Dispensary battling to stay open

March 24, 2006

K Kaufmann, The Desert Sun

Tensions are once again mounting in the ongoing battle of nerves between Palm Desert and CannaHelp, the city's medical marijuana dispensary on El Paseo.

On Feb. 23, owner Stacy Hochanadel staved off an effort to revoke his business license by agreeing to require all his clients to have a state-issued medical marijuana identification card within 30 days.

Under California's medical marijuana law, the cards are voluntary, but Hochanadel agreed to the requirement to defuse concerns about verifying that CannaHelp clients are qualified medical marijuana patients.

A month later, a final agreement between the dispensary and the city about the card requirement has yet to be signed.

Hochanadel said between 100 and 110 of an estimated 600 clients have the card, and he wants to negotiate a 45-day grace period for all first-time clients.

"That's a must," Hochanadel said. "We have to sit down with the city and talk about this."

City Attorney David Erwin said the possibility of a grace period had not been brought up in his negotiations with James J. Warner, Hochanadel's lawyer, and declined to comment.

He was more concerned about delays in getting the agreement signed by both sides.

Hochanadel and Warner said they have no problem with the agreement overall but are tweaking the language. Both sides said details of the agreement would not be made public until it is signed.


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The 30-day period for dispensary clients to get the ID cards does not start until the agreement is finalized, Hochanadel said.

All of which creates more uncertainty for medical marijuana users who rely on the dispensary for their drugs. Mike Lerner of La Quinta, who uses medical marijuana for his arthritis, has been a regular at CannaHelp but has yet to get a card.

"It's the extra hundred bucks, I just don't have it," Lerner said of the fee Riverside County charges for the card.

If cut off at CannaHelp, he said he would consider going to the Collective Apothecary of Palm Springs, or CAPS, a dispensary on Palm Canyon Drive. The medical pot shop operates without a license.

Three calls to the dispensary this week were not returned.

State ID cards

The Riverside County Department of Public Health issues the state ID cards, and as of this week, the agency had processed 167 cards - up from 105 a month ago - said Gina Fabricante, a staff analyst.

The county started issuing the cards last Dec. 1, and only Riverside County residents can apply.

That automatically cuts out Ryan Michaels, one of the 60-80 CannaHelp clients who live outside the county.

"I haven't been going to the desert," said Michaels, a San Bernardino resident who is a regional coordinator for Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. "(I'm) going to Hollywood for medication."

The city of West Hollywood has seven dispensaries.

Getting to Riverside, about 70 miles away, to apply for the card has been another obstacle for clients like Erman Pessis of Sun City.

Applicants must appear in person to file.

Pessis, 95, needs to get an ID card so he can buy pot for his wife, 85, who has a degenerative nerve disease.

"Because of caring for my wife, I'm pretty well occupied all day long," Pessis said. "When she's in great pain she asks for it (medical marijuana); in 30 to 40 minutes it relieves her."

Hochanadel said he has been driving clients to Riverside a few days a week in addition to giving out applications at the dispensary.

And he said many of his regular customers have cards and are already wearing them out.

"I'm looking at cards that are tattered," he said.

Growing medical marijuana

CannaHelp also took a hit March 14 when agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency raided the Sky Valley home of Garry Silva, a CannaHelp client whom Hochanadel had been helping to grow medical marijuana for the dispensary.

Silva was injured in the raid, dislocating and breaking his shoulder when the DEA agents slammed open the front door of his home.

The agents confiscated the approximately 70 plants Silva was growing but did not arrest him.

Under federal law, growing and distributing marijuana is illegal. But Hochanadel and Silva said the plants they were growing for CannaHelp, which is organized as a collective, were legal under California state law.

The law - Senate Bill 420, passed in 2003 - allows for collectives and cooperatives to grow medical pot for patients with letters of recommendation from their doctors.

But whether that includes CannaHelp's cooperative structure is one of the law's many gray areas. California law also conflicts with federal drug laws, under which growing or distributing marijuana is illegal.

The ID requirement is intended to clear up some of the ambiguities by putting in place a better method to verify that the dispensary's clients are qualified medical marijuana users. In the months after CannaHelp's opening in October, Palm Desert police cited or arrested seven of the dispensary's customers, in one case for attempting to sell pot bought at the dispensary to teenagers in another part of the city.

In most of the other cases, police officers were unable to verify the doctors' letters of recommendation that the dispensary's customers were carrying.

Lt. Steve Thetford, the city's assistant chief of police, said there had been no further incidents since January.

"I think this is the trend," said Warner, Hochanadel's lawyer. "This is the will of the people of California; we are trying to make sure that our patients and clients conform with the law."

But Warner also defended the dispensary's right to work collectively with customers to grow medical marijuana.

"I think that the legislative intent here was to allow this type of process," he said. "Otherwise, you'd be passing a law that couldn't be enforced. It couldn't accomplish what it set out to accomplish."

Since the raid, Hochanadel said he no longer spends his evenings visiting collective members who are growing pot for the dispensary and helping them tend their plants.

"They still come (in), they bring in medicine to trade," he said. "They're bringing pictures; if plants look a certain way, I can diagnose it for them."

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