City calls for pot shop regulation

August 31, 2007

Michael Manekin, San Mateo County Times

SAN MATEO — The many battles raging in California over medical marijuana are fueled by a basic disagreement between federal law, which prohibits the possession of cannabis altogether, and state law, which has allowed the selective use of medical marijuana for more than a decade.

But the divide between the two positions — an ideological chasm which has resulted in the raids of dozens of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state — has no bearing on the recent raids of three dispensaries in the city of San Mateo, local officials and law enforcement say.

"There's no question in the mind of anybody in law enforcement that these (dispensaries) were operating way outside the bounds of any reasonable interpretation of state law," said San Mateo City Manager Arne Croce on Friday.

The assessment, echoed by the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office and local law enforcement, counters the widespread condemnation of the raids by medical marijuana advocates, who defend the rights of medical marijuana patients under state law to open cooperatives. Such cannabis clubs have the right to serve eligible residents who sign upas members of the cooperatives, the advocates contend.

But the three medical marijuana dispensaries raided on Wednesday by the DEA were not maintained as cooperatives "but clearly operating as for-sale pot shops," Croce said, including a fourth dispensary which reportedly closed on the day of the raids.

Dispensary owner's story

But Jhonrico Carrnshimba — the 27-year-old director of Patients Choice Resource Cooperative, one of the three raided dispensaries — said he took great pains to ensure that his cannabis club was operating above board.

He hired a San Francisco attorney famous for representing medical marijuana patients to ensure that his operation was legally ship-shape; he made overtures to city officials, city police, the Sheriff's Office and the District Attorney's Office, inviting representatives from each group over for a visit; and he went out of his way, he said, to convert his cannabis club into a resource for the sick and suffering, offering patients support groups and educational books and videos about alternative health and fitness.

"I was trying to make a center ... where mature patients could collectively meet and give them support services," said Carrnshimba. "We were following state law to a T."

Patients Choice was established as a true cooperative, said Carrnshimba. The group was able to supply some 800 registered members with cannabis through the help of its own members, who are allowed under state law to grow a limited supply of medical marijuana, he said.

Most of the proceeds were paid back to the members in order to pay for the expense of growing the marijuana plants, and the occasional profits that did surface were used to supply low-income members with free cannabis, said Carrnshimba.

"(The city) knew exactly what was going on," he added, explaining that he informed city administrators of his operation from the moment he applied for a business tax certificate, the business license which the city requires.

However, administrators were kept in the dark regarding Patients Choice, said Croce. The city's finance department, which issued Carrnshimba the certificate, was never informed that Patients Choice was a medical marijuana dispenser, he said.

The certificate, issued July 13, 2006, contradicts Carrnshimba's assertions that Patients Choice communicated openly with the city, and also hints that the dispensary may have operated outside of state law.

The certificate makes no mention of marijuana but states that the group offers "consultation/herbal medicine." Under "ownership type," the document states that Patients Choice is a Limited Liability Corporation, which is a for-profit business under state law. Only corporations registered with the state as a nonprofit can claim protection from prosecution.

The three additional dispensaries in San Mateo also applied for business tax certificates, but they were all denied under the guidance of the City Attorney, said Croce. The pot clubs described themselves on their license applications alternately as "social services;" pain management;" and "retail sales of vitamins and herbs."

Productive dialogue needed

Croce said the county and its cities must channel the controversy surrounding the raids into a productive dialogue over the distribution of medical marijuana on the Peninsula.

"This issue really needs countywide attention," he said. "We need to get law enforcement, city attorneys and district attorneys together to try to come up with at least some common guidelines."

Since state voters approved Proposition 215, which legalized the use of medical marijuana in 1996, the county has not set up a mechanism for medical marijuana distribution — despite a 66 percent approval for the measure by county voters.

Two Peninsula cities have created their own regulations. Last week, Colma's city council unanimously passed an ordinance banning dispensaries from the town, while last year, South San Francisco outlawed storefront pot clubs. However, that measure approved allowing patients to collectively grow cannabis at least 500 feet from residential areas.

"You can see in the way that these two different cities are trying to cope with the issue that some countywide effort needs to go into coming up with some guidelines," said Croce. "There's not any consistency."

That inconsistency troubles San Mateo Mayor Jack Matthews, who worries that San Mateo has become "a kind of island within the county, where it's the only place where you can buy marijuana for palliative care."

"Absolutely, 100 percent, four-square — I am behind the use of marijuana for medical purposes," said Matthews. "If (dispensaries) are conforming to the law, they have a right to be here ... but if medical marijuana's legal, it should be available in other cities as well."

Taking the case to the council

The county's Board of Supervisors may take up the issue of regulation, but first a public discussion of medical marijuana will take place in the city of San Mateo.

When the City Council meets Tuesday, Bay Area medical marijuana advocates plan to converge on City Hall to urge council members to adopt either a resolution pledging to protect medical marijuana patients and providers or a resolution prohibiting local law enforcement from cooperating with the DEA on actions against medical marijuana. The advocates will be joined by Carrnshimba.

City Councilwoman Carole Groom said Friday that she imagines most residents will have the same concerns about the presence of medical marijuana dispensaries in their community: "That the business is licensed and that the business is legitimate."

If the county or the city can settle on "a regulatory procedure to follow and if those businesses follow it, then I think that people would feel better."

A public debate on medical marijuana in the city and county, she said, must begin sooner than later.

"Let's figure out a way to make (dispensaries) legitimate so people have some relief from the terrible diseases they're fighting," she said. "We ought to be satisfied that loved ones who are suffering have recourse."

Staff writer Michael Manekin can be reached mmanekin@sanmateocountytimes.com.



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