Medical pot has cities in a bind

October 07, 2006

Paige Austin, Press-Enterprise

As Norco Mayor Pro Tem Harvey Sullivan voted for a 45-day moratorium on medical-marijuana dispensaries this month, it was with mixed emotions.

Sullivan is battling prostate cancer. More than ever, he understands the pain that drives patients to cannabis for relief. At the same time, he leads a city battling to deal with the drug and alcohol abuse that has led to an increase in traffic fatalities -- particularly among youths. Conflicting state and federal laws on the legality of medical-marijuana use further complicate the matter for city leaders.

"I'm not sure what to think," he said. "I could go either way."

His dilemma is not unique. It's playing out throughout the region and the state.

Last week, Riverside County supervisors imposed a ban on marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas and joined other counties such as San Bernardino, Merced and San Diego in a court challenge of state medical-marijuana laws. California voters approved marijuana use for medical purposes in 1996, but it is still illegal at the federal level. The federal government has not determined that marijuana serves a medical purpose and views it as a "gateway drug," enticing users to harder drugs.

District Attorney Grover Trask has said he won't prosecute patients who use marijuana in accordance with state laws. A handful of Inland cities, including Palm Desert and Palm Springs, are considering ordinances to restrict or regulate cannabis distribution. Other cities such as Corona have already enacted moratoriums and have gone so far as to seek a restraining order against a dispensary within the city.

"The state has mandated cities and counties to find a way for it to be distributed without having illegal drug houses," Sullivan said. "The people voted on it. Now we need to find the right way for it to be dispensed under a doctor's supervision. I'd rather see it sold somewhere like Sav-on than some tattoo parlor on the corner."

No one has currently sought a business license for a dispensary or cannabis co-op in Norco, but city officials hope to establish guidelines before one tries to come in.

Cities were looking to the county to establish regulations they could also adopt, but now that the county is challenging the state, the cities are left on their own to figure it out, said Ryan Michaels, of Inland Empire Patient Advocates. The group has worked with several Inland cities on ordinances that regulate while protecting patient rights.

Michaels is also the director of Healing Nations Collective, a Corona medical-marijuana dispensary fighting the city in court to stay open.

A lot of cities don't even know it's legal for patients with a medical-marijuana prescription to grow their own cannabis, he said. Michaels wants cities to encourage open communication between law enforcement and dispensaries. He advocates requiring business licenses for co-ops with seven or more members.

However, city leaders fear that such places attract crime, are difficult to regulate and are vulnerable to abuse.

Last week local authorities working with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration raided a medical-marijuana dispensary and seized drugs and cash as part of an investigation into illegal distribution linked to Palm Springs Caregivers.

Norco resident Pat Overstreet said she has trouble accepting the idea of medicinal-marijuana distribution because of the potential for abuse.

"As a (registered nurse), I know there are some situations where marijuana will help people with acute pain and nausea," she said. "But the potential for abuse is truly what's so scary about this."

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