A case for medical marijuana

June 23, 2005

Tony Anthony, Ukiah Daily Journal

On the surface it may seem ironic that Sergeant Rusty Noe of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department is busy on one end of town teaching techniques for spotting illegal pot gardens from government supplied helicopters while at the other end of town members of local law enforcement are participating in an open forum about the distribution of medical cannabis in Mendocino County.

It may appear that the illegal growing of pot is separate from the legal growing of medical marijuana, but as often happens in the case of the benign green plant, issues become easily intertwined.

Nonetheless, Mendocino County officials, lead by Supervisor for Mendocino County's 2nd District Jim Wattenburger, are taking on the difficult issues of dealing with California's largest cash crop, estimated in the billions of dollars.

Ever since Proposition 215 - passed by the California voters in 1996 - went into effect, the enforcement of medical marijuana use was made difficult because suddenly there was legal use for a drug considered illegal. This June when the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could prosecute medical marijuana use but did not overturn state laws permitting it, things became even more perplexing. Those who try to use marijuana as a medical treatment still risk legal action by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or other federal agencies and state laws provide no defense.

On Wednesday, Wattenburger was at the forefront of a lively and thoughtful discussion of the issues of how to deal with the complex problem of providing medical marijuana to the people who need it.

The discussion was attended by Ukiah Police Chief John Williams, Captain Trent Smith of the Ukiah Police Department as well as Captain Kevin Broin and Undersheriff Gary Hudson of the Sheriff's Department plus the county's legal council, and other officials. Maria Brook represented the Mendocino County Medical Marijuana Growers Guild and Pebbles Trippet spoke on behalf of caregivers. The ensuing two and a half-hour discussion shed light on many of the complex issues involved.

The recent Supreme Court decision to make the sale of medical marijuana illegal has put the State of California and its counties in an awkward position. As Undersheriff Hudson put it, 'if the DEA comes in they are empowered to do so.' Hudson also brought to light that federal money helps support Mendocino County, underscoring the political complexity of local government becoming distributors of pot through a proposed caregiver network. But the real rub is this: What our forward-thinking county deems legal is still questionable, at best, on the federal level.

What was most heartening about the Wattenburg gathering was that it was not a meeting that could have been held in any other part of our nation. There was little or no animosity between law enforcement and marijuana growers - something hard to imagine in, say, Cleveland or even Miami. All the participants in the discussion were heard and their views respected and in actuality, there was very little disparity between most of the views expressed. The participants were simply searching for a common ground on which the problem could be solved - each, of course, from their own perspective.

The basic facts are simple: Marijuana is as much here to stay as, say, beer. It is a fact of life that exists anywhere in the United States although here it is being dealt with in an open way that could serve as an example to the rest of the nation. It could be said that Mendocino County is, in fact, leading the way for meetings that will inevitably take place some day all over the country.

Pebbles Trippet, spokeswoman for the Medical Marijuana Patients Union, said that our county was the 'bravest, boldest, clearest' on the issue, going as far as writing regulations instructing Sheriff's deputies how they are to deal with pot. Trippet's organization, 'formed by and for people who use cannabis medicines for beneficial health purposes' is trying to take the marijuana out of the realm of law enforcement and make it a health issue. She pointed out that when the law was originally passed nine years ago it enabled 'mom and pop' growers to have 'cooperative collective cultivation.' But the passing of recent city laws has reversed many of the good effects of Proposition 215, she said, making it virtually impossible for the plants to be grown outdoors anywhere within city limits.

Trippet felt the county was the place the problem would be solved because the representatives locally care about the people they represent because they are close to them. In that line of thinking, the representatives on the state level are remote and those working on the federal level are totally out of touch. This gets to the heart of the matter - it is the County vs. the state and, yes, vs. Washington, D.C.

Capt. Broin voiced the problem of trying to set up a network of caregiver distribution centers. 'The problem started on the state level so it needs to be fixed on a state level.' He questioned the Ahimsa representative Dana Jay. 'Why did you pick Mendocino County? Did you approach the state since it's a state law we're talking about?'

Jay replied that Ahimsa had contacted every county but most weren't interested in talking.

'The counties all pointed to the state and when we approached the state, they pointed at the counties,' he said.

The Ahimsa video

Dana Jay represents Ahimsa International, a non-profit organization that is promoted as 'dedicated to the reduction and prevention of social and environmental degradation through the development and implementation of innovative programs, which support the future of our planet and our humanity as a whole.' What this means, underneath the rather esoteric and lofty goal, is that the group is promoting quality control standards for the growing and distribution of medical cannabis.

Dana noted that Mendocino County was the most open and accepting of their proposed program of any of the counties they had approached in California. She showed the group a half-hour video that featured some well-known local authorities.

Appearing on the tape promoting the Ahimsa point of view were Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman and Sheriff Tony Craver who spoke bluntly about the current caregiver set-up noting that care giving is purely profit driven which fosters illegal activity. Also speaking on the tape was retired judge Jim Gray, a former prosecutor and anti-drug enforcer who instructed that 'drug money is more dangerous than the drugs themselves. Drugs are the most lucrative thing going.'

Bolstering the Ahimsa group's selling point, which is to set up a regulated system of growing and distribution of medical marijuana, Vroman said on the tape that one problem is that care giving is being handled in different ways in each of the 58 different counties statewide. Several medical doctors on the tape supported Ahimsa's case siting that unregulated marijuana may be more harmful than helpful. One doctor stated that the plant pulls heavy metals from the ground and ground water including chromium, mercury, cadmium and lead. In addition, toxic levels of pesticides and fungicides are often found putting smokers at risk.

The doctors made the case for marijuana use siting its benefits at alleviating Post-Traumatic Stress, ADD, depression, insomnia and chronic pain. They noted that the drug has proved to be especially helpful for cancer and AIDS patients because it increases appetite.

On the tape Catherine Groves, vice president of Ahimsa proposes that marijuana be standardized because its effects should be categorized to determine the benefits of the hundreds of different strains and to optimize them for different conditions. Ahimsa also proposes the plants be grown in controlled conditions with inspections for growers to determine the purity of their plants.

Norm Vroman makes the point, 'people who use medical marijuana deserve government protection.' Doctor Milan Hopkins, a family practice physician in Lake County says that often a prescription, which is a legal document, is often not enough to satisfy the law. Wattenburger, also appearing on the video, supports the thought of having dispensaries in County public health offices.

'There the patients can get the help they need without danger and violence.' Ahimsa supports the idea of 'putting the money from over 80,000 patients in California back into the system.'

The law enforcement issue

Not necessarily agreeing with the Ahimsa plan, many in the discussion acknowledged another important issue. Cannabis clubs buy cannabis from growers without knowing the purity of the plants. Capt. Broin added, 'the way they are operating is detrimental to the public.'

The point was voiced that one local club brags of having 20,000 members - most of whom are known to be outside the area. There is actually a much-prized strain of marijuana sold in Southern California marketed with the Mendocino County name.

The Ahimsa tape makes the point that Mendocino County is one of the premiere growing areas in the state but the county is not profiting. It is the drug dealers and terrorists who fund their activities with drug money who are profiting. The group makes a case for the government dispensing of marijuana. Their plan would be for 25 percent of the money from the sales goes to the county. As Norm Vroman says, 'the benefits outweigh the burdens.'

But putting the Ahimsa plan into action would mean changing and unifying the law statewide. And there continues to be the disparity between the laws on the various levels of government. Mendocino County may be so forward-thinking that it will take time for the state and then the federal government to catch up. It appears that the Wattenburger group must deal with the problem of being ahead of its time.



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