At crossroad over cannabis

December 04, 2005

Garth Stapley, Modesto Bee

A public struggle over medical marijuana in Modesto is expected to come to a point at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

At issue is whether city leaders should ban retail sales of the drug or allow a McHenry Avenue cannabis store to continue.

Past hearings have been packed, mostly by patients who say marijuana is more effective at controlling pain and nausea than prescribed narcotics. Opponents say Modesto has no business allowing sales of an illicit drug, especially to people who might abuse state law to get their kicks.

"These people are concerned about driving to the Bay Area" to buy marijuana, said Lynelle Hains, 51, of Modesto. "I'm concerned about them driving down McHenry Avenue. I don't think people on medical marijuana should have a driver's license."

Meanwhile, people such as Danielle Bradley, 36, of Delhi ask for sympathy. She was among about 20 people waiting for California Healthcare Collective at 1009 McHenry Ave. to reopen after a recent lunch hour.

More waited in cars. One yelled, "The line's too long," to a security guard checking identification at the door.

"It helps," said Bradley of marijuana. She is a leukemia survivor recently diagnosed with breast cancer. "It gives me an appetite."

A majority of city planning commissioners on Nov. 21 declined to recommend an outright ban to the council, but asked for legal research on zoning options. That could allow officials to say where marijuana sellers are permitted to set up shop, and where they can't.

But council members, who have the final say, earlier this year placed a moratorium against new dispensaries and leaned toward a full ban. If they adopt a suggestion by the city attorney's office, California Healthcare Collective would have to shut in six months.

"This is your last chance!!" reads the latest sign on the shop's window — just below a "No Smoking" placard.

"This is the final stance for your right to safely access your medication in Modesto," the sign continues. It urges patients to speak at Tuesday's council meeting.

Planning Commissioner Kristin Ol-sen, a council candidate, publicly urged people opposed to medical marijuana to voice opinions as well. No opponents spoke at the commission meeting, among more than 100 in the audience.

Olsen voted in the minority that night, against medical marijuana.

Her opponent in the Dec. 13 runoff, Councilman Denny Jackman, after the meeting accused her and fellow commissioner Dave Cogdill Jr. of lacking compassion.

"We act like we're removed from humanity because we sit in this position. We're not," Jackman said recently. "All those people who came before us and the Planning Commission, who said this is the only solution for their suffering, are they liars?"

Doctor influences commission

Local officials bemoan conflicting law on the drug. California voters in 1996 approved medical marijuana, but the U.S. Supreme Court in June allowed agents to continue enforcing a federal ban.

"You have a conflict, right there," said Alita Roberts, who presided over the commission hearing. She said she and other commissioners went to the meeting expecting to zone out the drug, but were swayed by dozens of pleading patients and the testimony of Dr. John Fichtenkort, a longtime Modesto physician.

He said he wrote four letters in a recent one-year period on behalf of patients relying on medical marijuana and renewed only one the next year. The other three, Fichtenkort said, had died.

"When people state that marijuana is dangerous over the long term, well, this is for people who are very sick and in very difficult situations," Roberts said. "This is what swayed the commission."

Commissioner Tom Berglund said he previously fought against a drugtreatment center in Antioch that relied on methadone because of his "ultraconservative" bent. Antioch police, like Modesto's, predicted neighborhood problems, he said.

"A year and a half later, it never surfaced to be a problem," Berglund said.

A few California cities have issued a limited number of seller permits. Others allow such sales in certain zones, and others adopted strict prohibitions. Some of the latter have been sued by Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland group that has threatened to sue Modesto.

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