Medical marijuana under siege

August 28, 2005

Erica Solvig, The Desert Sun

Since a stroke and four-week coma suffered 33 years ago, Sunshine Laue has used marijuana to deal with crippling body pains, depression, anxiety and a slew of other health problems.

Now, the 60-year-old Yucca Valley grandmother and other area marijuana patients are wondering where they will get the medicine they've come to rely on.

In what some view as a pre-emptive strike against the statewide marijuana use registration program, Riverside County has temporarily banned all medical marijuana dispensaries in all unincorporated areas.

County leaders say the 45-day prohibition, which has the potential to become permanent, will allow the county to put zoning in place that regulates where dispensaries can be placed. They predict that the county will see an influx of such locations as it prepares to locally implement the state ID card for patients.

But area users and advocates of medical marijuana use say this is a ploy to stop people from using the drug. Plus, it will turn these patients into criminals by forcing them to buy off the illicit market.

"It's hurting a lot of people," said Laue, who goes through two or three grams of marijuana a day by smoking it or ingesting it in bread and cookies.

"We are people under siege," she said. "It's very difficult to procure our medication. We try very hard to be lawful and to be proper in our society.

"With this stupid fear of retaliation or fear of discovery, we don't live a normal life.

California is one of only 10 states where people can legally use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

The patients have been diagnosed with a variety of diseases, including AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that users here can still face federal prosecution, the California Department of Health and Safety is continuing with a statewide program to register such patients with ID cards.

Those cards should be available in Riverside County come December.

Dispensaries are similar to a local drug store. Patients can go in, show their user ID card and purchase their medication.

County zoning does not address where such dispensaries can be located, so county officials fear it could be located near churches and schools.

The emergency ban gives the county 45 days to establish where - if anywhere - these dispensaries can be located.

"We're just trying to get a hold on the situation," says Supervisor Marion Ashley, whose district includes Desert Hot Springs and northern Palm Springs.

He did not know how many dispensaries are in Riverside County or where they are located. Other county supervisors could not be reached Friday.

"It's in the best interest of the public," Ashley said of the county's decision. "The idea is to come up with a better system.

"This is an attempt to control, to be fair and to stay within the law."

But medical marijuana advocates like Lanny Swerdlow say that the broad definition of "dispensaries" will also outlaw cooperative groups of patients who grow their own. "What they really want is to gut the law," said Swerdlow, a Palm Springs man who declined to discuss his own personal health history but has been been active with the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project since 1999.

"They're personally opposed to anything dealing with marijuana. They've now made the patients into criminals."

It's unclear how many local residents use marijuana medically. But a monthly support group that meets in Cathedral City draws some 40 people. And other support groups in the county also draw small crowds.

Martin and Lavonne Victor of Temecula have been using marijuana since 2000.

Martin says other medication wouldn't help his optical-nerve swelling, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia syndrome.

His wife, Lavonne, has suffered everything from agoraphobia to panic attacks. She says her condition was so severe that a mental and physical breakdown left her bedridden and unable to care for herself.

In the last couple days, the parents of four have been bombarded by people looking to join their growing group.

The couple says the patients are looking for any way to avoid the illicit market. "We have had quite a few panic e-mails," Marty Victor said. "It's rough on a lot of people out there."

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