Medical pot dispensaries promoted

September 07, 2006

Jeff McDonald, San Diego Union Tribune

Some of California's leading medical marijuana activists released a new report yesterday touting dispensaries as a benefit to both patients and the communities in which they operate.

Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based advocacy group for medical marijuana patients, said in its analysis that storefront dispensaries are the most effective way for chronically ill people to obtain their medicine and for city and police officials to make sure the drugs are not abused.

The 23-page report was released outside the San Diego Convention Center, where the League of California Cities is holding its 108th annual conference. The issue of medical marijuana is not on the agenda for the four-day meeting, which concludes tomorrow.

Elected officials from three California cities joined Americans for Safe Access and a University of California researcher in presenting the report, which details medical marijuana policies and promotes specific rules to grant patients safe and routine access to marijuana.

Some two dozen cities across the state have passed ordinances regulating dispensaries – something elected officials in San Diego County have refused to do. The politicians who spoke yesterday said the laws helped set ground rules for everyone concerned.

“We have not experienced any complaints,” said Lee Pierce, a Santa Rosa councilman.

Mike Rotkin, a Santa Cruz city councilman, told reporters that the ordinance his community adopted has helped patients, police and residents.

“All these people have realized that if it's regulated properly, it doesn't end up in street-dealing or kids lighting up in class,” Rotkin said. “This is about medicine.”

University of California professor Amanda Reiman conducted more than 130 patient surveys over six months before concluding that dispensaries are the best way to provide reliable access to medical marijuana. She said politics too often influence government policies.

“It's really hard to argue science against ideology,” she said. “That's been a big issue in drug policy.”

But Damon Mosler, who oversees the narcotics unit for San Diego County district attorney Bonnie Dumanis, said there is nothing in the state medical marijuana law that permits selling the drug from a storefront.

“The dispensary mechanism is illegal,” he said. “There probably are solutions, but they have to come about through legislative changes. Then, of course, we would accept something like that.”

The activist group chose San Diego as the place to release its findings not just because hundreds of elected officials are attending the League conference but because San Diego has become the epicenter of the fight over medical marijuana.

Federal law does not permit the use, cultivation or possession of marijuana and does not recognize any medical benefit the drug may have for AIDS, cancer and other patients. Even so, California and 10 other states have passed laws that permit sick and dying people to use the drug to ease symptoms.

The San Diego City Council adopted guidelines for complying with state medical marijuana laws in 2003, becoming the biggest city in the nation to set rules on how patients could use or grow the drug. But the San Diego ordinance did not address the issue of dispensaries, which began popping up all over the city.

Late last year, local law enforcement officials joined federal drug agents in raiding more than a dozen of the storefronts, seizing pot, equipment and patient records. They followed that action with a July sweep that netted 15 arrests and effectively closed every dispensary in San Diego County.

Early this year, the county Board of Supervisors sued the state of California in an attempt to overturn the Compassionate Use Act, which was approved by 56 percent of voters in 1996, including a majority in San Diego County.

A trial in that case is scheduled for November. It will be defended by the state Attorney General's Office, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Safe Access and the Drug Policy Alliance.

Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, is confident the county will lose in court. If and when it does, she said her group will help San Diego officials develop guidelines to regulate the safe dispensing of medical marijuana.

“We're reaching out to the city,” she said. “They don't have to reinvent the wheel. Other cities have done it and done it successfully. We want to create policies that will work for everyone.”


Jeff McDonald: (619) 542-4585;

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