Medical pot co-op farm proposed for El Dorado, CA

January 20, 2004

Cathy Locke, Sacramento Bee

A group of El Dorado County residents qualified to use medicinal marijuana is working with local authorities to establish a collective garden to grow the plant.

If successful, the group would be the first in California to create a marijuana garden under a new state law.

'We have an opportunity in El Dorado County to make this a model to be emulated in the other 57 counties,' said Dr. Philip Denney, a physician and resident of Greenwood, a rural community on Highway 193 between Cool and Georgetown.

The proposal is the first by a group under the state's new medical marijuana law, SB 420, said Dale Gieringer, coordinator for the California chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws.

SB 420, which took effect Jan. 1, is intended to augment Proposition 215, which was passed by voters in 1996. The new law allows qualified patients and caregivers within a county to collectively cultivate marijuana.

Denney said about 20 patients have expressed interest in participating in the cooperative garden, but he estimated that as many as 600 people in El Dorado County might qualify.

'If this is successful,' he said, 'I would not be surprised to see people come out of the woodwork.'

Many people who use medicinal marijuana are reluctant to acknowledge it, he said, because they remember when possessing a single seed could mean jail.

Denney has sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors stating the group's intention to establish the garden and expressing its wish to work with county officials.

In his Jan. 1 letter, Denney said, 'While we do not believe we need your permission or your approval for our project, we would hope to gain your support to proceed in the spirit of cooperation and mutual respect.'

The supervisors have not responded to the letter, and board Chairman Rusty Dupray said he does not intend to place the issue on a board agenda.

Dupray said he would defer to county law-enforcement officials.

'The board wouldn't want to get involved in this particular issue,' he said, adding that he does not favor the plan.

District Attorney Gary Lacy and Sheriff Jeff Neves said they had discussed the letter.

'We certainly intend to meet with Doctor Denney and any of his group and talk about the details,' Lacy said. 'We're committed to working within the law to come up with a workable solution.'

In his letter to the board, Denney said his group would not grow or distribute marijuana for profit and would avoid activities that could be construed as interstate commerce, in accordance with a recent federal court ruling.

Lacy said he could not say how federal law-enforcement officials would view cooperative gardens authorized under the new state law, but he noted that federal agents typically have not focused on people who use marijuana for legitimate medical purposes.

McGregor Scott, U.S. attorney in Sacramento, said he had not read SB 420, so was not familiar with specifics of the state law or the El Dorado group's proposal.

State and federal law are in conflict on this issue, he said, and under the supremacy clause of the Constitution, federal law prevails.

'People should be aware that marijuana cultivation and dispensing is still a violation of federal law,' he said.

From a practical standpoint, McGregor said, his office focuses on large growers.

'We don't have the resources to prosecute someone with a couple of plants in his back yard,' he said.

Lacy said he and Neves would try to work with Denney and his group to assure the garden complies with state law and won't run afoul of federal authorities.

Through a series of meetings about a year ago, Lacy said, county officials and proponents of medical marijuana developed guidelines regarding the number of plants a qualified individual in the county may cultivate.

'Ours are a bit more liberal than those set forth in the legislation,' Lacy said, adding that the new law gives counties leeway to establish their own guidelines.

SB 420 allows a patient or caregiver to possess 8 ounces of dried marijuana per patient and no more than six mature or 12 immature marijuana plants. In El Dorado County, a qualified patient can cultivate up to 10 female plants or up to 2 pounds of processed marijuana per year, Denney said.

'The biggest risk is security,' he said, noting that the garden site would have to be protected to prevent theft.

Some people, Denney said, have suggested using space in the community garden at the county fairgrounds in Placerville, a site that would be within view of the Sheriff's Department. But Denney said a private location with limited access would be better.

Denney said in his letter that the group hopes to plant its garden between May 15 and June 1 this year and to harvest in early October.

Neves said he was willing to meet with the group to talk about its plans for the cooperative garden.

'It's a clouded area that we need discussion on,' the sheriff said.

Denney said he appreciated the willingness of law enforcement officials in a county that tends to be politically conservative to work with the group.

Denney described himself as semiretired. Over the past 30 years, he said, he has practiced at Auburn Faith, Sutter, Mercy and Marshall hospitals. He said he became interested in medicinal cannabis, the term he prefers for medicinal marijuana, about 10 years ago after a relative suffered an injury that resulted in chronic pain. Denney said he was seeking an alternative to the long-term use of narcotics.

For the past four years, Denney had an office in Loomis and focused on treating patients with conditions that could benefit from medicinal marijuana. Initially, he said, 'I expected I'd see a bunch of skateboarders looking for an excuse to smoke weed.'

Instead, Denney said, he saw patients from throughout the state who represented a cross section of the population and included police officers, firefighters, attorneys and a judge.

Denney said he is frustrated that, eight years after California voters approved the medical use of marijuana, patients and law-enforcement officials are still trying to come to terms with the law.

'The law gives us the right to do this,' Denney said, 'but we would very much like to be cooperative.'

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