Marijuana health policy still a puzzle

August 08, 2005

M.S. Enkoji, Sacramento Bee

On the main drag, storefronts lining the sidewalk proffer dining and nail polishing, but the one with the Holstein cow knickknacks perched in the window, with locked doors and no sign or advertising is drawing a steady lunchtime stream.

Curtained from the view of passers-by, the Hayward Patient Resource Center is not broadcasting its primary business of selling medical marijuana. Men and women, young and old, stride up purposefully to press the doorbell, waiting with papers in hand for the curtain to draw back, the locks to click open.

Business seems good in spite of the low profile, but that's not the point, the owners insist.

"I don't want to make a lot of money, I want to help a lot of people," said Tom Lemose, 43, one of the operators of the center and a medical marijuana user.

Here in what they call the "heart of the bay," the Hayward City Council and patient advocates seemed to have forged a détente of sorts in what is a growing gray zone for California cities and counties wrestling over medical marijuana retail dispensaries: ban them, regulate them, ignore them?

California voters passed Proposition 215 nine years ago, which legalized marijuana for patients with a doctor's recommendation, even though federal law continues to outlaw any use.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June ensured that federal authorities can still bust any pot users and sellers in spite of state medical provisions.

Ever since, in city after city, the doors have been slamming shut for medical marijuana dispensaries. At least nine cities, including Roseville and Rocklin, and one county have issued outright bans, some even repealing previous permits. The ruling put the brakes on a Sacramento County task force that had been working for months on proposing regulations.

The quandary of regulating something that is ultimately illegal is not lost on local leaders.

"We knew that the issue was difficult because of the conflict with state and federal law," said Hayward Mayor Roberta Cooper. "We are literally turning a blind eye to a federal crime."

But there is another issue, she said: "We are very empathic to people who are in need."

Because of the ruling, the trend will probably move toward more bans, said Dave LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association.

"Folks are not supposed to be selling this stuff. Providing is one thing, selling is another," he said.

For those unable to grow their own pot, the legal alternatives are community gardens run at cost or plants cultivated by a primary caretaker, he said.

Because not all patients entitled to marijuana as medicine can grow their own, places like the Hayward center should also be legitimate, patient advocates argue.

An Oakland patient advocacy group is suing Fresno over the city's ban, arguing it illegally denies patients access to medicine. More lawsuits could follow, said Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access.

"We're trying to establish that permanent bans are not acceptable reactions," he said.

The high-court ruling didn't deter every local jurisdiction, Hermes said. San Francisco and West Hollywood are considering regulations, he said. According to Americans for Safe Access, 16 California cities and three counties permit dispensaries in some fashion.

In Hayward, the City Council and dispensary operators met and worked out an agreement - not a formal ordinance - including a 3-pound limit on the amount of marijuana on the premises and unannounced access for local police, Cooper said. The council and law enforcement relented on requiring written records on all marijuana suppliers.

For nearly two years, the agreement has been enough to satisfy the council and law enforcement, she said.

"I couldn't be happier," said Lemose, who helped open the center in 2003.

In Sacramento County, a task force with advocates, county representatives and law enforcement had looked at other laws and was headed toward proposed regulations to submit to the Board of Supervisors when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling dropped a wrench in the works, said Robert Sherry, Sacramento director of planning and community development.

Though some kind of recommendation is due to the Board of Supervisors by October, Sherry, chairman of the task force, declined to say what that would be.

Sacramento County imposed a moratorium on dispensaries that expires in October.

"It's a terrible dilemma for local elected officials in California," said Sacramento County Supervisor Illa Collin. "We'll have to deal with it one way or the other. I feel like we're walking on a tightrope on this one."

In July, a Sacramento federal grand jury indicted 51-year-old Louis Wayne Fowler after federal authorities raided his Sacramento County dispensary and home. Besides finding 1,000 plants at both locations, they also found guns, which he was not allowed to have because he was a convicted felon.

"There's abuse," said Ryan Landers, California director of the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis and a member of the Sacramento County task force. "But that's because there are no regulations."

Inside the Hayward center, Lemose and co-founder Jane Weirick, also a patient, talk about the center that serves people as far away as Auburn, as patients brush past to a counter in the back equipped with a credit-card reader.

The front room with sofas and soft lighting is for patients who linger to talk about their illnesses, but no smoking is allowed.

For those who need quick relief, they must sit in the back under a ceiling vent in chairs designed to discourage lounging.

Most people rush in and out, just like at any other pharmacy. They look buttoned-down, officious and discreet or laid back and open, greeting the two as they leave.

In the back, Lemose shows marijuana neatly rolled in plastic bags, tagged with bar codes to help with medical research. A map charts delivery prices. Sacramento's is $35.

There is no profit in the center, he said, but the law for establishing a nonprofit doesn't include medical marijuana dispensaries, he said. On this day, Lemose will come up about $2,000 short on his payroll for 22 employees, he said.

Unlike the typical business ethic, Weirick said their "business" shouldn't grow; more dispensaries should open.

"In the perfect world, we'd only serve the local area," said Weirick, 45, who suffers from a neurological disease.

On a sofa near Weirick, Rob Berryhill rested after making a purchase. A Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, he substitutes marijuana for antidepressants, he said.

Fewer antidepressants allows him to function more clearly and piece his life back together, said Berryhill, 56.

"The club brings a much-needed social aspect," he said.

Without the center, Berryhill would be forced to get his marijuana the traditional way.

"On 71st Avenue," he said, referring to a well-known drug-dealing neighborhood in Oakland.

To him, that's an unsavory alternative: "I never liked that crowd anyway."



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