Medical pot guidelines endorsed in Riverside

September 12, 2006

Kimberly Trone, Press-Enterprise

LA QUINTA - Calling it a law of compassion for patients without recourse, the Riverside County Planning Commission on Wednesday endorsed new guidelines for medical marijuana dispensaries and cooperatives.

Medical marijuana advocates had mixed reaction to the proposed rules, which would require dispensaries to sell products only to patients who have a state-issued medical marijuana identification card.

Last December, Riverside County became the first county in Southern California to begin taking applications for the card. About 340 cards have been issued to Riverside patients and caregivers so far.

Riverside County sheriff's Lt. Steve Thetford urged the commission to require the cards as a tool to help police distinguish between those who need marijuana and those attempting to access it illegally.

Thetford, assistant police chief in Palm Desert, said a dispensary in that city has worked with law enforcement to make sure only bonafide patients were obtaining marijuana.

"I am not here to pose argument about how we in law enforcement are dealing with the vague laws," Thetford told the commissioners.

State voters in 1996 approved the use of medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation, although federal laws do not recognize a medical use for the drug.

To help patients avoid arrest and prosecution, California lawmakers approved a voluntary medical marijuana identification card in 2003. The law made it mandatory for counties to process patients' applications for the card.

Ronald Naulls, the executive director of Healing Nations, a dispensary in Corona, said the county's requirement would hurt dispensary operators.

Naulls said hundreds of his clients come from San Bernardino and San Diego counties, where supervisors have decided to not issue the cards.

"It's hard enough right now," said Naulls, who so far has successfully defended legal efforts by city leaders to close down his operation.

The commissioners also agreed to allow marijuana edibles to be sold at dispensaries with permission from the Health Department. Michael Osur, deputy director of public health, said the issue of whether edibles can be allowed is unresolved at a state level.

The new rules prohibit patients from smoking marijuana at dispensaries, a ban widely endorsed by advocates. However, the commission approved the on-site use of a vaporized form of marijuana.

As many as six patients would be allowed to privately grow marijuana in a cooperative before a special county permit is required, under the proposal.

Palm Springs resident Lanny Swerdlow, founder of the Medical Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, said he was moderately satisfied with the commission's decision.

Swerdlow said he would have liked a larger number of people to be allowed to participate in cooperatives. He said cooperatives provide the least expensive and safest access for patients who are able to grow their own plants.

"Now marijuana sells for the price of gold. It's ridiculous. It sells for between $400 and $600 an ounce ... Most people get their medicine from dispensaries or criminals. Criminals charge too much and so do dispensaries," Swerdlow said.

Murrieta resident Judy Smith Scott said the county was disregarding the spirit of the 1996 Compassionate Use Act, which did not intend for retailers to open up storefront shops.

Smith Scott said the visibility of retail establishments would send the wrong message to young people about its legitimacy and potentially open the door for access.

Planning Commissioner James Porras, a high school health-sciences teacher, said those concerns did not go unnoticed. But he said the county leaders had to strike a balance with those concerns and the need of the chronically ill and patients in chronic pain.

The commission voted 4-0 in favor of the recommendations, while easing some of the restrictions that had been introduced by county staff members. Commissioner John Petty was absent from the meeting.

Riverside County supervisors are set to consider the rules on Sept. 26. A ban on dispensaries in the unincorporated county is set to expire Sept. 28.

Reach Kimberly Trone at 951-368-9456 or ktrone@PE.com



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