City ponders new medical marijuana plan
October 20, 2005
Jessica Portner, Knight-Ridder Newspapers
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - An elderly woman waits at her local pharmacy to pick up her arthritis drugs behind a mom fetching her son's ADHD medication. Imagine a cancer or AIDS patient joining that line to fill his prescription for medicinal marijuana.
The city of Mountain View is exploring the novel idea of allowing pharmacists to dispense medicinal marijuana as readily as Viagra or Vicodin.
Pharmacist Nori Yabumoto, for one, said he thinks that scenario makes sense.
"All pharmacists are in a field to help people who are sick," said Yabumoto, who has owned the Economed Pharmacy next to El Camino Hospital in Mountain View for 27 years. "I wish they would let the professionals take care of it."
Drug stores in the Netherlands distribute medicinal marijuana, and Canada plans next year to launch a pilot program with government-certified pot. But the idea is against federal law in the United States - even though California voters in 1996 gave certain patients the right to use medicinal cannabis with a doctor's prescription through Proposition 215.
Last week, a divided Mountain View City Council voted to study the mechanics and legalities of making the city's drug stores medicinal marijuana dispensaries. Some members of the city council worried it would unleash abuse of the system and create tussles with the federal government. Mayor Matt Neely and others were moved, however, by the stories of people such as Jonathan Lustig, a Mountain View resident who has to travel to Oakland pot clubs to pick up the marijuana he is prescribed to ease searing migraines and stomach pain because no local centers exist.
There are no marijuana clubs in Santa Clara or San Mateo counties. Elaine Costello, Mountain View's planning director, said that in theory, pharmacies could be a legitimate venue for distributing the pain-numbing, nausea-relieving drug.
Mountain View zoning officials have said the city may be able to issue pharmacies "conditional use" zoning permits, which allow businesses to open under special conditions.
Regulating such dispensaries has emerged as legally precarious turf, especially in California, which, with more than 160 marijuana centers statewide, is the epicenter of pot clubs. State law authorizes patients to use medicinal marijuana if they have certain diseases, including cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, arthritis or migraines. But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June said that state laws did not protect medicinal marijuana users from federal prosecution.
"It's plain and simple: federal law prohibits it," said Luke Macaulay, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco.
And that has big chain drug stores expressing reservations.
"Generally our policy is that we will carry or make available any medication that is approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration," said Michael Polzin, spokesman for Walgreens in Deerfield, Ill. "I don't know how this would fit into that."
Like most pharmacies, Economed already dispenses controlled substances such as methadone, percocet and oxycodone, which is similar to morphine. Yabumoto sees the legal pitfalls of legitimizing the practice of dispensing medicinal marijuana and isn't interested in challenging federal law. But if the California Board of Pharmacy and federal government cleared the way, Yabumoto said he believes plenty of pharmacists would be interested in dispensing cannabis.
Dispensing the prescribed substance in a licensed pharmacy is smarter than letting people sell it in private centers that could be magnets for drug dealers and other crime, he said.
"Pharmacies are ideal places," said Yabumoto in his store, where the shelves are lined with pain relievers and cold remedies. "We are trained to identify people who are abusing the system more than people who are out there in clubs."
For now, Mountain View city officials are studying the idea and will report back in about two months.
Hilary McQuie, spokeswoman for the Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, said hundreds of ill people from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties must travel to pot clubs in San Francisco, Oakland, Hayward and Santa Cruz to get their medications.
While she applauds Mountain View for studying the pharmacy approach, she said there may be better options.
"I would be surprised if they don't find that to be in conflict legally," she said, however. "A church might be a better sanctuary."