Visalia pot shop faces closure

September 28, 2007

Tim Sheehan, Fresno Bee (CA)

An organization providing medical marijuana to about 1,500 people is being forced to shut its doors in downtown Visalia.

But unlike dispensaries where closure has come at the hands of federal drug agents, Visalia Compassionate Caregivers organizer Jeff Nunes is closing today to avoid running afoul of a city ordinance governing where marijuana may be grown and distributed for medical use under state law.

Monday is the city's deadline for Nunes to close the dispensary, operating from an upstairs retail space in downtown Visalia for nearly two years, because it does not comply with zoning restrictions adopted in October 2005 limiting medical marijuana operations to the city's service-commercial and agricultural zones.

"The City Council voted in an ordinance that makes it impossible to find land in the city," Nunes said Thursday.

When the ordinance was adopted, Nunes was given four months to find a location that complied with its rules.

"We've been trying for two years to find a different spot in Visalia for our patients to call home," Nunes said. "But it's impossible. Landlords are not willing to risk the [federal] Drug Enforcement Administration coming in and taking their property, and that's completely understandable."

Visalia's service-commercial zones represent quasi-industrial areas shared by auto repair, carpet cleaning and other service-oriented businesses. The building where Visalia Compassionate Caregivers -- and its information and advocacy arm, Medical Marijuana Awareness & Defense -- is now is in the downtown commercial zone, home to banks, salons, restaurants, offices and merchants.

Proposition 215, approved by California voters in 1996, declared that ill people can use marijuana for medical purposes when recommended by a doctor and allows possession or cultivation of marijuana by a patient or "primary caregiver."

Patients use marijuana to help relieve nausea from cancer treatments or AIDS, chronic pain from injuries or arthritis and symptoms from ailments such as glaucoma or anorexia.

But medical use of marijuana is illegal under federal law, and federal agents can enforce that prohibition in California or other states with medical marijuana laws.

Patients lining up at Nunes' dispensary last week said they expect to plead on Monday to the Visalia City Council for flexibility in the city's zoning law.

"This is really a heartbreak for me," said Teresa Douthit, 52, of Visalia. Douthit said marijuana relieves pain and nausea she has from the cocktail of drugs she takes for AIDS and hepatitis C.

"For 18 years, I've taken medications with all of these horrible side effects," she said Friday. "Now I've found something that doesn't make me sick, and the city's forcing this place to close."

Douthit said she will have to either buy marijuana illegally or "where I don't feel comfortable, where I can't defend myself if something happens."

Elby Freeman, 64, of Tulare added that he and others who use marijuana for medical reasons are not "potheads" who just want to get high.

"I don't smoke. I don't drink," said Freeman, blind for more than 30 years from glaucoma. He said he was on various medications for years before enlisting in a medical marijuana trial program in Louisiana, before moving to California.

"When I was taking all those pills, I sat around like a zombie -- I couldn't even function," Freeman said. "Now I'm free of almost all of my medications."

Nunes said he is worried about his patients, whom he considers his extended family.

"They're the ones who are going to get hurt the most," he said. "With this interruption of treatment, there's a serious consequence."

Tim Burns, Visalia's manager of neighborhood preservation and code enforcement, said the city has been patient with Nunes well beyond the initial compliance period set forth in the ordinance.

"He has demonstrated a good-faith effort to find a new location ... and we've tried to enable him to be successful and granted several extensions," Burns said. "But we've done everything we can as a city to help him help himself."

Rick Morse, president of the Tulare County chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, said he and patients hope to persuade City Council members to grant another extension.

"This is a circumstance where the City Council can do something, but shouldn't necessarily do it," Morse said of the compliance order. "We're going to ask them to allow him to remain in business until a viable option can be found."

Morse estimated there are between 2,000 and 2,500 active patients with doctors' recommendations for medical marijuana in Tulare County. And there may be as many as 13,000 people with cancer, chronic pain, AIDS or other conditions who could qualify for protection under Prop. 215, he said.

"As a patient advocate, I want to make sure patients don't have to go to the black market or to dangerous sources," he said.

Burns said the city is sympathetic to the situation, but added that officials don't believe the ordinance is overly restrictive.

"We're concerned about displacing patients as well," Burns said. "But the city's not responsible for him not being able to lease another site.

"At some point, we have to enforce the ordinance," he said, "and we're at that point."

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