Pot-dispensary crackdown activates search for options

July 26, 2007

David Olson, Press-Enterprise (CA)

As the number of medical-marijuana dispensaries in the Inland area dwindles, patients are looking for other options while their advocates try to shield them from arrest.

More than 160 members of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday supported a proposal to end federal funding of Drug Enforcement Administration raids and other actions against medical-pot outlets. The measure was defeated.

Palm Springs officials are drafting an ordinance to allow medical-marijuana patients to grow pot at city-authorized collectives -- despite a top federal prosecutor's warning that City Council members who approve such measures could be subject to federal prosecution.

As storefront outlets close, groups that offer home deliveries of medical pot are receiving a surge of calls from former dispensary patients. One Corona-based service has doubled its patient load in the past week.

Only two or three of the seven medical-pot outlets in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that were open at the beginning of the year are still operating, patient advocates said. One, in Palm Desert, will close in September under pressure from the city and another, in Palm Springs, is being threatened with eviction. It is unclear whether a third dispensary, in Palm Springs, remains open, city officials said.

California voters approved the medicinal use of marijuana in 1996. Under state law, people suffering from AIDS-related complications, cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and other diseases can use marijuana to relieve pain. A doctor's recommendation is required.

But marijuana use remains a federal crime. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that medical-marijuana outlets and patients can be prosecuted under federal law. Federal officials view state and local laws as inapplicable.

Last week, the DEA raided medical-marijuana outlets in Corona and Perris and arrested their owner. Those were two of a series of raids the agency has conducted at medical-pot outlets throughout the state since the voter initiative passed.

Landlords at Risk

U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, a co-sponsor of the measure that would have cut off funding for the DEA raids, said Congress should stop the DEA from using taxpayer money to thwart the will of California voters and to take doctor-approved drugs away from sick people.

"This is the most outrageous misuse of limited funds," Rohrabacher said by telephone. "They should use that money in a way that will help us keep young people from getting involved in drugs and have a better understanding of the threat that drugs pose to them rather than basically thumbing their nose at the local electorate and causing great hardship for people who are physically ill."

Rohrabacher also blasted a recent DEA threat to seize the property of building owners who rent to marijuana dispensaries, calling it "abusive and arrogant."

The letter was sent to about 150 property owners in Los Angeles County. But a DEA spokeswoman said owners in other counties might be targeted next.

Shaoul Levy said he is so worried about the seizure of the Palm Springs building that he and four partners own that he plans to ask the Desert Valley Patients Association dispensary to move out. The medical-marijuana association signed a one-year lease for Levy's building in downtown Palm Springs about four months ago, the group's attorney said.

Levy, of Santa Monica, said that he owns a Los Angeles building that contains a dispensary and received one of the DEA letters. He does not believe he and other landlords should be dragged into disputes among federal, state and local officials over medical marijuana.

"They should keep the building owners out of it," he said. "They are holding us hostage."

Levy said he expects the patients association to fight the eviction notice by arguing that he is illegally breaking the lease.

Anthony Curiale, the Brea attorney for the association, said he hopes to work with the building's owners to resolve the problem, but added that a lawsuit against the owners is an option. The DEA, he said, is using "terror and fear tactics" to intimidate property owners.

Cities in the Fray

The patients association has problems with the city of Palm Springs as well. The city last year barred new dispensaries until it could establish medical-marijuana regulations. The two dispensaries existing at the time later closed.

Desert Valley violates that law, City Attorney Douglas Holland said. City officials are seeking to close the outlet through civil code-enforcement actions, he said. Curiale said the association will fight the city.

The draft ordinance that Palm Springs' medical-marijuana task force drew up last week would allow marijuana patients and their caregivers to form collectives that would be closed to outsiders. Only marijuana grown on the premises could be provided to patients. City officials could inspect records at any time. Other restrictions, including a limit on the number of members, will likely be added before the proposal is finalized, Holland said.

The city had not previously regulated medical-marijuana outlets.

The rules prevent abuse, including sales to non-patients, and conform to state law, Holland said.

Yet the proposal faces legal threats on both sides of the medical-marijuana issue.

The Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, a patient-advocacy group, believes Palm Springs does not have the right under state law to establish certain restrictions, such as a limit on the number of members, spokesman Kris Hermes said.

The DEA, though, views all medical-marijuana dispensaries or collectives as illegal. Special Agent Sarah Pullen said the DEA does not take a city's support for medical marijuana into account when deciding which outlets to raid.

The chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles says city officials who allow medical-marijuana outlets are subject to prosecution for violating federal marijuana laws. At a Coachella Valley Association of Governments meeting in January, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom O'Brien said such officials could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting a federal crime.

President Bush nominated O'Brien on July 12 to become U.S. attorney for the Los Angeles office, which covers Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Palm Springs City Councilwoman Ginny Foat, who sits on the marijuana task force, said O'Brien's comment makes her less likely to vote for a marijuana-collective ordinance, even though she strongly believes the city should allow people suffering from debilitating diseases to obtain medical marijuana.

"It has a real chilling effect," Foat said. "That was very disturbing to us -- that our vote would be threatened by a law-enforcement officer. We are trying to do what is legally right according to California law."

Foat asked state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, a Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the Senate health committee, to request a legal opinion from Attorney General Jerry Brown's office on what sort of legal liability -- if any -- public officials have.

State Senior Assistant Attorney General Rodney Lilyquist responded in a May 29 letter that he could not answer because medical-marijuana dispensaries are the subject of litigation.

Kuehl said she is unaware of any litigation involving the narrow question of whether public officials can be arrested for approving medical-marijuana ordinances. She said she would write another letter to Brown's office asking for a legal opinion on the matter.

"At the very least, it's lazy research," Kuehl said of the May 29 letter. Holland called the response a "cop-out."

Deliveries Increase

As federal officials close in on remaining medical-marijuana dispensaries and try to prevent cities from allowing the establishment of new ones, some patients are turning to medical-marijuana delivery services.

Medical-marijuana Web sites list more than a dozen delivery services that serve the Inland area.

The Corona operator of one service, Holistic Alternative Inc., said her patient list has doubled since last week's raids in Corona and Perris. She declined to give her full name for fear of arrest by federal officials.

The woman, who said she uses marijuana to relieve pain from severe arthritis, said she had about 20 patients until the July 17 Corona raid. She said that since then she has been receiving three to five patient inquiries a day and has had to turn away patients because she does not have enough marijuana.

"The people we serve are very ill," said the woman, who said she established the service about six months ago. "We have multiple-sclerosis patients who can barely leave their homes."

She said Holistic Alternative is a nonprofit collective of patients that obtains marijuana from members who grow it. She said she has delivered to patients as far away as Blythe.

The group contacts doctors to verify patients' eligibility for medical marijuana before delivery, and checks identification cards and original copies of doctors' letters at patients' doors, she said.

The woman said she is willing to take legal risks because she wants to help other patients. But, she said, she does not believe the relatively small amount of marijuana she stores will make her a DEA target.

"If the federal government has the time to waste getting the four ounces I may keep at my house, let them waste it," she said.

Even though patients have turned to delivery services for help, some are wary of them, said Ryan Michaels, a Riverside member of the Patient Advocacy Network, which assists medical-marijuana patients.

Many patients feel more comfortable going to dispensaries because they have a professional medical atmosphere, and the patients can scrutinize the operations more closely to ensure they comply with state law, he said.

Some patients fear that undercover police may be behind some delivery services, said Summer Glenney, of San Jacinto, Inland Empire field coordinator for the advocacy network.

Pullen, the DEA agent, said the agency is aware of the delivery services. Pullen said she knows of no past federal action against them but said that they are illegal and could be subject to prosecution at any time.

Reach David Olson at 951-368-9462 or dolson@PE.com

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

In 1996, California voters approved Prop. 215, which legalized the medical use of marijuana. Medical-marijuana patients can still be prosecuted under federal law.

Patients with "serious medical conditions" can, under state law, legally use marijuana for alleviation of pain and other treatments, as long as they have a doctor's recommendation. Among the conditions specified by state law:

AIDS

Cancer

Glaucoma

Anorexia

Migraines

Multiple sclerosis, and other conditions that include persistent muscle spasms

Epilepsy, and other conditions that include seizures

Severe nausea

Cachexia

Arthritis

Chronic pain



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