of these clubs but his department has limited resources and bigger problems to deal with.

“People will say, ‘How come you’re not there knocking on their door and serving a warrant?’ I say because it’s not just marijuana that we’re in charge of. We’re after meth, rock cocaine—where the guns are.”

Solis said he looks at whether a cannabis dispensary poses a threat to the community and whether anyone’s complained about it. So far he’s heard no complaints.

“It’s a tough issue,” he added, “but the bottom line is that some of these so-called dispensaries, they’re outside the law. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to come in there and kick their door down and take everything.”

Cannabis club operators know they’re on shaky ground. Sparky Rose, executive director of Compassionate Caregivers (CCG), which runs seven medical marijuana dispensaries throughout California, including one that opened here in February, said his organization has relied on cities and counties to decide whether to allow cannabis clubs and, if they do, how those clubs will be regulated. On the same day CityBeat spoke to Rose, he had just returned from a meeting with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department to discuss an ordinance the county’s crafting to determine how many clubs it’ll allow and where those clubs can be located.

Rose says CCG makes a small profit—about 5 percent—but that the company pays federal, state and local taxes, pays for workers-compensation insurance, provides health benefits to employees and invests in stringent quality-control and security measures. That, he said, makes CCG different from a lot of other operations.

“Basically, all the tenets of California corporate law are not adhered to by most medical-cannabis dispensaries,” he said. Profiteering is what attracts law enforcement. “You’re basically a glorified street dealer,” if you don’t follow the rules of running a business, he said. “You’re not paying rent, you have few employees and you’re just paying them under the table. The cash comes in, you take your cut and the product goes out.”

Rose said his company moved into San Diego after realizing that medical-marijuana patients from San Diego were driving north to other CCG locations to obtain pot—some driving as far as Oakland. In those cases, Rose said CCG won’t sell out-of-area folks more than 8 ounces—the legal limit for possession. “It’s really difficult for a cancer patient or an AIDS patient to trek all the way up for 8 ounces.”

Rose said CCG was advised by city officials to be discrete and “don’t create any problems.” He asked that CityBeat not print the company’s address but allowed a reporter to visit its small City Heights facility, located behind frosted glass in a business complex. A security guard the size of a linebacker checks patients’ doctor recommendations and identification before allowing them to enter a 15-by-20-foot bright white room. On one side, small marijuana plants, or clones, sit stacked on shelves, and above a glass display case, a menu lists various strains of cannabis with names like “Morning Star,” “Kahuna” and “God.” Ben Molale, the dispensary’s general manager, explained that different varieties of pot are more effective for different ailments. Some are better painkillers, for example, while others counteract depression and lethargy. Molale, who moved to San Diego from Oakland two months ago, has been working in dispensaries since the late ’90s and said he finds first-time patients here far more nervous than the ones he worked with up north.

As Molale talked, Rudy Reyes, 27, a severely burned survivor of 2003’s Cedar fire was mulling over the menu. Reyes goes to Compassionate Caregivers to buy marijuana. Before it opened here, he said, he drove to the Los Angeles location.

Reyes, who suffered burns over 75 percent of his body, said doctors at the UCSD Burn Unit thought marijuana might help control muscle contractions in his arms as he tried to regain mobility. The pot proved not only helpful in that regard but also helped him cope with pain. Soon he was off morphine completely and never had to fill the prescription for OxyContin that his doctor thought he might need. Reyes says he’s free from painkillers and antidepressants and relies strictly on cannabis. The affable, talkative Reyes makes frequent trips around the country to talk to other burn survivors. When he’s not doing that, he works as an archeologist for the Barona Indian tribe, overseeing construction projects on reservation land.

Aside from questionable legal status, one other issue that dogs medical-cannabis clubs is price. The cost of an ounce of pot from a cannabis dispensary ($400 on average) is close to its street value. Humphrey has a real problem with that.

“It’s exorbitant,” she said. “How does that make them different from any dealer? Except for maybe they have a higher quality because they can account for how they grew it, but the street price of drugs is outrageous.”

Humphrey said that, short of the feds making marijuana a Schedule 2 drug—and therefore legal with a doctor’s prescription—she’d like to see a government agency be the one distributing medical cannabis “so that someone who finds out they’re diagnosed with cancer and getting chemo next week won’t have to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for very little marijuana.”

Medical-marijuana activist Steve McWilliams agrees. “My whole thing has always been cultivation,” McWilliams said—either teaching patients to grow their own marijuana or finding people who know how to grow pot and are willing to do it for a nominal price. He says patients shouldn’t have to pay “gold” prices for medicine.

McWilliams and his partner Barbara McKenzie say they’ve always advocated “collectives” where a single garden would provide marijuana for a set number of patients. This, they point out, is allowed by law. In a collective model, patients reimburse the grower for the cost of initial purchase, care and maintenance of the plants. McWilliams himself was a long-time grower for medical-marijuana patients. He says he never received any money. In 2003, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of possessing 25 marijuana plants—well below the 32-plant limit set by the San Diego City Council. His case is currently on appeal in federal court. Pending the appeal, McWilliams is not allowed to use marijuana and must submit to weekly drug tests.

Back when the city’s task force was drawing up guidelines, McWilliams and McKenzie advocated for a city plot of land on which there’d be a community garden for medical-marijuana patients. Police, however, quashed that idea for security reasons.

CCG’s Rose says he’s all for patient self-sufficiency—that’s why his dispensaries sell live plants, but for some people cultivation isn’t an option. McWilliams shared an e-mail with CityBeat he received from a woman in Murrieta, the second city in California to ban medical cannabis dispensaries. “I am a consumer,” she wrote. “I want to be able to walk into a store, buy my medicine, get the relief I need and never have to think about it until I need to refill.”

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