Dispensaries fighting Palm Springs' pot ordinance

March 14, 2010

Marcel Honore, Desert Sun

Palm Springs became the first city in the Coachella Valley to grant operating permits to medical marijuana distributors last month. But the city's limit of two permits, granted only to not-for-profit collectives, hasn't stopped four other medical pot dispensaries from sprouting across Palm Springs -- and keeping their doors open against the city's wishes.

Members of the medical marijuana community say these collectives are the Coachella Valley's only places where as many as 12,000 local medical marijuana patients can acquire the drug.

"Thank God. Where else could we get something?" said Palm Springs resident Larry Nielsen, a medical marijuana patient who relies on one of the four dispensaries to help treat his HIV/AIDS symptoms.

He declined to say which of the four he visits.

Meanwhile, Palm Springs' two approved collectives -- CannaHelp and Desert Organic Solutions Collective -- say they're still weeks from opening, following a months-long selection process that ended Feb. 3.

Patients say the pain they suffer leaves them unable to wait for city-sanctioned facilities, and reluctant to purchase the drug illegally on the streets.

"It is medication for me," Nielsen said. "I don't want to get anything where I don't know where it's been or where it's come from, who's handled it."

He and other patients say the drug, allowed for medicinal use under state law but prohibited under federal law, helps to ease pain associated with cancer, arthritis and migraines more effectively than traditional medications.

Legal battles

All valley cities other than Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage have banned medical marijuana facilities or created a moratorium, amid concerns they'll attract crime.

Palm Springs is suing the four open dispensaries to shut them down for violating its April 2009 ordinance, which regulates where collectives can operate and limits the number to two.

Three other unlicensed dispensaries recently closed after the city took similar legal action against them.

The police don't step in since it's a code enforcement matter, which leaves it up to the city attorney, said Officer Melissa Desmarais, a spokeswoman for the Palm Springs Police Department.

But so far, the dispensaries have refused to close, as a legal battle continues over whether Palm Springs has the right to shut them down.

"The city cannot cap the number of people who can do this," San Francisco-based attorney J. David Nick said.

He represents two of the non-sanctioned Palm Springs dispensaries: The Holistic Collective, which serves medical marijuana patients out of a colorful storefront on north Palm Canyon Drive, and California Collective of Choice, on Commercial Road near the airport.

He said there's "sufficient" demand for the dispensaries he represents in Palm Springs.

"You have Vietnam veterans living here suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome," as well as a sizeable senior population and many HIV/AIDS patients, he said.

Nick said he expects the issue will have to be resolved by the Supreme Court of California, and the facilities he represents won't close unless a final court decision compels them.

"Who's going to win? We don't know. But that's the argument. They don't have any authority to do this," he said.

Palm Springs City Attorney Doug Holland disagreed, maintaining the city could set caps on medical marijuana collectives.

"The state has authorized the use" of medical marijuana, but cities can decide whether they want to provide a means to distribute, or how to regulate the drug, Holland said.

A hearing is scheduled March 15 to set a trial date for The Holistic Collective case, Nick said.

Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy group, said cities "certainly" have the ability to regulate dispensaries -- but those regulations have to be reasonable.

ASA is suing the city of Los Angeles over its recently passed medical marijuana ordinance, Hermes said, because it includes excessive restrictions on where dispensaries can open, reducing dispensaries there from as many as 600 to fewer than 70.

Palm Springs' ordinance could be considered too strict and the open dispensaries could have a legitimate legal case, Hermes said.

Limiting collectives to city industrial zones could unduly affect patients' ability to access, and capping them at two could affect the quality and variety of medical marijuana available in Palm Springs, plus drive up prices, Hermes said.

City manager David Ready said the City Council opted for two collectives to see if they sufficiently would meet demand. Better to start with too few than with too many, he said.

The two other unlicensed medical marijuana facilities in Palm Springs are C.A.P.S. Collective Apothecary Prescription Service and Desert Valley Patients Association.

"We need to keep this collective open and everyone's voice is important," a flier posted in the lobby of Desert Valley Patients Association's new location on Williams Road stated. Representatives from both groups did not return requests to comment.

Patients want more

Lanny Swerdlow, director of the Palm Springs-based Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, said he knows of 19 medical marijuana facilities across the Inland Empire.

Other than the two about to open in Palm Springs, they all violate city or county bans and moratoriums, he said.

"Everyone is criticizing Palm Springs for allowing (only) two," Swerdlow said. "I'm tired of people bashing Palm Springs. I think they should be bashing these other cities that won't even allow one."

Owners of CannaHelp and Desert Organic Solutions Collective, the city's two licensed collectives, say they're still weeks away from opening.

CannaHelp suffered a big setback Thursday when city police, fire and building officials locked down the collective's building, at 505 Industrial Place, after discovering "significant building violations" that could lead to fire and safety hazards, Holland said.

CannaHelp was days from opening, but now it could be set back as many as six weeks, city officials said.

Desert Organic also has faced obstacles: After it received city approval, Desert Organic learned its property owner would not lease a space as planned in north Palm Springs' industrial zone, just south of the wind turbines, owner Gary Cherlin said.

The collective found a new space to lease across the street, at 19-486 Newhall St., and expects to open in two to three weeks, he said.

The two collectives said they are prepared to eventually handle most of the valley's medical marijuana patients.

CannaHelp owner Stacy Hochanadel said his store could accommodate as much as 80 percent of what he estimated were 12,000 valley patients.

"I think we would be able to handle whatever came our way," Cherlin said. He said he has an option to lease up to 5,000 square feet in which to cultivate plants for Desert Organic Solutions.

"It's good (the open dispensaries) are here for the patients right now," Hochanadel said.

"It's either that or get it off the street," Palm Springs resident and medical marijuana patient Trev Trevino said.

The drug "makes it a lot easier to get food down," Trevino said. He said the drug has helped him cope with symptoms related to HIV-AIDS for more than 30 years, as well as severe arthritis in his knees.

Trevino said he visits The Holistic Collective and Desert Valley Patients Association, and he plans to check out CannaHelp and Desert Organic Solutions once they open.

"Two dispensaries isn't enough," Nielsen said. "It's about quality of life. It's about comfort."

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