Hope for pot dispensaries evaporating

March 06, 2006

Inga Miller, Modesto Bee

Possible locations for a medical marijuana dispensary are ebbing with a wave of moratoriums moving across Stanislaus County.

That leaves patients wondering if they will have anyplace within an hour's drive to access a safe supply when Modesto's only dispensary closes. A ban passed in December by the City Council means the California Healthcare Collective on McHenry Avenue must close by July 14.

"For me, it will be devastating," said Ceres' Barbara Quast, 58, who said she relies on marijuana to ease pain from a spinal injury and other ailments. "I'm sure I'm not the only one."

Following Modesto's lead, Turlock imposed a 45-day moratorium in January. On Feb. 14, the City Council extended the moratorium for an additional 10months and 15 days to study the options. That night, Newman imposed a 45-day moratorium; Riverbank's City Council is scheduled to consider the same thing Monday.

Police chiefs in Oakdale and Patterson are working on recommendations, and Waterford's police chief broached the issue with the City Council on Thursday night.

"Overall, I think it will be a problem for the community if one were to come here," Waterford Police Chief Jim Silva said Friday. "The community is trying to rebuild its downtown, but I don't think this is what the town of Waterford has in mind for what they want to be known for."

Monday, Riverbank Police Chief Art Voortman gave the City Council a list of problems that law enforcement has said are associated with dispensaries elsewhere in the state that range from illicit drug dealing to robberies and people driving under the influence after leaving.

Loitering complaints

Neighbors around the California Healthcare Collective on McHenry Avenue, according to police, have complained about loitering. The city hasn't kept track of the level of traffic in and out of the building, but Waterford's Silva said he is concerned about the large number of people he said a dispensary would draw and the conflict with federal drug laws.

While Proposition 215, passed by California voters in 1996, allows people with a doctor's recommendation and their caregivers to possess, use and grow marijuana, federal law does not.

Turlock City Clerk Rhonda Greenlee said the council hopes for a resolution between state and federal laws by the time its ban runs out.

It still will be in place in July, when Modesto's dispensary must close.

"The only place I will have left to go is Oakland, and that makes it even harder," Quast said. "It's hard to get over to Oakland, and you have to get some money together to get a larger amount to last, and that's a hardship."

She can't drive that far and would have to rely on rides, she said. Unlike other medication, someone else can't pick it up for her.

The former bartender lives on $832 a month in Social Security and disability payments. An accident lifting cases in 2000 left her permanently disabled, and she said she finds marijuana easier to handle than other pain medications for the injury, migraines, ringing in her ears, mouth pain and nausea. She makes one trip a month to the McHenry collective, where she pays $100 for a quarter-ounce of marijuana.

"I call them minivacations from pain," she said. "I have so many things wrong in my body right now, and most of them are learn-to-live-with-it pain. I've got something going on all of the time."

'People just don't understand'

Her family, including her four children and their children, know about her use of marijuana, and understand that it is different from recreational use, she said. That's something people voting for moratoriums and bans don't understand, she said. "They don't want to consider it because they say 'that will lead to bad, that will lead to heroin,'" she said. "Remember when AIDS landed on the scene and everyone had these wrong ideas? This is the same thing."

The moratoriums don't affect people who grow their own marijuana, but that is not always feasible for patients, said Nathan Sands, board chairman of the Compassionate Coalition.

"If you are diagnosed with cancer and you are going to start chemotherapy right away, by the time you are ready to harvest the plants, you might be done with chemotherapy or dead — and that is if you are a very good gardener," he said, adding that it is difficult to grow good-quality marijuana without pesticides and fertilizers that can be harmful to people in compromised health.

The Sacramento-based advocacy group opposes bans, but favors what Sands described as "reasonable regulations" such as zoning ordinances laying out where dispensaries can operate and operating restrictions. Ripon has one such zoning ordinance.

That's the route Silva said he is most likely to recommend to the Waterford City Council because it would avoid a lawsuit.

Outright bans like Modesto's are being challenged in court, although Modesto Risk Manager Mary Akin said she does not believe the city has received a claim or lawsuit related to its ban.

With no dispensaries on the horizon, Hughson and Ceres are not considering any ordinances, according to city officials.

In local communities, "the concerns we have heard are valid," Sands said. "But they are all addressable and can be handled with regulation. There is no reason we can't resolve the issues, but some communities are just not willing to."

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at 578-2382 or imiller@modbee.com.

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