Medical pot users say they felt safe at closed collective

August 14, 2007

Eve Hightower, Modesto Bee

OAKDALE — A.J. Hajjar figures that if lawmakers and police could feel the pain of three herniated disks, other lower back problems and osteoarthritis, they'd leave places like Oakdale Natural Choice Collective alone.

"I felt very safe here," the 61-year-old Tracy man said while seated in the now-empty medical marijuana dispensary that the Stanislaus County Drug Enforcement Agency and Oakdale police shut down July 31. It had been open since May 7, owner Addison DeMoura said.

Hajjar, who also has diabetes and high blood pressure, said he didn't set out to add marijuana to his list of medications. A doctor suggested it.

"I was totally comfortable with it," said Hajjar, who said he has since decreased his dependence on pharmaceutical drugs.

He'd had medical approval to use marijuana for about three weeks before the only dispen-sary he knew of in the valley closed.

On July 31, law enforcement officers arrested DeMoura and others associated with the collective at 1275 East F St. Everyone arrested has since made bail, said Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department spokesman Royjindar Singh.

Police searched the collective and confiscated an undisclosed amount of marijuana, money, records and other items. DeMoura said they also took the hemp clothing, political books, lotions and soaps that he and volunteers sold at the nonprofit business.

Law enforcement officials will not provide specifics on the evidence they seized until the case is closed, said Modesto Police Department Lt. Mike Zahr, who is handling the case for the multiagency task force called Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency.

Investigators started looking into the case after complaints about a strong odor coming from the collective. There also were complaints regarding the clientele.

DeMoura opened the shop as a natural therapeutic products business, according to his business license, and said that is all the collective was. The license did not specifically state that the collective would sell marijuana.

"This dispensary was run so professionally. We made sure patients were comfortable. We gave out water. We had chairs for people who couldn't stand in line. I know what we were doing was the right thing," he said.

Since law enforcement shut the dispensary, Hajjar said he will have to go to Oakland to get marijuana if he wants to continue using it. He said he won't buy it on the street. Marijuana supplied at a collective is safer because those who use it also grow and provide it, DeMoura said.

State law allows approved medical marijuana users to have up to six mature or 12 immature plants. Pooling resources helps ensure everyone in a collective has enough.

It also allows patients to try different varieties. Just like patients sometimes need to have their pharmaceutical drugs adjusted, marijuana users need to adjust the strength of tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive substance in cannabis, DeMoura said.

"I can't drive to Oakland. It's too expensive and the long drive is painful," said Deborah Pottle, 53, of Oakdale, who has tried a gamut of pain medication since a back injury 13 years ago.

"I blew three disks and ruptured one," the former correctional officer said. "I'm limited strictly to this because I developed allergies to those drugs."

Pottle said her relationship with her daughters suffered when she began trying various painkillers.

"With medical marijuana, I function," she said. "Without it I have no quality of life."

Pottle said she smokes the drug and eats it in cereal-bar-looking "edibles."

"This is my survivor issue. I'm not a flake. I don't know what else to do," she said.

In 1996, California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, which allows possession of marijuana for medical use. Lawmakers later enacted another bill requiring counties to issue cards to medical marijuana users, entitling them to possess as much as eight ounces.

"Legalization takes the power away from the drug lords," DeMoura said.

State law doesn't make using the drug easy, even for people who have doctor recommendations. Marijuana is outlawed on the federal level but allowed for medical use in California — leaving cities and counties to draw the line that residents must walk.

Every city in Stanislaus County has enacted a permanent or temporary ban on dispensaries.

Assistant County Counsel John Doering has said the county's stand is that distributors are not allowed under federal law and are not described under the Compassionate Use Act.

Zahr said the law does not legalize marijuana. "It's a defense to prosecution," he said.

Bob Hussey, executive director of the California Narcotic Officers' Association, has called the safe access law "a mess for law enforcement."

Hussey said he figures that though there are people who sincerely have the sort of ailments that marijuana could alleviate, many use dispensaries as a guise to deal the drug.

"Most dispensaries are operating for profit; the law does not allow that," Zahr said. "They are nothing but a front for criminal drug trafficking."

DeMoura said he would be naive not to understand law enforcement's point of view. But he maintains there are legitimate dispensaries and ways to ensure the drug is sold only to patients with valid prescriptions.

At the collective, a guard stopped unfamiliar people at the door. Everyone had to show identification and a doctor's recommendation for marijuana. Volunteers would verify the recommendation's legitimacy with the doctor, and verify that those making patient recommendations really were doctors.

Professional atmosphere

DeMoura's wife, Jessica, said volunteers wore lab coats and scrubs to handle the marijuana.

"He even made someone cut their hair. He wanted it to be as clean-cut, legal and as professional as possible," she said.

DeMoura said the tinted windows kept cooling costs down and provided patients, dealing with a range of ailments from AIDS to pharmaceutical pain medication allergies, with a sense of privacy. Three guards were on hand at all times. People were not allowed to use the drug at the collective, DeMoura said.

Even with verification that they can use and grow the drug, patients often are paranoid that police will come knocking on their door or pull them over.

"They're right to be worried," said Modesto-based defense attorney Frank Carson, who has represented about 30 medical marijuana users throughout his 19-year career. "Cops just don't like it. But if people can find a doctor to write them a prescription, they can smoke dope now."

"I don't feel like I'm a criminal. But this is what I have to expect. I put myself on the line," DeMoura said. "I put myself between a state and federal conflict.

"Criminals would run. I'm standing right here."

Asked if he plans to reopen the collective or leave town, he wavered.

"We're going to clean the place up and turn it into an activist headquarters," he said.

Later, he reconsidered.

"I think Oakdale has shown they don't want a dispensary," he said.

The collective's landlord has since asked the collective to leave the building.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at ehightower@modbee.com or 578-2382.



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