Pot clubs have critics fuming

February 03, 2007

Sandy Mazza, Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

WHITTIER - Some arrived wearing hippie clothes and facial piercings, some wore suits, others were dressed in jeans and sweatshirts.

The diverse group of people filled out paperwork as they sat silently inside a waiting room at the Holistic Clinic, which on every other day of the week is just an ordinary office near a law center and some furniture stores on Whittier Boulevard.

All of them had come for one reason - to receive a physician's recommendation for medical marijuana.

For two hours every Thursday evening, a doctor opens shop at the clinic, evaluating people seeking marijuana. They come with $150 for the doctor's fee and an assortment of ailments - from cancer to AIDS to migraines and menstrual cramps and even sore muscles.

Armando, a 27-year-old medical marijuana user from the Whittier area, who would not reveal his last name for fear of federal prosecution, said he suffered from migraines for years and had bad side effects from prescription medications.

"I was unable to function," before using marijuana, said Armando. "I couldn't do normal, everyday things."

It's been more than a decade since voters allowed people to use marijuana for medical reasons by approving Proposition 215 in 1996. A 2004 law, SB420, expanded 215 by making it legal for groups of patients to grow and use marijuana collectively.

But marijuana - medicinal or not - is still illegal under federal law.

The ambiguity has spawned a booming cottage industry. Medical marijuana dispensaries, fed by a stream of patients from evauluation clinics like the Holistic Clinic in Whittier, have sprung up by the dozens in strip malls across Los Angeles County.

Some police officials say abuse of medical marijuana is widespread and growing and includes recreational users easily getting marijuana recommendations from profit-motivated physicians, dispensaries turning to illegal growers for supplies and people selling their medical pot on the streets.

Proposition 215 co-author the Rev. Scott Imler laments this is not what he envisioned when he helped write the measure on behalf of severely ill patients, he said.

Officials say abuse is hard to quantify, but Imler believes only about 10 percent of the estimated 200,000 medical marijuana users in the state are truly eligible.

Gone is the proposition's initial compassionate spirit, he said. The first dispensaries in the state were largely self-sustaining collectives that grew their own supplies. Marijuana was sold only to cover costs, and patients were rigorously evaluated.

Now, he said, "everything is entrepreneurial, for-profit. "There's no room for charitable, community-based programs. What's being institutionalized are these for-profit entrepreneurs."

Fearing being sued in state courts for banning medical marijuana dispensaries outright, many cities and counties have allowed them to open while restricting them from being close to homes and schools.

Whittier has followed that trend, allowing dispensaries to open in commercial and industrial zones.

Norwalk Station Deputy Chuck Gonzalez said he recently arrested a South Whittier man for illegally dealing marijuana he bought legally at a dispensary.

Anthony Alvarez, 55, of Whittier said he gets marijuana from the Whittier Collective for his terminal liver cancer. He said marijuana has helped him more than any prescription drugs.

"It helps me to eat and maintain my weight," said Alvarez. "I have two types of pain in my abdomen - a stabbing, shooting pain and a pressure pain. When I smoke, I relax."

Sandy Mazza can be reached at sandy.mazza@sgvn.com or at (562) 698-0955, ext. 3026.

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