Medical marijuana issue comes to Simi

April 24, 2005

Teresa Rochester, Ventura County Star

Some mornings, the pain and stiffness in Donna Marron's slight body is so great it can take an hour to will her joints and muscles to get moving.

On rarer mornings, the 45-year-old Simi Valley woman propels herself out of bed with energy that belies two back injuries, arthritis and degenerative joint disease. After two hours of fixing up her woodworking room, however, the crippling pain returns.

Relief comes in the form of a tea made with marijuana plant stems stored in a Trader Joe's fat-free apricot and mango yogurt container.

'I took so much medication before this for my arthritis,' Marron said. 'I started having migraines really bad. I went through so much Imitrex. They fed me with medication.'

Marron's relationship with marijuana coexisted uneasily with her relationship with church. The born-again Christian alternately left one for the other until her pastor assured her, 'We don't judge.'

Marron received a physician's recommendation after presenting her medical charts to a doctor in Santa Cruz. Now, in a spare bedroom inside her home, the air is dense with the smell of bushy marijuana plants that absorb the bright light of specialized lamps.

She also has purchased her marijuana from clubs in Los Angeles and thinks her friend and fellow Simi Valley resident Michael Simpson could operate an ideal clinic in town.

Simpson, 45, wants to open a medical marijuana dispensary in this law-and-order city, in a county whose only previous foray with a pot club resulted in an injunction that shut down the Thousand Oaks facility.

His inspiration?

'I had a friend with tremors so bad he couldn't eat,' Simpson said.

Under California's law, marijuana can be used to ease symptoms like nausea, loss of appetite and pain caused by illnesses ranging from cancer and arthritis to AIDS.

Simi enacts moratorium

In response to Simpson's initially anonymous request in late February, Simi Valley's City Council enacted a 45-day moratorium on dispensaries, which it recently extended for 10 months.

Simi Valley's moratorium is the only one of its kind in Ventura County, but it puts the community in the growing ranks of cities up and down California putting the brakes on medical pot clubs in order to regulate existing or future dispensaries.

Pasadena, Ontario, West Hollywood, Modesto, San Francisco, Hayward, Huntington Beach and Temecula each have enacted moratoriums.

'The sudden explosion of dispensaries has generated a demand for some regulation,' said Dale Gieringer, who heads the California office of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. 'There have been a few places, a handful really, that have generated mainly neighborhood nuisances and complaints.'

Problems some cities have experienced include users with doctors' recommendations buying the drug and then conducting illegal street sales, patients and dispensaries being robbed, loitering and using the drug in public parks and traffic.

Fears of crime spurred Simi Valley's moratorium.

'Trying to protect the city'

'The Police Department is not trying to be obstructionist,' said Simi Valley Police Capt. Tony Harper, who is spearheading the city's dispensary study. 'The city is not trying to be obstructionist. We are trying to protect the city from crime.'

Lisa Schwarz of Camarillo runs Ventura County Alliance of Medical Marijuana Patients. The organization issues identification cards for marijuana patients, among other services. Schwarz said if dispensaries want to open, they should follow what she calls a medical model, meaning patients should be able to pick up their marijuana and leave.

Schwarz's organization has a growing cooperative for 10 to 12 patients.

The people who grow and dispense the marijuana should be knowledgeable about the various strains of the drug and how they affect different ailments, Schwarz said. She is skeptical about a center in Simi Valley.

'I personally am afraid to go to those places,' she said. 'I don't think it will ever happen in Simi Valley, because that's the home of (Republican Congressman) Elton Gallegly, and a lot of LAPD live there.'

Sitting at a table in an alcove outside Borders bookstore recently, Simpson and his dispensary partner John Conners explained their proposal.

'We want to keep the image of recreational use as far away as possible,' Simpson said. 'This is a medicine that is prescribed.'

He bristles at the idea of medical marijuana being used for fun and denounced recreational users who flout the law.

No sign with 'marijuana'

The proposal describes a dispensary that would serve qualified patients within a 25-mile radius of the club as allowed by state law, ideally located in an industrial or commercial area at least a half-mile from schools and out of the visual range of any path or route children might take on the way to school, Simpson said. There would be no sign with the word 'marijuana' or 'cannabis.'

Potential customers would have their recommendations authenticated and applications screened. Marijuana would be grown on premises to avoid transport issues, and security would include armed patrol by a private company, video cameras with recording equipment and fenced-in parking to avoid robberies.

Regulations governing medical marijuana dispensaries are left to individual cities to hash out on their own. San Rafael, San Jose, Pismo Beach and Rocklin have each issued outright bans.

The haziness is attributable to the law that made medical marijuana legal.

California voters approved the Compassionate Use Act in 1996. In Ventura County, it passed, 128,337-118,670. In Simi Valley, voters approved the act, 19,418-18,564.

Commonly known as Proposition 215, the law allows patients with a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana as part of their treatment for cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraines and other illnesses.

It also created a black hole by encouraging 'the federal and state governments to implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all patients in medical need of marijuana.'

Federal law forbids the use and distribution of medical marijuana. State law has guidelines about the amount of marijuana qualified patients can have, but there are no rules governing distribution.

Also, the state permits counties to enact local laws allowing patients and caregivers to exceed state cultivation and possession limits.

Voluntary ID card program

In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed SB 420, legislation that requires the state Department of Health Services to set up a voluntary identification card program and procedures so a qualified patient with a card can use marijuana medically.

'We got handed a soup sandwich in the way of guidelines and ways to enforce it,' said Santa Rosa Police Lt. Jerry Briggs. 'I don't believe all the people in California envisioned a law being implemented with the way this is being implemented with ID cards being fraudulent, or secondary sales outside cannabis clubs.'

In May, seven counties are set to embark on a state identification card pilot program that will likely go into effect permanently in August. County health departments would be responsible for setting fees for the cards, which will have the patients' pictures and ID numbers on them.

The cards would supersede identification cards given out by medical marijuana dispensaries. At the same time a county could contract with an organization, like Schwarz's for example, to distribute cards for it.

Department of Health Services spokeswoman Norma Arceo said the identification number would link into a statewide database accessible to law enforcement agencies.

The bill also requires the attorney general to develop and adopt guidelines to ensure the security and non-diversion of marijuana grown for medical use. The attorney general would also be responsible for clarifying possession and cultivation limits.

In Ventura County, a qualified patient can have no more than eight ounces of dried marijuana and six mature plants or 12 immature plants, or whatever limit their doctor's recommendation sets. This is in line with the possession levels set by SB 420.

'The law is clear for what is permitted for people who need this material at the county level,' Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeff Bennett said. 'I think the confusion is at the state level, where they need to clarify dispensing and possessing, and using marijuana is still a violation of federal law.'

That is something Simpson is keenly aware of. Like many proponents and opponents of medical marijuana, he is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to render its decision in the Raich-Monson v. Ashcroft case, which challenges the federal government's authority to supersede state law.

'If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Raich-Monson, I should like to move forward,' Simpson wrote in a letter dated April 5 to the Simi Valley City Council members. 'If the court rules in favor of Mr. Ashcroft, you may disregard my inquiry.'

Simpson's approach of going to city leaders first in search of approval before opening his dispensary is unusual, observers said.

In the majority of cases, dispensary operators pull general business licenses and then open up shop, to the chagrin of city leaders. Simpson's tactic may be rare, but it is not unprecedented.

Shortly after Proposition 215's passage, officials in West Hollywood, along with representatives of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, created regulations with the founders of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center.

Only qualified patients

The agreement called for only qualified patients to receive marijuana, quarterly checks of physician notes, accurate record-keeping and the right of sheriff's deputies to enter the facility without a warrant. The center also received money from the city to help buy its building.

The center operated smoothly for five years and served as a model of a city-law enforcement dispensary partnership, outgoing West Hollywood Mayor John Duran said.

That is, until two weeks after 9/11, when federal agents raided and shut down the club. Dispensary members were prosecuted as drug traffickers and placed on probation.

Seven unregulated dispensaries sprang up in the vacuum.

Some have posted armed guards outside of their facilities for fear of robberies.

Neighbors have complained about a host of problems coming from the clubs, including increased traffic and parking issues and drug dealing.

'All the conservative beliefs of local control and states' rights were upended by the Bush administration,' Duran said. 'Instead of having one well-regulated club, we have seven unregulated clubs.'

West Hollywood's City Council approved a moratorium on dispensaries earlier this year and recently extended it to figure out ways to govern them.

The federal government 'opened Pandora's Box,' Duran said. 'They left me holding a public safety nightmare.'

Bay Area's 'Oaksterdam'

Perhaps most notable for its reputation as a haven for dispensaries is Oakland, which earned the nickname 'Oaksterdam,' a riff on Amsterdam, where the sale of marijuana is legal.

The name is a bit unfair now because the city clamped down on pot clubs, forcing them out and inadvertently pushing them over the bridge into San Francisco. Rules governing dispensaries were reconstituted. Now only four are permitted to operate in the city.

Oakland Police Lt. Ed Poulson works in downtown, where dispensaries flourished. He said there were no significant jumps in serious crimes at the clubs but the 'quality of life really deteriorated.' Along with clients suffering from diseases, there were 'these kids whose only illness is they are stressed out about the SATs,' buying pot illegally.

'It had that bad feel in the area. It was unmistakable,' he said. 'The council reined in this abundant growth of pot clubs. I think the best thing was we made them spread out. Before we had clubs on one block. Once we spread them out there wasn't that large concentration.'

The area in downtown Oakland has since been revitalized.

Barbara Killey, who oversees dispensary permits in the city, said that since the new rules went into effect, she has received two complaints about dispensaries, or 'far less than what I get for bingo halls.'

Poulson is still skeptical.

'I think departments, in my view, they need to see how big their population of medical marijuana users is and then figure out how many clubs there should be,' he said.

As far as Simpson is concerned, 'Only one dispensary is necessary in Simi Valley.'

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