Laguna Woods to allow medical marijuana sales

September 18, 2008

Greg Hardesty, Orange County Register

LAGUNA WOODS Three years ago, Shari Horne watched her 82-year-old mother die of lung cancer.

"She starved in front of my eyes," Horne says. "Maybe some medically prescribed marijuana might have stimulated her appetite."

In 30 days, ailing residents of heavily senior Laguna Woods will be able to buy medically prescribed marijuana — from a dispensary within their city of 18,500.

Bucking a trend in Orange County, Laguna Woods on Wednesday became the first local city to pass an ordinance allowing medical marijuana dispensaries. So far no potential vendors have approached the city.

There are dispensaries in about a half-dozen other cities, including Lake Forest and Laguna Niguel, but until now none have opened with the blessing of a city. Many have done nothing on a hazy issue in which state and federal laws conflict.

Some cities, including Huntington Beach, Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo, have enacted bans or moratoriums on the dispensaries, which cropped up after a 1996 state law, the Compassionate Use Act, allowed people to use medical marijuana.

Federal law outlaws all marijuana use.

Laguna Woods officials who support the ordinance say ailing residents should have safe access to medical marijuana.

"Nobody is saying, 'We want to (get) 'buzzed' – especially people our age,'' said Councilman Bob Ring, one of four to vote yes Wednesday. Councilman Bob Bouer abstained.

"What this decision says is that if you're in pain and marijuana helps, shouldn't you be able to get marijuana in a safe place?"

It's unclear if other Orange County cities will follow Laguna Woods' lead.

City Manager Leslie Keane noted the city's profile: The average age of Laguna Woods residents is 78, and about 90 percent of them live in the gated retirement community of Laguna Woods Village.

"We have somewhat unique circumstances," Keane said. "Many of our residents are in end-of-life situations and in chronic pain."

One man told Laguna Woods officials he recently was forced to buy marijuana from a street dealer.

The new ordinance comes with many restrictions, including a minimum 1,000-foot distance that any medical marijuana dispensary must be from schools and other youth-oriented facilities.

Only residents will be allowed to purchase marijuana from a dispensary. In some cases, their caretakers will be permitted to buy it for them.

Critics contend that the dispensaries invite crime. Others cite the federal law.

As of January, 63 of California's 480 cities had banned medical marijuana dispensaries and 29 had adopted ordinances permitting and regulating them to varying degrees, according to Laguna Woods city documents.

"I'm just a little afraid that it's against federal law, and that it might not be a good idea to get involved in something that might cause problems,'' said Laguna Woods resident Marilynn Sortino.

Sortino, 73, a retired ATT project manager who is running for City Council, spoke against the idea before the council.

Advocates of medical marijuana use praised the city's decision.

"It's a very positive step," said Cha Hanna, Orange County chapter coordinator for Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for patient's rights. "All of the other cities that are banning (dispensaries) are violating the spirit of the Compassionate Use Act.

"These ordinances allow people to purchase marijuana in a safe environment and to avoid the black market and illicit sales," Hanna said.

Horne moved to Laguna Woods after her mother died.

"I just think there should be freedom of choice," she said. "I'm tired of people being looked at like they just crawled out from under a rock just because they happen to need to smoke pot."



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