Pot clinics, cards up for votes

October 22, 2006

Adam Ashton, Modesto Bee

The City Council is expected to vote Tuesday night on permanently banning medical marijuana dispensaries, three weeks after the federal Drug Enforcement Administration shut down Modesto's only pot clinic.

That same day, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on installing a program to issue medical marijuana cards through the state Department of Health Services.

It could be a long day for medical marijuana supporters, with officials at both meetings lining up against pot dispensaries.

"I'm opposed to the medical marijuana card in the first place," Supervisor Ray Simon said. "I am concerned about its abuse and the great potential for abuse."

State law permits sick people to use medical marijuana; federal law does not. Cities and counties have been trying to balance the two since California approved its Compassionate Use Act 10 years ago.

The Modesto council 10 months ago tried to close the McHenry Avenue clinic by banning for-profit cannabis dispensaries, but the California Healthcare Collective was a nonprofit and remained open.

The council had to overrule the city's Planning Commission to implement its first law. This time, the commission supports banning dispensaries.

Chairwoman Alita Roberts said she and other planning commissioners changed their minds after seeing police reports that described healthy people getting the drug from the clinic.

Police contend some people easily obtained fake doctor's recommendations to buy marijuana at the collective, and others purchased cannabis on the street from the patients.

"I wish there were a way that it could be made available to people who are really, really sick, but somehow it just didn't seem to work the way the city of Modesto had it," Roberts said.

The Police Department and the DEA say the clinic was a front to sell marijuana to people who didn't need it.

Directors pleaded innocent

People who worked or shopped at the Modesto collective said directors took pains to check doctor's recommendations and keep out people who didn't have cards for use of the drug.

Its directors, Ricardo Montes and Luke Scarmazzo, on Oct. 13 pleaded innocent to federal drug distribution charges. Their lawyer has maintained that they opened a legal business in compliance with state law.

Medical marijuana supporters say the city could avoid some of the problems it encountered by regulating the clinics more closely.

"Well-controlled regulations are much more preferable to a ban," said Aaron Smith, a statewide coordinator for Safe Access Now. "You're basically throwing patients on the streets, saying 'You can use medical marijuana but you have to go to some street corner to a drug dealer.'"

Smith said one tool to regulate the drug in the county could be the medical marijuana cards that supervisor Simon opposes.

"This gives the legitimate patients an option to make sure that, whoever they show this card to, that it is backed up and verified by the county," he said.

The state requires counties to issue cards, but three counties are suing the attorney general's office to overturn the law. The counties — Merced, San Diego and Riverside — argue the state is forcing them to break a federal law. A court hearing is scheduled Nov. 16.

Simon said he wants to see what happens with that lawsuit before installing the card program.

Mary Ann Lee, managing director of the county Health Services Agency, said her department wants direction from supervisors about whether to proceed.

If the supervisors tell the county to implement the cards, Lee's department would be responsible for verifying doctor's recommendations for medical marijuana use and then forwarding information to the state health agency, which would issue the cards.

Cops opposed to cards

Smith said the cards would make it easier for police to determine who has justifiable need for medical marijuana, but Stanislaus County's top cops oppose the cards.

Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden wrote a letter to supervisors in August lobbying against the cards. The Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department also wants supervisors to hold off on the program, Assistant Sheriff Bill Heyne said.

"We're not opposed to people using a drug that benefits them because of their physical ailment; that's not the issue," Heyne said. "What this is leading to is abuse by anyone and everyone."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashtoncan be reached at 578-2366o r aashton@modbee.com.

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