Medical marijuana board holds first meeting

August 02, 2006

Frank Hartzell, Mendocino Beacon

A defendant was perched next to the district attorney at a not-very-relaxing first meeting of the Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board Friday in Fort Bragg.

In a greater irony, Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman was invited as special guest to be praised for not prosecuting people for medical marijuana-related offenses.

And, advisory board member David Moore, who faces criminal charges along with five other members of his Mendocino Healing growing and distribution operation in Fort Bragg, has been a supporter of Vroman and the card program he helped create with former Sheriff Tony Craver.

Craver, the new board's honorary chairman, was also present.

The tension between Moore and Vroman wasn't the only visible conflict Friday over the herb famous for its calming powers. There was politicking, accusations and much confusion as the new board steered the audience through the maze of marijuana legislation, litigation and law enforcement.

Mendocino County's admittedly relaxed pot policies become a problem when the medicine is exported from the county.

Mendocino Healing supplied a large percentage of the San Francisco medical marijuana market, upsetting neighbors and prompting federal interest, culminating in a raid on Mitchell Creek Road last November that netted 1,500 plants.

While most of the crowd supported the need for growing operations like Mendocino Healing, some worried about crime and kids getting easier access to marijuana.

Many patients in the crowd came from the Bay Area and said they weren't able to grow their own supply. They said San Francisco doesn't have available and clean soils like Mendocino County, comparing marijuana to clean, organic apples and grapes grown locally.

"It takes a healthy person to produce medical marijuana for a patient," said activist Ukiah Sativa Morrison, a member of the board.

Percy Coleman was one of about a dozen people who came up from San Francisco to offer support to Mendocino Healing. Coleman, a soft-spoken 56-year-old cancer patient, is on a fixed income and cannot afford the $50 to $70 per 1/8th ounce that other city clubs charge. The same amount costs $20 to $25 from Mendocino Healing, he said in an interview.

Coleman said Mendocino Healing got into trouble by giving the doses away to those with cards, attracting long lines. Coleman admitted he smoked pot recreationally before being diagnosed with cancer and high blood pressure, and said prices have actually skyrocketed for pot since the medical marijuana laws were passed.

"Most of the clubs in San Francisco are really just in the marijuana-selling business, but Mendocino Healing is the only one that really wants to help people on fixed incomes," Coleman said, adding that the marijuana grown in Mendocino County is cleaner and more effective than the mixed bag that other clubs provide.

While about half the 75-plus people in Town Hall gave candidate Vroman two rousing standing ovations, others sat with arms crossed during the clapping.

True to Mendocino County tradition, nobody, save the politicians, gave their names when speaking, including board members.

One man pointed his finger at Vroman and called the county's top lawman a "liar" for saying marijuana charges don't now result in state prison, saying his own caregiver faces prison time.

"Was that a question?" Vroman asked as the man left the microphone.

"It was both a question and a statement," the man retorted.

Vroman described how each of California's 58 counties has a different interpretation of laws regarding transportation and possession of marijuana. He pledged to protect patients, but only within "his county."

"We have a terrible problem with people coming up the 101 corridor and buying marijuana, be it medical or otherwise. I am not interested in [protecting] people from any other county. They can take care of themselves," he said.

Vroman said he could not comment on the Mendocino Healing case because charges are pending.

"We are prosecuting some cases that don't look like medical marijuana. We are making them go through the hoops, going to a court and proving to a judge this is indeed medical marijuana. It is still illegal to possess marijuana unless it falls under Proposition 215 rules," Vroman said.

He said the confusing statutes don't clarify how much marijuana is too much, among other things.

"If they meet minimum guidelines, we don't look at the case," Vroman said.

If a caregiver falls outside the guidelines, prosecutors investigate.

"We see if somebody is trying to flimflam us Š We are trying to protect the legitimate marijuana user and the legitimate marijuana caregiver," Vroman said.

Moore claims his Mendocino Healing operation always had more patients than he could provide for, buying from other medical marijuana providers. He says his Mitchell Creek Road growing operation was never a secret, with city and county permits being filed and law officers being invited to the site. He claims the raid was an ambush that happened while former Sheriff Tony Craver was unavailable.

Neighbors of the Mitchell Creek Road operation expressed worries about its scale and safety, saying it attracted thieves. None would speak on the record.

San Francisco neighbors got the Mendocino Healing distribution operation on Lafayette Street shut down, Moore said, although it's now re-opened with no walk-ins allowed. He admitted there were give-aways and said the long lines surprised him.

Moore blamed NIMBYism (not in my backyard) and the fact that Vroman's stance on medical marijuana rules stops at the county line for stopping effective use of medical marijuana.

Moore said Vroman would set medical marijuana back 10 years if he sticks to a practice of severely limiting the number of patients a local care provider can have outside of the area.

He said the district attorney's office's claim that the operation is fronting for non-medical activities is false.

"We are being accused of making a lot of money, and that just ain't so, and we can prove it," Moore said at the meeting.

Craver said had he "been in the information loop" the raid on Mendocino Healing probably would not have happened."

He also said Moore was "legitimately trying to help people ... That's why he had my support for seven years," the former sheriff said.

Craver pleaded with the crowd to lobby Sacramento for sensible statewide standards.

Both Craver and Vroman said they don't smoke marijuana but support the right of patients who do.

Vroman said that, speaking as a citizen, not as DA, he hoped the next new law would be to legalize marijuana, although as DA he is obligated to uphold the current law, which makes all non-medical marijuana illegal.

In addition to providing the crowd with a full history of Mendocino County's medical marijuana card program, Craver made a strong political pitch for Tom Allman over Kevin Broin in the November sheriff's race.

After kidding Allman about being a "former narc," Craver said, "Go with [Allman] and you won't be sorry. Kevin Broin isn't the guy for the job Š You can thank Kevin for the fact that you have to go to court to get your [marijuana] back, which we didn't have the right to take in the first place. Tom Allman won't do that.

Broin attended the last meeting of the group but wasn't present Friday. The MMMAB board does not endorse candidates.

Vroman didn't campaign or mention his foe in the November election, Meredith Lintott. He was introduced "not as a candidate for district attorney but as a friend of the medical marijuana movement since 1999," by moderator Pebbles Trippet.

Allman took the podium to promise not to "fix what isn't broken" and to praise the program of Craver and Vroman. He encouraged everyone to watch a slideshow by county health officer Marvin Trotter, M.D., about the medical benefits of marijuana, which he said had given him pause and made him re-think pre-conceived notions about the herb.

The MMMAB is also sponsoring a separate DA medical marijuana policy debate between Vroman and Lintott and a debate between Allman and Broin on Sept. 30 at Area 101, 10 miles north of Laytonville on Highway 101.

Lintott and Broin were both invited to the Friday forum, but could not make it, said Trippet.

Craver got interested in the issue when he worked for a former sheriff who ordered raids and seizures "of everything somebody had but their skivvies," knowing they would be returned. Craver also was uncomfortable with the policy of former California Attorney General Dan Lundgren who after the passage of Proposition 215 wanted law officers to arrest everyone caught with marijuana and let the courts "sort out the good guys from the bad guys."

"People want to play by the rules Š I felt we needed at least a white paper [explaining how the program was supposed to work]," Craver said.

Craver and Vroman became a team because both men were searching for a program that would interpret the new laws for local citizens. Craver went to Arcata and studied a pioneering card program there.

He had hoped to pair with a judge to come up with standards for officers to rely on when headed to court "but Norm was talking about it," he said.

Craver said the third person in the trilogy was then county public health officer Trotter, who "went way out on a limb to help create the standards and particularly to protect patient confidentiality.

"What is a person's medical condition never came into the equation," Craver said.

Instead, law enforcement's job became simply to confirm whether a prescription existed.

"Anybody with a personal computer can sit down and write a prescription from Dr. Feelgood who says my client is a pot head, give him all he wants," Craver said.

As moderator, Trippet said Friday's meeting was all about taking the issue to higher ground.

"There is a future for this issue like few other issues. The herb is safe, people are a little bit more non-violent than the average person, due to the mellowing effect of marijuana," she said.

The audience at Friday's meeting was a markedly different group than those who regularly attend and demonstrate for issues like health care, peace, clean foods, opposition to offshore oil drilling and other issues traditionally labeled as "left." Friday's audience included many patients of all ages who were clearly in physical or emotional pain.

If confusing state laws, contradictory county interpretations and federal intrusions weren't enough for the issue, a local conflict has been brewing lately.

After an increase in seizures this year of pot plants, county supervisors have considered raising the bar for prosecution, according to published reports. Vroman responded to that effort by pointing out that supervisors don't control who the district attorney prosecutes.

Craver described the icy reception he got from fellow top county law officers as being made to feel like his underarm deodorant wasn't working when he walked into the room.

Vroman said he was laughed at by other prosecutors who mocked him for thinking the card program would work. Since then, he said, many of those same fellow prosecutors have contacted him to learn more about how Mendocino County's program does work, faced with their own problems over medical marijuana,

The MMMAB policy group formed April 5 at the Ukiah Brewery, with public officials, law enforcement, doctors, patients, caregivers, activists and defendants represented. Other board members include Registrar of Voters Marsha Wharff, Ukiah Planning Commissioner Judy Pruden, Lorraine Ahlswede of the Mendocino County SB 420 ID Card Program and Paula Deeter, who runs the local dispensary Urban Legend.

For information, call 984-9124 or 964-YESS.

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