Medical marijuana clinic in Fairfax still battles feds

May 03, 2003

Tad Whitaker, Marin Independent Journal,

Business is booming at a Fairfax enterprise that has no competitors, 50 daily customers seven days a week, all the publicity it can stand and annual sales of about $1 million. But making ends meet hasn't been easy for the Rev. Lynnette Shaw of Fairfax, founder and sole proprietor of Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, which cleared about $86,000 in net profit two years ago. As head of Marin County's only medicinal marijuana clinic, Shaw hasn't exactly traveled a yellow brick road to success. Federal agents have shut down pot clinics in Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Cruz but, through it all, Shaw's Fairfax clinic has continued to fill prescriptions for patients. "I knew I had a mission and that God would protect us," she said. "There's a lot of people counting on us." Shaw is a regular at the Marin County Jail. Since being ordained a Christian minister with the Religion of Jesus Christ in 1997, she has performed wedding ceremonies for inmates. "I'm the jail minister," she said. Shaw, 49, dreamed of becoming a singer but suffered a setback at the hands of a partner who left her with chronic neck pain and headaches. She started using marijuana to ease her pain and served 80 days in jail for possession in 1990, then served as a counselor from 1993 to 1996 at San Francisco's largest pot club, a facility started by activist Dennis Peron. "I'm from the mothership of all pot clubs," said Shaw, who smokes about one joint a day for pain. Shaw got a business license and hung out her shingle July 3, 1996, in a five-room office in downtown Fairfax on the second floor of a plain brown building that houses several other medical facilities. The operation started out as a campaign headquarters for the Proposition 215 campaign and, when that passed and medical marijuana became legal under California law, Shaw said it made perfect sense to turn the facility into the county's first pot clinic. "I thought I had the most support here and it's a special place," she said about Fairfax, where 86 percent of those voting approved Proposition 215. The waiting room resembles a doctor's office, complete with two couches, a gurgling water fountain and a stereo playing the soft rock sounds of the Supremes, the Beach Boys and Elton John. A white board mounted on the wall displays the different varieties of marijuana for sale, along with prices. "We sell the best stuff we can find," Shaw said. Marijuana ranges from $25 to $60 for an eighth of an ounce. Cookies and Rice Krispie pot treats cost $8 apiece. Tincture - liquid cannabis that can be stirred into tea - costs $20 per bottle, and massage oil - a mixture of cannabis oil, olive oil and lavender that is rubbed on the body - costs $10 a bottle. Each plastic bag of marijuana is labeled "For Medical Use Only" and has a serial number on it that coincides with a number on a patient's receipt that can be shown to law enforcement authorities as proof of ownership. Patients can use Visa, Mastercard or cash to pay a receptionist and, should the medication not have its desired effect, there is a return policy. San Rafael resident Clay Shinn, 47, said he spends about $100 per week on marijuana purchased at Marin Alliance. As a quadrapalegic with full-blown AIDS due to a tainted blood transfusion he received in 1992, Shinn said he needs to smoke about one gram of pot every day to stave off nausea caused by his various medications. "I used to barf every day," he said. "You could set your clock by it." Shinn said he started purchasing marijuana from Marin Alliance in 1997 and has come to depend on it due to his limited mobility. "Frankly, I don't know what I'd do," he said. "I'd have to go underground and that wouldn't be good for me." Shinn and other customers must display both an alliance membership card, and a medical marijuana card issued by the county, before they can make a purchase. Shaw's biggest threat: Keeping the federal government at bay. "These new feds are worse than the others," she said about the Bush administration. Shaw noted the federal government won a civil injunction against Marin Alliance in San Francisco Superior Court in May 2002. The injunction seeks to permanently close the Fairfax clinic but Shaw and Marin Alliance are appealing to the Ninth Circuit Court this fall. "I can stay in business until there's a decision," she said. Charles Miller, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said Shaw and Marin Alliance are in violation of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, which classifies marijuana with heroin, mescaline and LSD. He would not say why the Justice Department decided to pursue a civil injunction instead of criminal charges but said, "We are defending an existing federal law. There is obviously a contradictory law in California." Shaw said she thinks the federal government chose to file a civil lawsuit - which does not seek any jail time or fines - instead of criminal charges largely because neither she nor Marin Alliance grows any marijuana despite having permission from the town to do so. "We're still having a problem with supply because we don't have our own garden," she said. The marijuana comes from patients who grow their own marijuana and have enough to sell to the clinic. Shaw would not disclose the names or locations of her suppliers but she said she takes special care to not buy from anyone residing out of state because that would violate interstate commerce laws. "We're not transporting anything over state lines," she said. "We only use stuff that's California grown." The Fairfax Planning Commission approved in 1997 a use permit for the clinic so it can operate as a business in town, but the permit came with 84 conditions - such as maintaining records of patients and medicine, submitting to regular financial audits, taking precautionary measures to ensure the marijuana is not stolen, not selling to anyone under 18 and not being open for business when baseball games are being played at the Little League field across the parking lot. There were some things that had to be ironed out, such as one patient who was reselling marijuana after purchasing it, and instances of patients using marijuana in public, but Shaw said the problems have been resolved. "We don't have any problems with the clinic," said Planning Director Ken Kirkey. A copy of the club's most recent financial audit shows that in 2001, Marin Alliance spent $674,734 on marijuana and posted revenue of $985,400, which after expenses produced the $86,000 net profit. Shaw said the clinic pays for her personal rent, utilities and pays her a small salary, all of which is valued at about $55,000 per year. The remainder of the money went for attorney fees and repairs to make the building accessible to patients in wheelchairs. "We don't make money here. We just pay our bills," Shaw said. "I don't have any money saved." The club does not charge sales tax on purchases but it does pay income tax and contributes to unemployment insurance for its four part-time employees, who do not receive health insurance. "What it (the audit) proved is that we're broke and honest," she said. Police Chief Kenneth Hughes said the only major incident at the clinic was a burglary more than three years ago. Hughes said he thinks one reason the clinic has a low-key existence is that, unlike a bar, where customers consume alcohol on the premises, Marin Alliance's customers are not allowed to use pot on the property. "Our contacts with the club are very minimal," he said. "They're trying to act in a responsible manner." Relations with law enforcement have not always been rosy. Shaw originally advised Marin Alliance members to stay away from the county's certification process, which was initiated in 1997, after several early card holders were arrested. Angered over District Attorney Paula Kamena's policy on medical marijuana enforcement, Shaw led an unsuccessful recall drive against Kamena in 2000 that cost the county $500,000 in election expenses. At the same time that local law enforcement officers agreed to take the county's medical marijuana card seriously, Kamena eliminated guidelines as to the maximum number of marijuana plants or pounds of pot that a card holder could possess without fear of prosecution. Business at the clinic has petered off since then, Shaw said. When law enforcement officials were confiscating plants, she said it forced many people to buy their marijuana from her. But when law enforcement stopped confiscating plants, more people started growing marijuana themselves. That's fine with Shaw. "The goal of the club is to be here for the sickest of the sick who can't grow for themselves," she said. Marin Alliance is not allowed to sell pipes, rolling papers or anything other than marijuana. Should a member get in trouble for a marijuana-related problem, the clinic does line up free legal advice through its network of pro bono lawyers and free medical advice from a doctor every other Thursday, Shaw said. "Some people just register so they can have access to a lawyer if they get busted," Shaw said. Standing up for patients' rights and rights in general - "I don't own a gun but I joined the NRA because they stand up for our rights" - is all in a day's work for Shaw, who has been a member of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce since 1997. The way she sees it, someone has to do it. "As patients, we have no other option than to go back to the gangsters," she said. Contact Tad Whitaker via e-mail at twhitaker@marinij.com

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