Couple hopes to create medical pot dispensary

January 08, 2004

Joe Vargo, The Press-Enterprise

A Temecula couple is kicking off a cannabis acceptance project Saturday they hope will lead to the creation of a dispensary where people with cancer, AIDS and other illnesses can obtain marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Martin and La Vonne Victor say the new group will educate the public about the supposed benefits of marijuana to ease pain associated with chronic and terminal illnesses and lobby for patients trying to obtain pot for such purposes.

They say they also want people to know that folks from all walks of life use marijuana as medicine.

'Bring it out in the open,' said Martin Victor, 51. 'A lot of sick people are still in denial. I am more scared for the sick people who are hiding than for the ones who are not hiding.'

Victor suffers from cluster headaches, the result of progressive eye disease. His wife, 48, suffers from multiple sclerosis, emphysema, panic attacks and compressed vertebrae in her back. Both smoke marijuana, eat it raw and cook with it.

'I'm not ashamed I use cannabis to get relief,' La Vonne Victor said. 'It doesn't make me less of a person.'

The Victors recently won a three-year legal battle after their arrests for growing pot to treat their illnesses.

Originally charged with felony counts of cultivation and distribution, their case ended in December when Martin Victor pleaded guilty to providing less than an ounce of marijuana to a roommate, who Victor said took it without his knowledge or consent. He paid a $100 fine. Had the Victors been convicted of the original charges, they could have been sentenced to 32 months in prison.

Legal issues

Federal drug authorities aren't swayed by the Victors' arguments.

Despite a series of recent legal setbacks, the view of the Drug Enforcement Agency remains the same, spokesman Bill Grant said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.

'Marijuana is illegal, and it's bad for anyone to use,' Grant said.

Grant said the DEA's official position is that marijuana has no medicinal value. But the agency's main mission is not going after medical marijuana growers and users. Instead, federal authorities 'target major drug trafficking organizations, take away their money and put their people in jail,' Grant said.

Temecula Police Chief Jim Domenoe said several questions remain before the city gives it blessing to the notion of a marijuana dispensary.

'Who's going to monitor which people have a legitimate use?' Domenoe said. 'Who's going to regulate the potency of the marijuana? Who's going to provide security to make sure none of it is stolen?'

Future plans

Martin Victor said many details need ironing out before a marijuana dispensary becomes reality. He said he would welcome police scrutiny, including letting officers screen patients with state-issued identification cards and seeking law enforcement input about security measures.

'So many people are still buying it off the street,' he said. 'We want to take it off the street.'

If the dispensary takes off, different strains of marijuana could be developed to suit the conditions of individual patients, Victor said.

Law officers in Santa Cruz County, where a cannabis club began a decade ago, praised the growers and users, saying they've never caused a problem for police.

'They've got their act together,' said Santa Cruz County sheriff's Deputy Kim Allyn, who has 25 years in law enforcement. 'They've been completely above board. We don't spend any of our time doing enforcement for people using marijuana for medical means. Most of the cops here are indifferent about it. We've got other things to do besides harass sick people.'

Changing attitudes

Martin Victor said the new group is patterned after the Palm Springs-based Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, which began more than four years ago. Monthly meetings of that group attract up to 35 patients, caregivers and advocates from Riverside and San Bernardino counties who hear lectures and discussions from doctors and politicians.

'You need to work with local elected officials,' said Lanny Swerdlow, who organized the Palm Springs project. 'The only way to reach people is to reach your neighbors.'

Public perception is changing about the medical use of marijuana and whether law enforcement should continue prosecuting people who use it for medicinal benefits, said Robert Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern University in Los Angeles.

That's because many medical marijuana patients are in middle age, have no criminal background, don't sell or otherwise distribute marijuana and consume it only to ease chronic or debilitating pain, he said.

'They put a completely different face on the situation,' Pugsley said. 'You'd have to be inhumane to put ideology over human pain and suffering.'

Several recent court cases reflect the changing attitudes.

Federal courts in Oakland and Los Angeles handed down minimal sentences to people supplying others with medical marijuana. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled last month that a federal law outlawing marijuana does not apply to sick people who use it with a doctor's recommendation. The DEA likely will appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

California voters approved Prop. 215 in 1996, providing for the compassionate use of medical marijuana.

Senate Bill 420, which went into effect Jan. 1, sets guidelines for how much marijuana patients may possess, calls for the state to issue identification cards to qualified patients and establishes procedures for which they may use marijuana for medical purposes.



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