Medical pot rules get city approval

March 22, 2006

Todd R. Brown, San Mateo County Times

To some, it is a recreational intoxicant with milder health side effects than alcohol. To others, it is a moral scourge that Americans should "just say no" to. To still others, it is medicine, and the City Council on Wednesday night approved the first Peninsula measure on marijuana that regulates where it can be grown and how people can get it for medicinal use.

On a unanimous vote, the council decided to amend the city code on the cultivation of medical marijuana.

The new rules outlaw storefront pot clubs but allow patients to collectively grow cannabis at least 500 feet from residential areas. The measure defines a caregiver who can provide marijuana to a patient as someone "who has consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health or safety of that patient," not necessarily a physician. And it limits the number of patients per caregiver to 10.

"Without this, we have no control," said Councilwoman Karyl Matsumoto. "We're doing preventive (work) versus firefighting."

Police Sgt. Alan Normandy spearheaded the idea for the new rules last year after Tariq Alazraie, who runs the cannabis club Mason Street in San Francisco, proposed opening a club across the street from City Hall. In response, the council imposed a moratorium on cannabis clubs that was to expire in May of this year.

"We're putting the compassion back in the Compassionate Use Act by requiring that the caregiver actually care for the patient rather than just being a distributor of a substance," Normandy said earlier Wednesday, adding that Alazraie was helpful in sharing with him how Mason Street works.

The act, approved by 58 percent of California voters as Proposition 215 in 1996, allows doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients and lets caregivers administer the drug without fear of criminal prosecution. It specifies that patients can possess six mature cannabis plants, 12 immature plants and 8 ounces of dried marijuana, but leaves regulation of how to dispense it up to local governments.

The county works with the state through the Medical Marijuana Program, approved by voters as SB 420 in 2004, to provide patients and caregivers with I.D. cards to avoid arrest for drug possession or trafficking.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said he initially was wary of South City's plan when he thought it would legalize cannabis clubs that state law does not allow. The District Attorney's Office is set to prosecute Belmont resident Robert Simmons April 24 for allegedly running a pot club out of his home.

But Wagstaffe said because California voters support medical marijuana, his office wholly supports people organizing privately to grow the drug.

"We think it's something that the law does provide for," he said. "If South City's ordinance can fit within the law, we're supportive of it."

Federal law still outlaws any possession or use of marijuana, and the Drug Enforcement Agency maintains that illicit traffickers hide behind the California law. The DEA occasionally raids Bay Area pot clubs.

"We're required to comply with state law, not federal law," Normandy said, adding that South City's law is there to prevent pot clubs from taking advantage of the rules while making sure sick and dying patients get the pain relief they need. "It's certainly not designed to be an onerous thing. It keeps the honest people honest."

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