Pot regs bedevil local officials

February 08, 2007

Raheem Hosseini, Amador Ledger-Dispatch

In a state that regulates medical marijuana and in a county that issues identification cards to qualified patients, where can one go to fill a doctor's recommendation for safe, legal cannabis? That simple question has proven incredibly complicated. "I have no idea," said Angel LeSage, spokesperson for Amador County's Public Health Department. "It's not our problem, so to speak."

But it is a problem for many others, from patients who must travel far to cities where marijuana dispensaries are allowed to law enforcement officials who have to police those who might try to procure it illicitly.

"We get calls all the time (from Amador County residents)," said Matt Vaughn, the corporate executive officer for Medical Marijuana Caregivers Association, the Placerville dispensary that's been operating since January 2004.

More than 10 years after California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 and four years after the state Legislature found a way to implement it with Senate Bill 420, Amador County and other communities still struggle with the weakly defined regulations.

While Amador was one of the first to implement the identification card program outlined in the state Senate's bill, many other counties haven't, including El Dorado and San Diego, which recently filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the state in an attempt to resist implementing such a program.

"In my opinion, (Proposition 215) was a very poorly written law," said Undersheriff Jim Wegner. "It is very vague and wrought with loopholes."

Specifically, the guidelines governing just who can be an approved user are fairly lax, Wegner pointed out, putting police and judges in a bind and diluting a law that was meant to help the terminally and chronically ill.

"I do take issue with those that abuse a law which was passed to help those that are truly, significantly ill and really deserve whatever comfort we can provide them," he said.

Conflict resolution

"While the number of raids is comparatively small, it's enough to scare some people," said Bruce Mirken, director of Communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.

In some cases, that fear is downright palpable. Two cannabis delivery services serving the tri-county area that were contacted by the Ledger Dispatch refused to comment, with one simply hanging up once he was told he was speaking to a member of the press.

Eleven Los Angeles outlets were raided by federal drug enforcement agents in January, while dozens were targeted in San Diego earlier last summer. Numerous dispensaries have been raided in the Sacramento area as well, with the city of Roseville reversing its stance on medical marijuana dispensaries in 2005 as a result of raids.

"We have been pretty fortunate. You haven't seen our county all over the news," Wegner said. "Almost all of our surrounding counties have been."

The fact that Amador has an indefinite moratorium in place against marijuana dispensaries is partly responsible, an issue that concerns Ione cancer survivor Allen Toupe, himself a card carrying marijuana patient.

"The federal government is very selective about the laws they choose to enforce," Toupe said. He points to the state's ban on assault weapons, which the federal government no longer has, and notes that federal agents aren't raiding California gun stores that don't sell AK-47s.

But using federal intervention as a reason to refuse local access is a faulty premise for local municipalities, Mirken said. As long as cities and counties are abiding by state laws and local ordinances, it's the dispensaries and medical cannabis patients that are vulnerable to federal prosecution.

That can't be much comfort to patients like Toupe, who credits marijuana with controlling his pain and doing far less physical damage than the legal pharmaceutical drugs he was prescribed before his surgery.

"The Betty Ford centers and rehab places of the world aren't filled up with pot heads," he said. "Drugs that save your life, like my cancer medication, are expensive. But the drugs that string you out and keep you buying more are cheap."

An issue of hypocrisy?

Though government studies in support of marijuana's medical benefits have been slow to come, they have begun to trickle in, with state-sponsored studies in California, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico and New York all showing benefits to cancer patients. Academic studies on the matter are in greater supply, and add AIDS and Alzheimer's, among other diseases, to the list of medical conditions that could be favorably impacted by prescribed marijuana use.

But last summer's statewide crackdown on illicit marijuana plantations and the continued prosecution of legal dispensaries send a very different message.

"I see an awful lot of time, money and energy being spent on what is the least dangerous of illicit drugs and a lot less dangerous than many legal drugs," Mirken said.

But marijuana isn't as harmless as some proponents make it out to be, either. Cannabis is one of the more abused drugs in Amador County, explained Wegner, and is often cited by addicts as being a gateway drug along with alcohol and tobacco. The fact that the latter two are both legal have stirred patients rights activists to complain of preferential legality.

And while the county hasn't seen any recent shoot-outs at illicit cultivation sites, Wegner said he has personally investigated two shootings related to marijuana.

While access has always been an issue, price just became a greater one. The state recently levied a substantial increase for its share of ID card fees, raising the cost from $13 to $142. That's aside from the fees counties charge, which in Amador is currently $48 per card.

Part of the reason for the massive hike has been the unwillingness of 23 counties to implement the ID card program, resulting in a greatly reduced number of applications than estimated. Of the 150,000 to 350,000 Proposition 215 patients the state Department of Health estimates are in California, less than 6,000 have ID cards.

Taking another road

Toupe has found a way to circumvent the county's current moratorium by grouping up with nearly 30 other medical marijuana users in the community and pooling resources. Rather than drive multiple times a week outside the county to fill a prescription, the group can negotiate smaller prices for larger amounts and limit trips to the Bay Area once a week.

Since implementing the ID card program in 2005, Amador County has issued nearly 50 cards. It's not a high number, according to LeSage.

"Most authorizations are coming from outside the county," she said.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the number of medical marijuana patients in Amador County is small.

Vaughn said he gets calls all the time from Amador patients looking to fill their prescriptions, and Toupe said his group is growing.

"These are not your average, run-of-the-mill kids looking for pot," he said of the members in his group, whom he notes are overwhelmingly over 40 and include some prominent members of the community.

While it irks Toupe that he can't access his prescription locally, outside of what he's legally allowed to cultivate himself, he has high praise for officials within the county, whom he credits with doing more than most.

Whether it's enough - whether it will ever be enough - will remain a debate for the foreseeable future.

"Access, to some degree, will always be an issue until federal law changes and we can have above ground access," Mirken said.

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