Pot dispensaries good for cities, too, group says

September 07, 2006

Gig Conaughton, North County Times

A handful of Northern California city leaders and a medical marijuana advocacy group held a press conference Thursday in San Diego to say cities and counties would benefit by creating dispensaries where patients could get their legal pot.

The city officials were gathered at the San Diego Convention Center to take part in the League of California Cities 108th annual conference.

But holding the dispensary news conference in San Diego had special significance, said Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access, the medical marijuana advocacy group that coordinated the event.

San Diego County has become ground zero in a long-simmering tussle over California's 10-year-old, voter-approved medical marijuana law, the Compassionate Use Act.

In December, San Diego County supervisors filed a precedent-setting lawsuit to try to overturn the Compassionate Use Act. The court battle is slated to begin in November. Supervisors argue that California's law should be superseded by federal law, which says all marijuana use is illegal.

In addition, the San Diego County district attorney's office has helped federal drug agents essentially "shut down" all local medical marijuana "dispensaries" ---- even though state Attorney General Bill Lockyer said local law enforcement were not obligated to help enforce federal law.

Finally, the region's second largest government ---- the city of San Diego ---- hasn't acted on whether it wants to create regulations to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to operate inside the city's limits.

Sherer directed Thursday's sparsely attended press conference at the San Diego Convention Center downtown.

She said the group hoped that San Diego City Council members would still create dispensary regulations that would give local patients a place to buy marijuana safely, rather than "forcing them into the streets."

"Our hope is that San Diego City Council moves forward despite what the county is doing, and show that they are more compassionate than our county," Sherer said.

The roughly 20-minute press conference featured testimony from Northern California city council leaders of cities that had already created regulations allowing marijuana dispensaries to operate ---- and featured the release of a report that studied several dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay area.

Oakland Councilwoman Desley Brooks; Councilman Lee Pierce, of Santa Rosa; and Councilman Mike Rotkin, of Santa Cruz, each said their cities benefited by allowing dispensaries to operate.

They said creating the dispensaries had not increased crime as critics feared and had actually decreased street drug trafficking, improved security in surrounding areas, and sponsored economic growth in some spots.

Rotkin, a five-term councilman and former mayor of Santa Cruz, said the city had created regulations allowing for two dispensaries over the last 18 months ---- making sure to create zoning that would keep them away from schools residential neighborhoods.

He said residents howled "not in my backyard" when the issue was debated but that the dispensaries had proved very successful.

"Literally, in 18 months of operation," Rotkin said, "we've not had a single complaint from anybody about either of the two dispensaries. The end result is that the very same people who started out very skeptical and very critical ... have all become active supporters."

Sherer and Amanda Reiman, a postdoctoral fellow at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, also introduced Reiman's 19-page study, "Medical Cannabis Dispensing Collectives and Local Regulation."

Reiman, who is also a medical marijuana user and a member of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign, said she visited and studied seven medical marijuana dispensaries in Berkeley and San Francisco. Reiman said in her report that they not only gave patients a safe place to get the drug they needed to control their pain or ease their symptoms, but that it combated crime. Reiman said the dispensaries had their own security, which discouraged criminal activity in the immediate areas; and street drug sales decreased, although the report did not offer statistics to back that assertion.

However, Reiman said the Bay Area dispensaries could also serve as models for other dispensaries around the state in the services they offered.

"The cannabis (selling) is a very small part of what a lot of these dispensaries are offering," she said. "They include peer counseling, substance abuse treatment services, and also palliative care services ---- like massage, arts and crafts, day trips, cannabis-related services such as legal advice."

Meanwhile, a couple of San Diego County residents who have been deeply involved in the recent controversies said they hoped that the city and county of San Diego would help medical marijuana patients.

Wendy Christakes, 29, of La Mesa, said she had been using medical marijuana to help ease the spasms and pain of a broken back in 2002. But she said she's had to quit using the drug since the San Diego County district attorney's office and federal drug officers cracked down on dispensaries.

Christakes said she can't grow her own marijuana at home because she has two small children and doesn't feel it would be safe.

Since she could no longer get marijuana, Christakes said: "I've had to go to the hospital and get morphine injections, due to the pain.

"And they've given me prescriptions for sedatives and Class Three narcotics which I've had to take," she said. "I'd really prefer not to. They damage your liver and kidneys. But unfortunately my back goes into severe spasms."

Jeff Meyer, 32, said he ran a medical marijuana dispensary in Clairemont until federal drug officers threatened to send him "to federal jail."

Meyer said he was also a medical marijuana user, and got into the dispensary business because he had been to several local dispensaries, and thought they could be done "more professionally." He said he preferred to keep his illness confidential.

He also said he had struggled since the county cracked down on dispensaries.

"We're struggling to get by," he said. "I opened up a smoke shop right next door to keep most of my employees. What I doing now is focusing efforts on working with the (San Diego) City Council to enact regulations and guidelines (that would allow dispensaries)."

Contact staff writer Gig Conaughton at (760) 739-6696 or gconaughton@nctimes.com.

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