Medical marijuana catch-22 for S.F.

April 24, 2005

Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle

Federal drug agents who want to crack down on marijuana use in San Francisco, medical or otherwise, say the city’s plan to regulate the drug may give law enforcement what it needs to do its job: a paper trail.

Documents such as business permits, licenses and financial records do not exist at many of the 43 known pot clubs in San Francisco. But new city regulations — including some proposed last week by Mayor Gavin Newsom — could force clubs to begin keeping such records.

“Yes, we can subpoena documents,” said Lawrence Mendosa, assistant special agent in charge for the San Francisco Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Those documents would assist federal agents in mapping the infrastructure of the marijuana distribution system in the city, he said.

While many pot club operators and medical marijuana users in San Francisco agree the city needs regulations, the record-keeping issue most certainly will be raised today when a Board of Supervisors committee meets for the first time to explore marijuana regulations.

Newsom, who describes himself as a strong proponent of medical marijuana, says the threat of DEA action because of city regulation is “a legitimate question that should be explored.”

The DEA’s mission is to stop the sale, use, possession and cultivation of illegal substances Northern California — and marijuana is second on its priority list, after methamphetamine.

“Our responsibility is to enforce federal law and to bring justice those who violate the law,’’ Mendosa said. “Whether it’s legal in the state really doesn’t affect what we do.”

The DEA has raided clubs and crops across the state but so far has not conducted a wide-scale assault on clubs in San Francisco, which has more dispensaries than any other city in the nation, according to marijuana activists.

Drug policy experts say it’s clear why pot clubs refuse to keep financial records.

“If you file a state return reporting tax payments to undertake a federally prohibited activity, activity, you’re basically providing evidence to the federal government,” said Peter Reuter, a professor at the University of Maryland and co-author of the book “Drug War Heresies.”

Reuter said San Francisco will be entering what he calls the “netherworld” of creating rules for an illegal substance. He said the Netherlands, where marijuana use officially is prohibited, is also in that realm and it creates constant problems.

“For many years, cities struggled with what they could do and couldn’t. Coffee shops would test out the limits, and cities would struggle to respond,” he said. The Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center had an open-book policy, until it was shut down by the federal government in October 2001, said Dale Gieringer, California state coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “They recorded every ounce: where it came from, what it cost them, where it went. That’s what got them into trouble. (The Justice Department) got the books and closed them,” Gieringer said. One of the recommendations Newsom made last week is that dispensaries would have to open their books to city inspectors to verify that they’re operating as a not-for- profit business cooperative or collective, as required by the state, and that only primary caregivers and authorized patients are buying the marijuana.

Among Newsom’s other suggestions were zoning requirements, advertising regulation and good neighbor” policies that would create a grievance process for residents living near a club.

“As a business owner, that’s not something I would want,” Newsom said. “But the businesses I run … the government does come in and audit my books all the time. … It’s no different than anyone else.”

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who is leading the Board of Supervisors effort, said he thinks new regulations will demystify clubs and pull them out of a subterranean atmosphere.

“There’s always that threat (of DEA action). But I think that threat is lessened more by regulating the clubs. If the Department of Public Health is the driver of this, we have advanced our ability to rely on doctor-patient confidentiality,” he said.

Mirkarimi wants to look at new rules for all three parts of the medical marijuana infrastructure — the clubs, the doctors and the growers — and said the most logical places to start are zoning, public health, planning and land use.

He said the ultimate goal of a functioning medical marijuana system is legalization of the substance. That’s exactly what’s driving the federal government to raid clubs and crops, said Robert Mac- Coun, a professor of public policy and law at UC Berkeley who authored the book with Reuter. “The reform effort has been led by drug law reformers, not patient groups. The federal government is upset about this not because people dying from cancer are smoking marijuana, but because they see it as a slippery slope,” MacCoun said. “The fact of the matter is, the federal government is fighting marijuana legalization.”


Proposed rules for medical marijuana

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last week proposed a number of regulations he would like the Board of Supervisors to impose on medical marijuana clubs in the city, which now number 43. The recommendations, many of which are modeled after state provisions regulating medical cannabis, include: 1. Forbidding the clubs to operate within 1,000 feet of places where young people congregate, such as playgrounds, parks, schools or youth centers, or within 500 feet of another dispensary. 2. Prohibiting the drinking of alcohol on the premises. 3. Making club records available to city inspectors to verify they are meetingstate requirements to operate as a not-for-profit cooperative or collective. 4. Ensuring that only primary caregivers and authorized patients are buying the marijuana. 5. Requiring owners to get Planning Department approval and to notify neighbors of their intent to open a club. 6. Restricting advertising of the clubs to medical and public health communities,such as hospitals and clinics. 7. Requiring that the clubs adhere to good-neighbor policies to prevent such nuisances as loitering, excessive noise and illegal parking around the facilities.

E-mail Wyatt Buchanan at wbuchanan@sfchronicle.com.



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