Palm Desert acts to pull license of pot shop

February 13, 2006

K. Kaufmann, Desert Sun

The Palm Desert City Council has taken a first step toward revoking the business license for CannaHelp, the medical marijuana dispensary on El Paseo.

Owner Stacy Hochanadel confirmed Monday that he had received a notice Friday from the city advising him that the council will vote on the possible revocation at its next meeting, 4 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 23.

The notice left CannaHelp's 440 clients "kind of confused and frustrated," Hochanadel said.

One of them, Alan Layton of La Quinta, said, "If (the council) recognizes the law as law is written, they have no choice but to comply and provide some kind of vehicle that can provide this service (medical marijuana).

"They need to be fully accountable and explain things," said Layton, who uses medical marijuana for a depressive disorder.

At issue is whether the business, which Hochanadel said is run as a collective, is legal under California's medical marijuana laws and its impact on public safety in the city.

California voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana in 1996, and the state Legislature passed a law providing guidelines for implementation in 2003.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June in Raich v. Gonzales that federal anti-drug laws take precedence over state laws like California's. But California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has upheld the legality of California's laws.

Palm Desert city officials declined to comment on the decision to consider revoking CannaHelp's business license, which was made during a closed session of at the council's Feb. 9.

But medical marijuana advocate Lanny Swerdlow of Palm Springs was shocked by the council's move.

"It was just last week the City Council of Palm Desert passed a moratorium (on dispensaries) and no one raised any question. I'm curious what happened," said Swerdlow, who is president of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project.

He was referring to a special meeting on Feb. 4, when the council voted for a 10-month moratorium on the licensing of dispensaries, but excluded CannaHelp from the ban.

Other area medical marijuana advocates are planning a protest for Feb. 23, said Ryan Michaels, Riverside County coordinator for Americans for Safe Access.

Keeping it legit

The city originally issued a business license to CannaHelp, then called Hempie's, last October. The council later passed two moratoriums - the first in December for 45 days, and then the 10-month extension on Feb. 4 - to give city officials time to draft an ordinance to allow dispensaries in the city.

CannaHelp has not been affected by the moratorium, and both Hochanadel and Swerdlow supported it and praised the council's actions at the Feb. 4 meeting.

Now, according to the notice Hochanadel received Friday, the city is saying that dispensaries are not allowed under state law, and Hochanadel's business does not comply with the provisions of the law allowing for use of medical marijuana by patients and caregivers.

The notice also cites "numerous violations directly attributable to your establishment" that have had a negative impact on public health and safety.

"(We're) trying to do this all legitimately," Hochanadel said. "If (the city) had any problems they should have talked (to me)."

In fact, California's medical marijuana laws - Proposition 215 passed in 1996 and Senate Bill 420, passed in 2003 - neither allows nor prohibits dispensaries.

But SB 420 does provide protection for collectives and cooperatives growing medical marijuana for a group of users. It also requires counties to issue medical marijuana ID cards to qualified patients. Riverside County began issuing the IDs Dec. 1, but relatively few patients have the cards yet.

At CannaHelp, about 20-25 of the business's 440 clients now have the card, Hochanadel said, but "we keep trying to stress it." And he said, while CannaHelp is commonly referred to as a dispensary, "I've been operating under a collective model the whole time."

New customers coming to CannaHelp sign a form designating the business as their "caregiver," which in turn allows the business to grow medical marijuana for them.

Hochanadel also requires customers to have valid ID cards and a letter of recommendation from their doctors, which are also verified. He also checks doctors' credentials with the Medical Board of California, the state agency that licenses doctors.

Past tensions defused

Tensions between CannaHelp and the city first flared in December and early January when the the Palm Desert police made several arrests related to CannaHelp.

In a report to City Manager Carlos Ortega dated Jan. 6, Lt. Steve Thetford, Palm Desert's assistant chief of police, said most of the incidents involved dispensary clients who had "questionable doctor's recommendation letters."

In one instance, Guyrun Amirghan, a CannaHelp client was arrested at the Westfield shopping center on Highway 111 for allegedly trying to sell two teenagers some marijuana he said he bought at the dispensary.

Hochanadel cooperated with the police in the investigation following the arrest and immediately removed Amirghan's name from CannaHelp's client list.

A meeting between city officials and Hochanadel on Jan. 3 seem to have defused the situation, and at the Feb. 4 council meeting, Thetford said no further arrests had been made.

Thetford was not available for comment Monday.

On El Paseo, CannaHelp is almost a non-issue. Few merchants have spoken out against Hochanadel, and some are still unaware of the business even exists.

"I knew about it," said Jack Bruning, co-owner of Palm Desert Tobacco. "(Hochanadel) came by and introduced himself. I don't have a problem with it as long as it's up and up."

Jim West of Cousins Jewelers, which is located in the same building as CannaHelp, was more critical.

"I've had lots of issues - people (smoking) in the parking lot, kids going upstairs," he said.

And when CannaHelp first opened, the smell of marijuana from the dispensary filled his shop, he said.

If he had a choice, West would rather not have a dispensary upstairs, but he said, "Stacy has dealt with just about everything he could. He's put a filter on so I don't smell (the marijuana). He's been OK."

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