City's marijuana ordinance has some smoking

October 26, 2005

K. Kaufmann, The Desert Sun

Palm Desert officials thought they were making a pre-emptive strike when they came up with an ordinance outlawing medical marijuana dispensaries, set for a second reading and vote at today's City Council meeting.

But a dispensary may have already opened up in the city, according to Lanny Swerdlow of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, a patient support group, who charges that the Palm Desert ordinance runs counter to California's own controversial medical marijuana law.

That law, known as SB420, allows doctors to legally recommend medical marijuana to individual patients; it also lets patients grow marijuana for their own use or to form collectives with other patients to grow small amounts of the drug. It was passed in September 2003 and has been in effect since January 2004.

Swerdlow's concern is that the Palm Desert ordinance is so "broad and general (it would prohibit) any cultivation or use of medical marijuana."

And he said it was written "without consulting patients. There was no outcry from the public to do it (outlaw dispensaries)."

Although not a Palm Desert resident, Martin Victor of Temecula has a personal interest in the outcome of today's vote. He grows and uses marijuana for relief of a complex group of illnesses, including optic nerve swelling, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia.

"What does bother me about these goings on (is that they would) make it illegal for patients to grow and get safe access to their medicine," he said. "It's hard for me to understand why they're trying to do this, whether they're scared that it (medical marijuana) is going to be OK in the end."

Dr. Davood Vafai, an oncologist at Einsenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, said: "There's a subset of patients who benefit from smoking marijuana. There should be some regulation involved with it, (but) I don't see why it should be outlawed."

Swerdlow said he does not know where the Palm Desert dispensary is, but its existence was confirmed by Mark Balys, deputy planning director for Riverside County, who said its founder had spoken with county officials who are working on the county's plan to implement the state law.


He did not recall the person's name but said the dispensary's "clients are sent from doctors; they're authorized."

Palm Desert officials are standing by the ordinance, which passed first reading at the council's meeting on Oct. 13. Lt. Steve Thetford, deputy chief of police, said the California law doesn't provide for tight enough regulation and tracking of people who might legally use medical marijuana.

For example, Thetford said, the law allows for voluntary ID cards for medical marijuana patients, but "because of medical privacy, (there would be) no photo on a card. The issue is being able to track back and confirm a person is a legal card holder."

"It would become a (public safety) issue once a dispensary opens," he said.

Thetford was not aware that a dispensary may have already opened in the city.

Riverside County is wrestling with similar issues. In August, the county Board of Supervisors passed a 45-day moratorium banning dispensaries in all unincorporated areas so it could come up with zoning regulations that would limit where the dispensaries could be located.

Balys said the moratorium has been extended for another six months, but he expects dispensaries will ultimately be allowed.

"We're going to handle it more like a commercial business, with standards (and limited) to some very specific zones," he said.

The Palm Desert ordinance specifically cites the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gonzales v. Raich, which ruled that federal anti-drug and interstate commerce laws took precedence over state laws, like California's, allowing use of medical marijuana. Since that decision, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has issued several statements to law enforcement authorities and municipalities maintaining the legality of the state's law.

"The state attorney general issues opinions; he doesn't make law," Thetford said. "As long as there's a conflict between (federal and state), it puts law enforcement in the middle."

Council members Jean Benson and Jim Ferguson said they would again be voting for the ordinance.

"You don't hear good things about marijuana and drug use," said Benson. "What we're doing is in the best interest of the community."

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