CannaHelp operator: I'll stay open

January 05, 2007

Keith Matheny, The Desert Sun

The operator of the CannaHelp medical marijuana dispensary vowed to continue operations after drug-related arrest warrants were issued for him and two dispensary managers Friday.

"They're hoping we'll just give up," said owner Stacy Hochanadel. "All they've done is made me more angry."

Hochanadel and CannaHelp managers James Campbell II and John Bednar face three felony counts each related to marijuana possession, sale and transport, as well as for "keeping a place to sell controlled substances," as reported on Friday.

City officials ordered the dispensary closed last Dec. 19 after an undercover police officer "who did not have correct credentials to buy medical marijuana" bought some there, city officials said at the time.

Hochanadel defied the order, remaining open with the help of volunteers. He said the officer had a doctor's recommendation for the marijuana - all that is required under state law - but no county-issued ID card.

But city officials maintain Hochanadel signed an agreement with the city last year that the dispensary would sell only to patients with a Riverside County-issued medical marijuana identification card.

Lanny Swerdlow of Palm Springs, a medical marijuana patient and advocate, blasted the arrest warrants.

"It's more of the mean-spiritedness of the Riverside County sheriff's and D.A.'s offices, trying to attack medical marijuana because they ideologically oppose it," he said. "They don't care what the voters in California have said."

County district attorney spokeswoman Ingrid Wyatt said her office is interested in ensuring the law is correctly followed.

"We're not targeting people who have a legitimate need, who have a prescription, for marijuana," she said. "We're concerned about businesses that have more than the legal amount. We're concerned about those that are selling marijuana under the guise of a dispensary for profit-making reasons."

Hochanadel said he has regularly attended county supervisor and city council meetings, urging the passage of regulations that would clarify how his dispensary should operate.

"We need the regulations and rules because people will take advantage of it if there's no guidelines," he said.

But the city, county and city of Palm Springs, which also has wrestled with medical marijuana dispensary issues, "sat on their hands to see what the others were going to do, and nobody's done anything," Hochanadel said.

Palm Desert council member Jim Ferguson said Hochanadel has been a "model operator" with "a flawless record for over a year."

Ferguson likened the alleged undercover officer's purchase of medical marijuana without a county-issued card to a convenience store selling alcohol to a minor with a false ID.

"If the state were coming down on that (alcohol-seller) they would probably give them a warning; they may fine them," he said. "They certainly wouldn't issue arrest warrants."

Palm Desert Mayor Richard Kelly declined to comment.

California was the first in the U.S. to pass a statewide initiative legalizing medical marijuana, with voters' approval of Proposition 215 in 1996. In 2003, state legislation was approved allowing counties to issue identification cards to medical users to protect them from prosecution by local law enforcement.

State law prohibits dispensing or selling medicinal marijuana for profit. Federal law bans all marijuana use.

"Whatever your feelings on medical marijuana, I believe Stacy is a believer in its medicinal value; is a user for medicinal reasons; and has done everything the city has asked him to do to run a legitimate operation," Ferguson said.

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