Palm Desert reaches uneasy truce on medical marijuana laws

January 03, 2006

K. Kaufmann, Desert Sun

There were a few tense moments Tuesday at a meeting between medical marijuana advocates and Palm Desert city officials wrestling with how to implement California's medical marijuana laws.

But by the end of the hour-and-a-half session, Lt. Steve Thetford, assistant chief of police, was exchanging phone numbers with Stacy Hochanadel, owner of CannaHelp, a medical marijuana dispensary on El Paseo, and an uneasy middle ground had been reached.

"I feel we're going to have a lot more communication," said Hochanadel, whose dispensary, licensed by the city last October, has become a flash point for police and city officials concerned about how to verify that buyers are valid medical marijuana patients.

California's medical marijuana law "is meant to help patients, not foster drug dependency," said Mayor Jim Ferguson, opening the meeting that drew about a dozen people, including Hochanadel, Thetford and Riverside County Undersheriff Neil D. Lingle.

"We're choosing to address the issue head-on," Ferguson said.

The main point of contention is how to verify the identity of individuals with a valid need for buying and using medical marijuana.

Under California state law, patients are supposed to have a doctor's letter of recommendation. They can also get a voluntary state-issued identification card, which costs $100, or $50 for Medi-Cal patients.

Riverside County began issuing the cards Dec. 1, but most people still do not have them.

But Thetford said the letters of recommendation most people do have are difficult to verify, especially during off hours, evenings or weekends, when doctors can be hard to reach.

"If we had a card (that) we could call and verify, it would make it a moot point," he said.

Verification problems recently resulted in Palm Desert police confiscating medical marijuana from about six CannaHelp clients, Thetford said.

Ferguson called the meeting after advocates complained about the confiscations. The city recently passed a moratorium on dispensaries for 45 days to allow the city to come up with its own ordinance on how to regulate them.

CannaHelp, which was already licensed, was grandfathered in.

In the meantime, both sides agree, the key to defusing further tensions is for more people to get the ID cards.

"What I tell people now is that if you want to be 100 percent sure you're not going to get arrested, you better have the card," said Lanny Swerdlow of Palm Springs, director of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, a patients' advocacy group.

"Under state law, it's the best."

Hochanadel is also encouraging his clients to get the IDs, giving out applications at the dispensary. Lingle and Thetford also said the police would judge patients' documentation on a case-by-case basis.

"We have to follow the law," Lingle said. "We don't have to agree with the law or like the law."

"We want to be fair."

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