Get the pot to the patients

July 25, 2006

Editorial, San Diego City Beat

People who wish to make it safer and easier for sick folks to get their hands on the marijuana that ameliorates their symptoms are a passionate bunch, and, without a doubt, we stand with them. But if they advocate for a laissez-faire government attitude toward the recent explosion of pot dispensaries in San Diego, we cannot abide.

Let there be no more confusion over whether or not medical-marijuana dispensaries are legal in California—they are not. Proposition 215, passed by voters in 1996, simply allowed people, armed with a doctor’s recommendation, to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Senate Bill 420, passed in 2003, provided more specifics and established a voluntary ID-card program. San Diego passed an ordinance that set guidelines for how much pot patients and their caregivers can cultivate and possess. But none of these laws legalized large-scale storefront dispensaries. For better or worse, it is illegal to sell marijuana, medicinal or otherwise.

Nevertheless, at least two-dozen for-profit operations sprung up citywide, with the tacit approval of the city of San Diego, attracting the attention of federal agents, who have, on several recent occasions, raided many of these dispensaries, confiscating property and records and handcuffing and detaining people inside.

While we condemn any heavy-handed, thuggish behavior on the part of narcotics agents, medicinal-pot advocates and the operators of these dispensaries shouldn’t be surprised or outraged that these places are being shut down. Not only are they illegal, they’re also counterproductive.

Widespread existence of unregulated dispensaries only invites trouble. Sure, some of them are run by genuine advocates motivated only by the spirit of Prop. 215 and the desire to help people in need. But, inevitably, there will be opportunists bent on exploiting the situation for their own financial gain. It is these people who will get in the way of a righteous cause by selling pot to people who can’t demonstrate a medicinal need for it, or preying upon the truly needy by selling it to them at exorbitant prices, and confirming the fears of those who oppose its legal use.

But if patients can’t get the stuff at a corner store, what are they to do?

State and local laws envision a system in which individuals (caregivers) cultivate marijuana and provide it, at no profit, to ill people with legitimate doctor’s notes. The idea is for these caregivers to provide for only a handful of patients apiece. But, given the high number of people with ailments that can be relieved with marijuana, that system is not realistic. There just aren’t enough people with the time and know-how to be caregivers.

What’s needed is a carefully controlled, tightly regulated system that allows the few to provide for the many. Our recommendation is for San Diego to allow a nonprofit organization to distribute marijuana to legitimate patients from several locations—perhaps southern, central and northern outlets. The pot, which is inexpensive to grow, should be sold as cheaply as possible, covering only the costs of growing the plants, keeping the facilities up and running and conducting semi-regular audits to make sure everything’s on the up and up.

We call on Mayor Jerry Sanders, who supports medicinal marijuana in concept, and the City Council to either reconvene the medical marijuana task force that designed the quantity guidelines or form a new one to come up with recommendations for such a system. The task force should review all existing systems elsewhere—six California counties and 24 cities currently regulate dispensaries or have recently passed regulations, according to Americans for Safe Access. The panel should include representatives from the police department and the city attorney’s office as members or as staff support.

The City Council has been very, very quiet on the dispensary issue. Perhaps they think the work was done with the 2003 guidelines. If so, they were wrong. San Diego has become a battleground, and resolving battles requires leadership.

On Tuesday, City Council President Scott Peters told a group of activists who asked for the dispensary issue to be docketed for discussion that the docket is full until after the City Council’s August recess. Fine—then let’s get that discussion docketed for a meeting of the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee soon after the break.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors, leading the charge to overturn Prop. 215, has shown itself to be completely backward on medical marijuana and hostile to the people who find the herb helpful in dealing with pain and suffering. The City Council, on the other hand, has been just the opposite, and we commend them for it. Now let’s finish the job.



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