Medical marijuana flashback

May 10, 2005

Emily Fancher , San Mateo County Times

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — Tariq Alazraie wants to open the county's first medical marijuana dispensary across the street from City Hall.

Like many others pot club owners, Alazraie, a San Bruno resident and father of three, said he wants to bring compassion to the sick, frail, and disabled, those suffering from cancer, HIV and other illnesses.

But the county's top law enforcer may stand in his way.

California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996 allowing medical marijuana use under a doctor's supervision, but left

the details of regulation to local counties.

District Attorney Jim Fox, an outspoken opponent of pot clubs, argues that Prop. 215 allows patients to use pot with a doctor's order, but does not permit medical marijuana clubs or dispensaries.

'The law is clear on its face,' Fox said.Alazraie said he doubts Fox would shut him down.

'This not a police issue, it's a public health issue,' he said.

But even so, he must convince the South San Francisco City Council of the merits of his argument. The council tonight will consider a 45-day moratorium on medical pot clubs to give it time to discuss how to regulate them.

San Francisco's experience

Currently, San Mateo county residents with a doctor's written permission or a card from the San Francisco Public Health Department can grow and smoke marijuana at home, but must go into San Francisco to buy cannabis from a pot club or dispensary.

San Francisco recently created a moratorium on the clubs after businesses and residents complained robbery and loitering outside and abuse of the clubs.

South San Francisco officials want to learn from San Francisco's mistakes, said Sgt. Alan Normandy, and regulate the clubs to address safety concerns. 'We believe at some point it's coming and we want to make sure it's as safe as possible,' he said.  

Alazraie, who runs a dispensary in San Franciso called Mason Street, said regulation is crucial to protect patients. He himself uses pot to counter pain, though he would not say what causes it. He's very strict at Mason Street, selling to those with a patient card or a doctor's note.

Normandy toured Mason Street and praised the professionalism of the shop.

Patients in need

Michael Mensick is a 44-year-old father of two who lives in Belmont and believes the San Francisco dispensaries are a godsend. Once a week, he buys a $340 ounce of pot at Mason Street with an letter from his doctor. Recently taken off Celebrex because of high blood pressure, Mensick said the pot is the only way to relieve the searing pain in his lower back from degenerative disc disease.

'The big thing for me is the back pain that was running down my leg.' said Mensick, who smokes in his bedroom out of his kids' sight. 'I couldn't  walk my kids to school.'

Mensick said he hopes South San Francisco officials will endorse the dispensary because ill residents in wheelchairs or with limited mobility often have a difficult time getting to San Francisco.

County's history on the issue

County officials have considered the issue of dispensaries before. Former Supervisor Mike Nevin said someone wanted to open a cannabis club in the late 1990s, but the board opposed it. Nevin wanted the county to distribute marijuana seized by law enforcement to needy patients, but for legal and practical reasons the supervisors finally decided against it.

Nevin said to answer the question of whether marijuana can help some symptoms, he encouraged Dr. Dennis Israelski, director of research at the San Mateo Medical Center, to study it. Israelski is currently completing the research on local HIV/AIDS patients who used marijuana as a painkiller and to relieve stress.  

Currently, the county is working with the state to eventually offer a standard patient card that medical marijuana users can show to law enforcement, said San Mateo County Deputy Public Health Director John Conley.

Federal government concerns

Though several polls show widespread support for medical marijuana in the United States, congress and federal drug regulators continue to scoff at the idea of legalizing pot for medical purposes.

Dave Murray, a policy analyst for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said marijuana has never been shown to be safe or effective. He said the country doesn't approve other drugs through ballot measures but through the Food and Drug Administration.

'Why should marijuana different?' he said.

Joey Tranchina, executive director of the AIDS Prevention Action Network in Redwood City, said it's only the 'hysteria' of the federal government that keeps medical marijuana   from being legalized.

'It's a simple humanitarian move,' he said.

Alazraie said despite the resistance of the federal government, he believes public opinion will eventually change policy about medical marijuana.

'I think it'll be legalized everywhere in the next five years,' he said.



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