Pot collective tests new county laws

August 06, 2009

Julia Scott, San Mateo County Times

MOSS BEACH — The Coastside's first-ever medical cannabis club is 500 feet from the Sheriff's Office, an irony that did not go unnoticed by owner Ruben Muniz when he walked over there with a gift of hot coffee and a business card last month to introduce himself.

"We're not doing nothing illegal — why should we be scared of the sheriff?" Muniz asked.

It's a sign of the times that Blue Heaven Coastside has chosen to operate in plain view of county law enforcement. It will shortly be among the first pot clubs in the county to apply for a new permit that certifies its legal status, giving it a measure of security from prosecution.

Blue Heaven Coastside and the other pot clubs in the county now can apply for the special license, without which they will be shut down under a newly-adopted county ordinance that will separate legal operations from drug-trafficking enterprises. The window to apply for the permit opened last week and ends Sept. 11.

Muniz, 37, operates Blue Heaven Coastside and another pot club in unincorporated Redwood City — two of the four pot clubs in the county. He's been waiting for the law to catch up with him since his medical cannabis dispensary in the city of San Mateo was raided in 2007 along with several others. He was never charged with a crime, but his landlord kicked him out.

The Half Moon Bay resident saw the need for a medical marijuana provider on the Coastside, where many elderly patients with chronic conditions are homebound and don't have a car to get over the hill to the other cannabis clubs in Redwood City.

The county's medical marijuana ordinance was created in response to the raids, which were conducted by federal agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration. San Mateo has since passed a similar ordinance, and South San Francisco passed one several years ago.

"This is an activity that would otherwise be criminal but for this narrow exemption in state law. As for everything that involves a high-risk activity, regulation is always beneficial," said Chief Deputy County Counsel Penny Bennett.

Muniz knows his operation still could get shut down by the feds, who do not recognize the legality of medical marijuana. He's willing to take his chances, however, and he said he welcomes the opportunity to not only earn a county permit, but the respect of Coastsiders who may not understand what medical marijuana is all about.

"I'm not a drug dealer, I'm a care provider," Muniz said. "We're a resource center, not just a medical collective. "... I don't just want to be pushing weed. I want to help the community. Because that's what we are — a community service."

Although Blue Heaven Coastside's community only extends to 100 private members so far, they have access to more than marijuana. A masseuse will visit on request. An employee refers needy patients to local services providing food, clothing and shelter. If a patient requires legal advice in the realm of medical marijuana, Muniz will find them a lawyer.

Some locals welcomed the pot club when it opened in late June, stopping in to say hello. Others have called the Sheriff's Office for an explanation. One woman watches the business to make sure it closes on time and complains if it doesn't.

Muniz also received a friendly visit from the county's Narcotics Task Force in July, when several officers came to check out the nondescript red-and-white building (which has no exterior signage, according to state law), look at the product and meet the employees. They also examined his seller's permit and noticed the bars on the windows (another county requirement). Blue Heaven Coastside and other pot clubs will be subject to periodic visits if they receive a county license.

Each medical marijuana club must qualify as a collective rather than a dispensary, a distinction that often falls into a gray area in state law. A collective is a nonprofit entity with a closed membership of patients who are legally entitled to grow and sell medical marijuana to the collective. Only qualified patients with doctor's orders, or their primary caregivers, are entitled to pick up the pot for personal use.

It's different from "walking into a dispensary and filling in a paper and buying marijuana," Bennett said. "I would hope that the applicants who obtain licenses would show that each member has a role in the collective beyond just coming to the collective to get pot," she added.

That distinction is mainly semantic and should not prevent qualified patients from gaining access to their medicine, counters Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group based in Oakland.

"You can't get away from the fact that money is changing hands. The people operating these facilities are obtaining a seller's permit, so they're selling medical marijuana."

Hermes' main quibble with San Mateo County's new licensing ordinance is that it specifically excludes edible forms of medical marijuana, such as pot cookies, from being sold at collectives. County officials left edibles out of the rule-making process because state law doesn't regulate them at all — so the default position was to assume they were unlawful.

Other entities, the county of Los Angeles for example, have gone in the opposite direction by regulating how edibles are produced and sold.

Thirty-two cities and eight counties across California have adopted ordinances protecting qualified patients who seek treatment with medical marijuana. Many, if not most of the collectives in those areas sell edible marijuana products, Hermes said.

Seniors and other patients who have never smoked or cannot smoke because of their medical condition rely on edibles.

"There need to be ways developed to allow patients to obtain medical marijuana in ways other than a smokable form," Hermes said. "Edibles provide a very critical form of medicine that even opponents have a hard time railing against. It's incumbent on local and state governments to allow patients to obtain (them)."

About 60 percent of the patients at Blue Heaven Coastside purchase edibles made by other members, including cookies, brownies, ice cream and sugar-free candies for diabetics. Muniz says he'll clean out the refrigerator as soon as he receives the county license, but he isn't happy about it.

"There's a lot of elderly people who have never smoked in their life, and they have cancer, they have arthritis — they have the opportunity to benefit, and now the county's taking that away," he said.

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