Selling medical marijuana

September 24, 2006

Kimberly Trone, Press-Enterprise

Patients who use marijuana on the advice of a physician might soon be able to buy the federally banned drug at specialty stores in Riverside County.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is scheduled to debate land-use policies for medical-marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas, putting it in line to be the eighth county in California to regulate the distribution of pot to patients.

The meeting is set for 1:30 p.m. at the Riverside County Administrative Center, 4080 Lemon St., Riverside.

While Riverside County lags behind some Northern California cities in implementing state marijuana laws, activists say the county is helping pave the way for medicinal users in Southern California.

"Riverside County is definitely a leader, and one of the reasons it is doing so well is because we have an organized group of people pushing for it," said Lanny Swerdlow, who heads the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project in Palm Springs.

Ten years ago California voters gave sick patients the right to use marijuana with a doctor's permission. Federal law prohibits its cultivation, possession or sale.

In 2003, California lawmakers ordered counties to begin issuing voluntary ID cards to help patients and caregivers avoid arrest and prosecution by state agencies. Riverside County became the first in Southern California to comply.

The law, Senate Bill 420, was a bipartisan effort to enact the will of the voters and to create a workable distribution system, said former state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, who authored the bill.

"When the people say, 'Do it,' you do it. If you don't believe that, then you get out of the way," Vasconcellos said.

Some Southern California leaders see it differently.

DA Critical of Dispensaries

Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask recently issued a 10-page report calling dispensaries illegal and a magnet for crime. He is urging the Board of Supervisors to ban them.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana users can be prosecuted under federal drug laws even though voters in 11 states have approved its medical use.

But Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, said California laws make clear that medicinal marijuana is to be legal. Lockyer, who has told local governments to follow state rules, is defending the laws in court.

"SB420 says local government has to implement ways for patients to get access to their medicine. Counties have a choice in how they do it. The law allows for dispensaries to be an option," Schilling said.

Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson said the conflict is an issue of state rights. If Lockyer had determined dispensaries are illegal, "the ballgame would be over," he said.

"The people of California said they think compassionate use ought to be allowed," Wilson said.

Supervisors in San Bernardino and San Diego counties have filed a suit against the state, contending it is trying to force counties to set up a program the federal government says is illegal. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 16.

"At a time when drug cartels are flooding our streets with marijuana, and gang warfare is rampant, it's impossible for the Board of Supervisors to give its blessing to the use of a drug that is forbidden by federal law," San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn said in a statement earlier this year.

In Palm Springs, where two dispensaries have opened recently, officials are waiting on Riverside County supervisors' decision before recommending any ordinance to the council.

'Reasonable Provisions'

"We are trying to make reasonable provisions for patients, and fashion something that works for Palm Springs and Palm Springs residents," city attorney Douglas Holland said.

The proposal heading to Riverside County supervisors would allow as many as six patients to collectively grow their own marijuana at one location. Larger cooperatives would require a special county permit and public hearings.

Only single patients in Palm Springs would be permitted to cultivate their own plants under the city's draft rules. Holland said residents' concerns mostly are centered on the possibility that large marijuana plots could spring up in neighborhoods.

Palm Desert officials also are trying to hammer out regulations for dispensaries. Both desert cities have placed moratoriums on further dispensaries until they adopt their own rules.

Corona leaders have been trying unsuccessfully in court to close a dispensary there. Temecula and Lake Elsinore have banned them.

Temecula Mayor Ron Roberts said until the conflict is resolved between state and federal law, the council had to ban dispensaries.

Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs of the marijuana advocacy organization, Drug Policy Alliance, said authorities lose control when they prohibit dispensaries.

"That's putting your head in the sand and saying, 'We are going to let the black market take care of this,' " he said.

Dispensaries are portrayed in a negative light because of the controversy over marijuana, said Amanda Reiman, a marijuana patient and researcher at the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley.

Reiman said that many dispensaries and cannabis clubs offer substance-abuse counseling, illness support groups, coping strategies, social events and classes.

"Before communities are quick to say, 'No,' it would behoove them to look at the benefits," Reiman said.

Barbara Taylor, a Coachella Valley resident, said allowing dispensaries sends a message to teens that marijuana use is normal and legitimate.

"I see the dispensaries as nothing more than the illegal distribution of marijuana," Taylor said.

If Riverside County supervisors agree to regulate dispensaries, law enforcement officials say they will push to see that the rules require patients to have a state-mandated identification card issued by Riverside County.

Undersheriff Neil Lingle said the card is a tool for law enforcement to verify who is complying with the Compassion Use Act and has a valid physician's recommendation.

Identification Card Required

Lynnette Shaw, who operates a dispensary in the city of Fairfax in Marin County, said patients are required to have either the state card or a card from the Oakland public health department.

"The ID has eliminated problems with the police," Shaw said. Her dispensary is nine years old and one of the longest running in the state.

Getting the physician's recommendation in order to obtain the ID card is not as easy as people think, said AIDS patient Becky Brown.

Brown, 46, of Quail Valley, awakened four years ago after 24 days on life support weighing just 80 pounds. She is 5-foot-4.

Earlier this year, Brown said her physician in Riverside County suggested she try marijuana. Although he declined to write her a recommendation, Brown's physician told her there were doctors who would.

She found a West Hollywood doctor, who required her to bring her medical records, fill out a 200-question form, and participate in a lengthy interview before he signed a letter saying she qualified for the drug.

"I don't have a criminal record. I am not a junkie and I am not a thief," said Brown, who had been taking 20 pills -- some which were simply to relieve the side effects caused by drugs to treat her disease.

Brown said marijuana helps her sense of well being, eases nausea and stimulates her appetite. At a steady weight of 114 pounds, Brown said marijuana has allowed her to abandon more than half the pills she was taking.

"I am a testament to its usage," Brown said. "I am trying to live with this disease, not die from it."

Reach Kimberly Trone at 951-368-9456 or

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