Riverside County studying relaxation of medical pot policy

April 10, 2006

Chris Bagley, North County Times

Riverside County is moving closer to allowing dispensaries that would sell marijuana for medicinal use, as county officials consider details for an ordinance to regulate such shops.

Some elected officials who had opposed permitting dispensaries now embrace it, albeit reluctantly and with caveats. And land-use planners are beginning to study what areas might be appropriate for dispensaries, following a March 28 order from the five-member county Board of Supervisors.

The shift follows years of debate over the medical legitimacy of the drug and questions over counties' roles in a conflict between state and federal law. Proposition 215, approved by California voters in 1996, exempts seriously ill patients from state laws prohibiting marijuana and directs counties to regulate the drug's medical use. But all uses remain illegal under federal law.

The supervisors agreed at a recent meeting that the county government is an arm of the state government. The move to allow dispensaries is a reluctant embrace of the state proposition.

"I don't believe in them, but the voters said they should exist," 3rd District Supervisor Jeff Stone said Monday.

Two weeks ago, Stone was the lone dissenter when a majority of the board told its planning staff to research acceptable areas for the shops.

Three California counties and 23 cities allow facilities that sell pot to qualified patients. Dozens have banned such dispensaries.

Riverside County's health department issues cards identifying patients who use the drug to ease pain or nausea as allowed under Proposition 215. Under state and city laws, patients can legally buy the drug at dispensaries in Palm Springs and Palm Desert, and can grow for their own use.

Several groups of users grow plants collectively in the western half of the county, and at least two mobile services deliver the drug to patients, undisturbed by state law-enforcement officers.

No dispensaries exist between Palm Springs and coastal cities. The county government and several cities in the area have blocked them. Murrieta has banned them and Lake Elsinore has blocked them indefinitely, while Temecula has a temporary ban that city leaders could soon make permanent.

That's why the March 28 vote was significant, medical marijuana advocates said. While approving a six-month extension on an expiring moratorium on dispensaries, the supervisors asked county planners for recommendations on where to allow them in the future in unincorporated areas.

The county probably would restrict them to high-traffic commercial zones as a deterrent to theft and other crimes that might happen in secluded areas, said Mark Balys, the county planning department's point man on the issue.

Stone, a pharmacist, had been the board's most outspoken member in questioning the medical value of marijuana. He earlier urged the board to join San Diego and San Bernardino counties in suing the state over the issue. Citing federal law, the two counties argue that they should not be forced to issue identification cards to medical-marijuana users.

On Monday, Stone said he had refined his views after a conference last weekend in Santa Barbara, where nurses, patient advocates, a pharmacologist and physicians spoke on the issue. Stone said he's now open to the possibility that the unrefined plant could have advantages over legal alternatives such as Marinol, a commercially produced drug.

If Riverside County does allow the dispensaries, Stone said, they should have to keep records to deter the drug from ending up in a pipe at a party down the street. He suggested a record-keeping system similar to what pharmacies use for controlled drugs such as morphine.

Bob Buster and Roy Wilson, the two county supervisors most sympathetic to the medicinal use of marijuana, have argued that county governments, as arms of California's state government, are first responsible for carrying out state law.

"The federal government shouldn't be meddling in state and local governments," said Wilson, who represents parts of the Coachella Valley and eastern Riverside County. "If (the county Planning Department) comes up with a reasonable approach, I'm hopeful some sort of ordinance will move forward."

The shift in county policy matters especially to users who don't belong to growing collectives, said Martin Victor, a Temecula resident whose wife uses the drug to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

"If you don't have the land to do it, and you don't have the time, you have to get someone else to do it for you," Victor said.

For many users, Victor said, that someone is affiliated with a dispensary in West Hollywood or Palm Springs.

Riverside County would still have to approve its planners' recommendations as an amendment to its general land-use plan before allowing any dispensaries on unincorporated land. Individual dispensaries would then have to obtain permits, Balys said.

The apparent move toward allowing dispensaries is good news to Dave Johnson, a Temecula user who said he delivers to a dozen others in Hemet, Temecula and surrounding areas. With Temecula, Murrieta and Lake Elsinore shutting out distribution facilities, one in an unincorporated area such as Wildomar or Sun City could make his life a lot easier, he said.



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