Patients in State Pledge to Go Right on Puffing

June 06, 2005

Jay Bergstrom, Sacramento Bee

Medical marijuana dispensers in Northern California remained open and patients were getting their supplies Monday despite a Supreme Court ruling that federal law enforcement officials can ignore state law and arrest those who use pot to ease pain.

'I grow my own plants, and I'm going to continue to do so no matter what,' said Ryan Landers, a 33-year-old HIV patient and medical marijuana advocate from Sacramento who uses pot to alleviate nausea, vomiting and stomach pain caused by his prescription drugs.

'I've gotten calls from other patients today asking me if they should rip up their gardens, and my answer has been a big, fat 'no.' ' 

The state's top law enforcement official, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, predicted the status quo, which offered reassurance for Californians who dispense and use marijuana for medicinal purposes. California is one of 10 states where medical marijuana use is legal.

'I don't think there's likely to be any significant change in California because of this ruling,' Lockyer said.

But any local law enforcement agency that 'believes that they're obligated to enforce federal law is legally allowed to,' he said.

California voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996, permitting patients with a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana. Currently, more than 150 medicinal marijuana dispensaries operate around the state, said Nathan Sands, Sacramento representative for Compassionate Coalition, a medical marijuana advocacy group.

The conflict between California and federal law has made operating medical marijuana dispensaries precarious as federal drug agents have raided some pot operations.

Richard Marino operated Capitol Compassionate Care in Roseville. In September, drug agents seized hundreds of marijuana plants he was growing on property in Newcastle last summer. He did not face criminal charges, but the federal government filed a civil complaint against Marino, claiming he profited from an illegal enterprise.

Louis Fowler, who owns a medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento, said he expects the Supreme Court decision to embolden federal officials to conduct more raids. But business will go on, said Fowler, owner of Alternative Specialties on Folsom Boulevard.

'I am proceeding as usual,' said Fowler, who opened his storefront dispensary in August. 'I've always been violating federal law since I opened, and the Supreme Court ruling just means that I'm still violating federal law. But I am in compliance with California law.'

Fowler said he was inundated with calls from patients Monday after news of the Supreme Court ruling broke. And customers came and went as usual.

'These are very sick people, and they are worried that we might shut down,' he said. 'I've reassured them that we aren't going anywhere.'

The two seriously ill Northern California women who were plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case said Monday's ruling is a disappointment but it won't stop them from using the marijuana they insist is necessary to live with debilitating pain.

'I think it's just a blow to compassion everywhere. But I'm going to ... continue to do what I think is right,' said Diane Monson, a 48-year-old resident of rural Butte County who uses marijuana several times a day to ease pain caused by severe back spasms. 'Actually, I have several 2-month-old plants in my yard as we speak.'

Co-plaintiff Angel McClary Raich, 39, of Oakland, vowed Monday to take the fight to Congress next and said she is willing to leave the United States if it's the only way to ensure she can use marijuana.

'If I need to leave the country, I will when that time comes,' said Raich, who suffers from several illnesses, including wasting syndrome and an inoperable brain tumor. 'I unfortunately do not have a choice but to continue to using cannabis as a medicine.'

Otherwise, she said, 'I would die.'

Some county and city governments around California have attempted to regulate, restrict or even prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries, an issue that is likely to remain murky in the wake of the ruling.

Sacramento County, for instance, is in the midst of a moratorium on issuing permits for new dispensaries until officials can devise guidelines on how such facilities should operate. Davis, Dixon and Rancho Cordova also have passed moratoriums. Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Roseville and Auburn have ordinances to regulate them, while Rocklin has banned medical marijuana sales entirely.

Jeff Jones, executive director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, said the ruling might push cities and counties to be less hospitable to dispensaries.

'We may see some cities not want to regulate a facility that helps patients,' he said.

Randi Webster owns and operates the San Francisco Patients' Cooperative and relies on pot herself to cope with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis as well as kidney stones, gallstones, nausea and spasms. She said she will continue to use the substance an average of four times a day via vaporizer.

'My other choice would be addiction or death,' said Webster, 50. 'The pain medicines I would have to be on are addictive, and if I didn't take them, I most likely would waste away and die. So cannabis is my choice and the only one that really works for me.'

Webster said she is not worried about her cooperative, but has 'no confidence' that federal authorities will respect state laws that permit use of medical marijuana.

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