Reefer gladness

April 18, 2006

Alice Moss , New Times San Luis Obispo

No one laughed when Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers opened on April Fool’s Day. But of course, it wasn’t a joke. People are serious about their right to use medical marijuana, and with the opening of SLO County’s first and only city-sanctioned cannabis dispensary, Morro Bay City Officials have unequivocally stated that they’re not playing around. Yes, this is the same dispensary that was run out of Atascadero in February, shortly after owner Charles C. Lynch opened up shop there. This time, though, CCCC is being welcomed with (mostly) open arms.

Is this a medical triumph or a terrible mistake? Some people may already have their minds made up about this, but it looks like the rest of us will just have to wait and see.
 
Lynch, for one, seems elated, if a little exhausted. But then, it’s been only six days since CCCC reopened and he might still be getting used to the idea of actually being in business again. He wasn’t open a month the first time before a judge ordered him to shut down until further notice. Even though Atascadero’s moratorium banning dispensaries had already expired, it came to city officials’ attention that the business license they issued Lynch was for a “health service provider,” which didn’t exactly apply to medical marijuana. They needed time to figure out what, exactly, they were supposed to do with him. But closing down meant Lynch had to cut his patients off — more than 300 in just the first three weeks of business — from the county’s only public supply of medical cannabis. So rather than wait for Atascadero to make up its mind, he packed up his goods and moved west to Morro Bay, where there was another expired moratorium and a willingness by government officials to give pot a chance. Lynch, a polite, soft- spoken man with thinning red hair and a lilt to his voice that hints at his southwestern roots, doesn’t care to discuss what happened in Atascadero, saying simply that he’s trying to put the past behind him. Then he proudly shows off his new business license, hanging high in the small foyer of his Monterey Street store. “This is the first one in the county that says ‘medical marijuana dispensary,’” he says, smiling in disbelief. 
 
Some Morro Bay residents were shocked to first find about CCCC’s move in the local news, saying the city never warned them about an impending dispensary. In response to these complaints, Mayor Janice Peters suggests people should start paying more attention to what goes on at City Council meetings. She says that before Lynch ever arrived, she and the other city planners had started laying down the groundwork for allowing medical marijuana within city limits. “About four or five months ago, our moratorium expired and by then we had pretty much decided that legitimate use in the city was reasonable,” she explains. Then CCCC was shut down in Atascadero. “We knew we’d be the next target.” Sure enough, Lynch came to the city with a request to open up in Morro Bay. Peters admits that she’d hoped to have more time to establish clearer parameters, primarily to control the future growth of dispensaries. But she also believes that she and her council members, many whom have known people who benefited from medical cannabis, made the right decision. “We wanted to give it a chance,” she says, “ I only hope our community gives it that same chance.”
 
The community, to be sure, is torn over the issue. While the general consensus seems to be that medical marijuana should be made available to the people who need it, there is some concern that a storefront dispensary might be going a bit too far. Worries range from an increase in traffic to the area, to heightened criminal activity and, because Morro Bay has yet to establish any limits on dispensaries, the possibility that pot clubs will soon be popping up all over town. Though an uncontrollable explosion of dispensaries is highly unlikely (City Attorney Rob Schultz says the zoning restrictions alone make it extremely difficult to open such a business), problems related to dispensaries in parts of the Bay Area and San Diego suggest that these fears aren’t completely unfounded.
 
Lynch appears to be making every effort to ensure that his dispensary doesn’t cause any problems, and neighbors so far seem to have only praise for his outgoing thoughtfulness and courtesy. He even installed special fans and an air purification system when the folks downstairs at Fidelity National Trust complained of the constant smell of marijuana wafting into their office. Even so, Fidelity’s Assistant Vice President Liz Childres is having a hard time accepting that there’s a pot dispensary right next door. Though she considers herself an advocate for medical marijuana — “I voted for Prop. 215,” she says, — she’s concerned about the negative impact a publicly recognized dispensary might have on the city’s image. She would hate to see that affect tourism, an industry she relies on in her line of work. There’s also issue of illegal activities taking place in the area, which is why she has arranged to have a security system installed in her office — even though Lynch has one of his own, complete with surveillance cameras and motion-sensitive alarms.

Childres also worries about drug abuse. She estimates that about half of the “patients” she’s seen walk into CCCC seem to be in fine health and don’t appear to be in any real need of marijuana. “The older people look sick,” she insists; they use canes and walkers. “The young people ride up on their skateboards. They look perfectly healthy.” But the truth is, doctors recommend marijuana to treat a variety of ailments, not all of them obvious to the casual observer. These include, but aren’t limited to: glaucoma, asthma, epilepsy, depression, nausea, chronic pain, and even drug addiction. And in accordance with the law, Lynch requires all of his patients to present a doctor’s recommendation before they can enter the dispensary (because marijuana is a federally banned substance, it can’t technically be prescribed), which is then verified by a receptionist before they can ever get close to the marijuana. Still, Childres thinks there’s got to be a more reasonable way to deal with this. “I don’t know why they can’t all just take Marinol,” she says, referring to the FDA-approved marijuana alternative. “The pharmacies should be handling this, anyway.”
 
But marijuana dispensaries have also proved to be responsible, if unorthodox, businesses in other communities. At the Compassionate Center of Santa Barbara, a dispensary that opened in 1999, owner Patrick Fourmy says that he has never had any problems with the authorities. Furthermore, he thinks it’s ridiculous to worry that a cannabis dispensary will cause mayhem. On the contrary, he claims, properly run dispensaries can actually reduce criminal activity by providing patients with a respectable and legal place to get their doctor-approved medicine. The key, however, is for dispensary owners, their patients, local physicians, and especially the authorities to work together willingly and, sometimes, creatively. Local law enforcement seems to be prepared to give it a try, even though their duties place them directly at odds with the dispensary’s practices. Morro Bay Police Chief John De Rohan is taking his lead from other cities’ agencies that are currently dealing with the medical marijuana issue. The stance seems to be, if there aren’t any problems, then there’s no reason to get involved. Still, he says, what he’d really like is for something concrete to help him “figure out this la-la lawlessness.” 
 
On the wall next to his business license, Lynch, as required, has posted the list of conditions he agreed to when the city granted him the license. No one employed by the dispensary may be a convicted felon. No one under 18 is allowed without a guardian. No consumption of cannabis on the premises. There are more conditions, and Lynch has even added a few of his own. Patients may not enter wearing hats or sunglasses, they may not consume cannabis within 100 feet of the dispensary, and they may not loiter outside the building. Signs everywhere remind patients to be considerate of the neighbors by stepping lightly and turning off their cell phones. A security guard greets visitors at the door and they must present their doctor’s recommendation and a California State ID in order to be lead upstairs by yet another security guard, who takes them to the reception area. It’s there, in the sun lit room with large window that provide a peak at Morro Rock and the Bay, that patients undergo clearance and receive their CCCC photo ID card, the front of which bears the Seal of California adorned with cannabis leaves.

Of course, there are those people who think “medical marijuana” is just a euphemism for legalized pot, but patients who benefit from cannabis say they’re no interested in legalizing the drug for recreational use. In fact, because pot is so potent, Lynch says he’s more comfortable keeping marijuana under the “medical umbrella.” He just wants to provide his patients safe and easy access to a something that gives them relief from their pain and discomfort, the same respect they would get if they were using conventional pharmaceuticals to treat their ailments.
  
Pat, who asked that only his first name be used for this story, lives in Paso Robles. He started using cannabis about five years ago to treat his chronic back pain, seizures and anxiety. Prior to that, he says, he’d spent years trying “a truckload of pain pills. I took Vicodan, Norco, Somas, just about every pill there was. But after a while, they’d stop working and so I had to take more and more. Suddenly I was still in pain, and I was also addicted to pain killers.” When a doctor suggested he try cannabis, Pat says he was desperate, and to his relief it worked. Hardly a miracle drug, he says marijuana doesn’t take away all of his pain and he knows nothing can. But it makes his discomfort manageable, which is more than any of those pills did for him. Until CCCC opened, Pat, who isn’t able to drive, had to get family members and friends to drive him as far as Oakland and Bakersfield to get his pot at medical dispensaries. The costly drive was so painful for him sometimes that on more than one occasion he had to hit the streets to score his medication. He had no way of knowing the quality of his purchase and worse yet, a lack of local, legal access to pot had forced him to break the law. “I want to stay above board with this,” he says. “Having a dispensary in the area allows me to do that.”
 
For those who might require a little more proof of healing powers of pot, consider this: The American Medical Association officially recognized the Fourth National Clinical Conference on Medical Marijuana, hosted by Santa Barbara City college earlier this month. At this fully accredited event, doctors, nurses, researchers, clinicians, patients, and advocates from all over the world to gathered to discuss the established, debunked, and possible benefits of using marijuana as a medicine. Healthcare professionals even received official credits for attending the conference, just as they would have if they’d attended a conference on heart disease.  
 
“Area 420” lies just beyond a tropical beaded curtain, and it’s in there that one faces the reality of medical cannabis as a serious player in SLO County. Green, sticky buds fill a huge glass display case, shelves filled with more than a dozen varieties, all with playful names like “Purple Power,” “Lemon Drop,” and “First Lady.” It’s easy to understand what the neighbors were talking about; the thick, musty smell of marijuana fills the air in the windowless room, giving the placebo effect of a contact high. A dry erase board notes the day’s specials. All funniness aside, this is not a joke, and Brandon, a patient who also works at the dispensary, explains that each variety, grown from cloned plants, provides a distinctively different medicinal effect. Patients are encouraged to sniff small sample jars to get an idea of what they’re choosing, and several reference books are available to answer any questions. Of course, he says, he’s happy to offer advice, but there is usually a period of trial and error before patients find exactly what they’re looking for. Their selection made, patients walk out of the dispensary with their purchase in hand along with a list of health and safety guidelines for marijuana usage. It certainly gives new meaning to the word drugstore.
 
Things are running smoothly right now for CCCC, but Lynch still has to prepare for a possible struggle with the feds, should they come knocking on his dispensary’s door. With all social taboos he’s had to break, and the many legal entanglements he continues to face, one has to ask the question: Why? After 15 years as a law-abiding member of the community and with a perfectly respectable job as a software designer — why would he want to stir up the community by opening a marijuana dispensary? Lynch, who uses marijuana to treat his migraine headaches, says he finally got tired of driving to other counties to get his medication. His voice cracks a little as he describes the first time he purchased cannabis in a recognized dispensary. It was a relief, and as a patient who genuinely benefits from this drug, it was validating. He’s doing this to give the people of SLO the same legitimate claim to their rights. “I’m not a criminal,” he says in a final effort to explain his position. “The law says this is allowed.”



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