Tracy medical pot store awaits ruling

January 04, 2007

John Upton, Tracy Press (CA)

The owner of a Tracy medical marijuana store will have to wait more than a week to find out whether the city will let him stay in business.

Tracy ordered the Valley Wellness Center shut down in November after it discovered pot was sold there, but the store has fought the order and remained in business. A two-hour hearing Thursday could decide the fate of the center, though center attorney James Anthony said he would appeal to the Superior Court if his appeal with the city fails.

Hearing officer Jeanne Schechter, Merced's city attorney who sat as a quasi-judge in the case, said she would base her ruling in part on written briefs that will be submitted by the end of next week by Anthony and by Tracy's assistant city attorney Daniel Sodergren.

But even if the center's arguments fail to sway Schechter, they did convince one person involved in the wrangle.

Bernadette Zacharia, the owner of the building that leases space to the center, said she had no idea marijuana would be sold out of her 11th Street shop front when she leased it late last year.

But after hearing testimony from Valley Wellness Center patients Thursday, she said she would not object to the nonprofit using her store.

"At no time were we aware they were going to use the premises for the purposes of medical marijuana, and we wouldn't have rented it to them if that were the case," Zacharia said. "They weren't truthful when we wrote up the lease."

Zacharia said she thought the center would sell herbal products.

 Tracy resident Carl Hassell spoke at the hearing.

"I used to travel to Hayward in excruciating pain, and I had to take morphine and percadan once a month to go drive and get some medicine," Hassell said. "When I found out Tracy had a dispensary, it was the day they were ordered to close, and I cried."

Hassell, wearing a marijuana leaf pin and walking with the aid of a cane, said he suffers from arthritis, a hernia, migraines, chronic pelvic pain and two herniated discs. He lifted his shirt to reveal a catheter bag and a 13-inch scar from three abdominal surgeries.

"All I ask is, please, let's work together and keep this dispensary in town so people can have safe and easy access to medicine," he said. "I don't wish anyone in the world the pain that I have to live with at 49 years old."

After hearing testimony from Hassell, another center patient and a marijuana activist, Zacharia said she was unopposed to leasing to the center as long as the city doesn't mind.

Anthony argued during the hearing that medical marijuana could be legally sold in Tracy because it is permitted by state law and does not violate any city codes.

Sodergren argued that marijuana sale in Tracy is illegal because it is not listed as an approved retail activity.

After the meeting, Anthony said that while medicinal marijuana has been legal for 10 years in California, it is not allowed under federal law.

"The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) is simply incapable of shutting down every single collective, so they take an approach that is selective, and it's targeted and strategic," Anthony said. "They'll strike in a sort of frightening way. They always come in with overwhelming firepower — 20 or 30 heavily armed S.W.A.T. agents."

Center proprietor Anthony Denner said he was unafraid of a DEA raid.

"If I had to sit in a fed pen for 10 years for helping sick people, that's my nature," said Denner, who said he became a supporter of medical marijuana as a 9-year-old after it prolonged the life of his mother, who suffered from cancer.

Contact reporter John Upton

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