Cannabis group will continue dispensing

October 12, 2005

Seth Freedland, Ukiah Daily Journal

An organization distributing medical marijuana will not cease to do so even after receiving a letter from the city calling its actions "prohibited," employees said.

Hemp Plus Ministry, located on North State Street by Low Gap Road, is recognized as a church by the city, and the workers there are quick to point out that fact.

"What I do in my church is my business," said Patrick Duff, who introduces himself as Reverend Patrick at Hemp Plus. "Charley Stump has no authority over a church."

Stump, the city planning department director, authored the Sept. 6 letter notifying the group that cannabis sale is illegal under the City Council's May 18 urgency ordinance prohibing new marijuana dispensaries. The council extended the ordinance for an additional 10.5 months June 15.

Duff makes specific note of the division between business and religion at Hemp Plus. The front of the small building is a retail outlet and an "education liberation station," full of legal literature and how-tos on "using wisely." To even enter through the store's second door, visitors are confronted by posted copies of Prop. 215, which legalized medicinal cannabis in California and the Bill of Rights, among other precedence-setting documents.

To receive a business license to sell the small cluster of clothing and lotions, Duff and the owner of Hemp Plus, Les Crane of Laytonville, had to sign a letter pledging not to dispense marijuana as per the council's ordinance.

Duff called Stump's letter "an idle threat" and said his promise is still intact, just so long as he maintains the separation between the building's business and its church.

The city has yet to receive a complaint regarding Hemp Plus, Stump said. If his office receives a formal complaint, it will be investigated. Stump acknowledged that Hemp Plus -- in its third week of business today -- met all building code requirements for a place of worship in Ukiah, including assembly issues.

Ukiah Morrison, another Hemp Plus reverend, said no under-age youth have approached the storefront and the concern over medicinal cannabis amounts to nothing more than "reefer madness propaganda." Both he and Duff wondered over the "urgency" label of the ordinance, suggesting the city acted in poor faith with the local sick population and should have waited for complaints on dispensaries before creating the ordinance.

On Wednesday afternoon, Robin Isham made one of his frequent visits to Hemp Plus. Isham, who is 44 years old but appears decades older, contracted a moderate case of Parkinson's disease from his AIDS medication and relies on cannabis to lessen the pain and reduce the tremors. To be able to get medicinal marijuana, Isham moved from Arkansas and formerly drove to the Laytonville church before Ukiah's Hemp Plus opened.

"I've had a pretty rough week," Isham said, later noting that he recently spent four days in bed with exhaustion. "I can't grow my medicine in my government-subsidized housing, so I have to have somebody do it for me." He noted he did not have the fiscal means to purchase the necessary equipment and added he was loathe to disturb his neighbors with the high-powered lights. "Plus, I just don't have the energy," he said.

Duff escorted Isham into the back church area and gave the trembling man in a wool beanie his choice of a dozen marijuana varieties. Prices varied around $40 for an eighth of an ounce of pot, but Duff said he frequently declined any payment. He said he quit his lucrative job as a car salesman but has never been happier.

"This is not just a place to get medicine," he said. "We're not here to make money. We're looking to give hope."

The spiritual side of Hemp Plus is reinforced by both Duff and Morrison, who declared a goal to make the church "one of the most inspiring places" in the area.

Duff is full of chronicles of those he has helped recently, including a 22-year-old woman on MediCal who told Duff her five prescriptions were not helping her depression, anxiety and heartburn. An hour of medical research led to a heavily discounted bag of medicinal pot.

A man with multiple sclerosis who could not breathe without a machine drove more than an hour to Hemp Plus. An HIV-positive woman with Parkinson's began to cry when Duff handed her the cannabis and told her to keep the few dollars she had brought.

"If you live one day -- just one day -- like that and I'll give it to you for free," Duff said.

As another employee of Hemp Plus rubbed a lotion made of cannabis, myrrh, cinnamon and oil on Isham's pale feet -- "no charge for that either," Duff noted, "and it does help the healing" -- Isham appealed to the city, saying, "Don't make me feel like a criminal."

Morrison added that nothing in the store or church could kill a person, unlike many goods legal for purchase at a gas station across the street. Both reverends said they could understand the city's legal conundrum, but that caring for the sick trumped any law.

"We know what we're doing is illegal," Morrison said. "But it's the same as driving across a double yellow line to save a child. We've been too tolerant too long of others infringing on our right to help."

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