Politics of Caring

March 22, 2007

Zachary Stahl, Monterey County Herald

When City Council-member Jyl Lutes’ then-husband lost his appetite during a battle with bone cancer more than 20 years ago, Stanford doctors gave him an experimental prescription: a vile of tightly-rolled joints. The marijuana cigarettes, she recalls, had a stamp from the Department of Agriculture on them and the directions read, “smoke at the first sign of nausea.” Lutes says the pot helped ease the pain of his last days—he died at the age of 30.

“He had access to a drug that doctors felt he needed, that was beneficial, that was giving him a better quality of life,” she says.

Now that medical marijuana is legal in the state of California, Lutes says the city of Salinas shouldn’t deny sick people access by outlawing pot clubs.

The schoolteacher is one of three Salinas council members who support the medicinal use of marijuana. All of their reasons are personal. Councilman Sergio Sanchez worked in a cancer ward. Doctors prescribed marijuana pills to Councilwoman Gloria De La Rosa’s dying brother.

While the City Council voted unanimously on March 6 to put a moratorium on dispensaries, the three council members made it clear that they would support a cannabis club if enough patients need access.

The council approved the 45-day moratorium to give staff time to study the issue, since Salinas’ city code doesn’t address medical marijuana dispensaries. On April 3, staff will give the council an update on its findings. Two weeks later, the City Council will consider extending the moratorium or amending the city code to either allow or ban dispensaries.

With the three council members likely to vote in favor of medical marijuana, a swing vote could open the door for Monterey County’s first cannabis club.

• • •

When Monterey County voters went to the polls in 1996, nearly 60 percent voted yes on state Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for patients and doctors. Eleven years later, several Monterey County cities have either outlawed or avoided marijuana dispensaries.

Last month, the Marina City Council voted to prohibit marijuana dispensaries. Seaside’s one-year moratorium on cannabis clubs expires next month. In 1997, the Salinas Planning Commission voted against changing the city zoning code to accommodate medical marijuana dispensaries.

Local municipalities are hesitant to open dispensaries because selling and buying pot is still a federal crime. A 2005 Supreme Court ruling upheld Congress’ right to regulate marijuana even in states where it’s legal. Federal drug agents routinely raid pot clubs.

This hasn’t stopped their proliferation, however. The state has approximately 300 medical marijuana dispensaries. San Francisco and San Jose have them, as do Kern County and Visalia.

The closest dispensary to Monterey County is in Santa Cruz. Sanchez says this is a long distance to drive for a patient who is terminally ill with cancer or AIDS.

Sanchez worked in various hospitals for 15 years and says he will never forget the moans of anguish from patients in a Fresno cancer unit.

“They’d be suffering,” Sanchez says. “They couldn’t eat. They had a hard time keeping their weight. All you hear is a lot of crying, a lot of moaning because people were in so much pain.”

At the time, Sanchez says, he didn’t know about the medical benefits of marijuana, which include the relief of nausea after chemotherapy. But now he wishes that all families have access to the drugs they need.

“As a caring family member you would want to do anything that would help them relieve the pain or help them live a more comfortable life,” he says.

Lutes says the city has an obligation to provide medicinal marijuana to its residents, just like morphine or other pharmaceuticals.

“As part of our bigger medical system, marijuana is just one tool that people have to control their illness,” she says.

Lutes says she would welcome a dispensary next to the police station. But she is going to have a hard time convincing Mayor Dennis Donohue to go along with that idea.

• • •

During his weekly press conference on March 6, Donohue made it clear that the only thing green that Salinas should be known for is lettuce. He said marijuana dispensaries were “out of tone and character” for Salinas. Patients who need the drug can drive to Santa Cruz, he said.

The dialogue changed, however, at the City Council meeting that evening.

Councilwoman De La Rosa, who is a nurse, said she has seen the benefits of medical marijuana. Before her brother died of AIDS in 1984, doctors prescribed him marijuana pills. “I think the community needs to be educated on how these dispensaries work,” De La Rosa said. “We need to show compassion.”

A few members of the public spoke against medical marijuana.

Two high school students with the Safe Teens Empowerment Project, a program designed to reduce teen drinking and driving, said allowing a pot club would send the wrong message to young people.

Sanchez told the students that there is a big difference between recreation use and medicinal use of marijuana: “The day that you have someone in your life that is dying…you are going to want to give them whatever is needed.”


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