Contra Costa, Alameda supervisors makes moves on medicinal pot

April 10, 2006

Chris Metinko, Mercury News

Contra Costa County and Alameda County supervisors on Tuesday took divergent steps down a previously charted -- and largely parallel -- path toward the local future of medical marijuana.

The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors agreed to place an urgency moratorium on any new medical marijuana dispensaries in the county's unincorporated areas. That action comes after County Supervisor Gayle Uilkema, the sponsor of the moratorium, heard dispensaries might soon open in Pacheco, Rodeo and an unspecified East County location.

On the other hand, Alameda County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a contract for an outside company to provide identification cards to that county's medical marijuana users.

Just last week, Alameda County supervisors agreed to a map that breaks down the county's unincorporated land into three areas, with no more than one dispensary allowed to operate in each.

The geographical mapping goes along with a 2005 decision by Alameda County supervisors to limit the number of clinics in unincorporated areas to three, and to set up a permit application process.

Neither county's decision affects dispensaries within incorporated cities.

The interim Contra Costa ban gives the county 45 days to study traffic congestion, noise and other secondary effects of so-called "pot clubs." The ban could be renewed for another 101/2 months, and then another year beyond that.

Until now, zoning for these dispensaries has been lumped in with that governing retail establishments. "This is a relatively new land use," said Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond. "It's new ground."

The moratorium would not restrict either of the two dispensaries, in El Sobrante and Pacheco, already operating legally in Contra Costa's unincorporated areas.

However, some at Tuesday's meeting saw the moratorium as a step toward closing the centers down.

"I think this is a smokescreen," said Charles Kaiserlian, a 62-year-old business manager who says marijuana helps alleviate his symptoms of leukemia.

Conversely, Alameda County supervisors' action Tuesday may have made it easier for medical marijuana users to avoid legal headaches.

Alameda County Patient Services and its parent company, OCB Cooperative Inc., will be in charge of verifying applicants' eligibility and need for medical marijuana, as well for collecting fees and issuing the cards.

Alameda County's program is similar to the one Contra Costa set up late last year for medical marijuana users. However, Contra Costa's program has issued only 14 cards to date. Both counties' programs are part of the California Department of Health Services' Medical Marijuana Identification Card Program.

The identification cards address one of the shortfalls in the Compassionate Use Act. While the act made medical marijuana use legal, it put no system into place to identify patients who may use the drug legally.

Jeff Jones, OCB Cooperative's executive director, said that while the cards are not mandatory, they may be useful to people who fear legal hassles from police, or who are worried about entering a dispensary to buy medical marijuana. A patient now needs only proof that he or she is a resident of the state and a doctor's note prescribing use of marijuana.

Jones, who estimates there are between 7,000 and 12,000 medical marijuana users in Alameda County, said he anticipates OCB issuing between 10,000 and 15,000 cards over the 18-month contract period. The identification cards will expire after one year.

While there are no fixed prices for the cards, Jones estimates each card will run about $50, with Medi-Cal patients to receive a 50-percent discount. It is estimated the California Department of Health Services will receive $13 from each card, and that the county's public health department will receive $10, in both cases for administrative costs.

The Alameda County Public Health Department is contracting the identification card program to an outside business because the department lacks the resources and knowledge necessary to run it.

For more information on the state's Medical Marijuana Identification Card Program visit http:/www.dhs.ca.gov/hisp/ochs/mmp/ on the Web.



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