Marijuana dispensary has unique set-up

July 01, 2011

Alicia Robinson, The Press-Enterprise

The operators call it a farmers market, but you won't find a head of lettuce or a bunch of grapes.

The main thing you'll find is marijuana, and lots of it. It comes in jars of buds with names like pineapple Thai and Jack the Ripper; it's in cupcakes, lollipops and hot chocolate mix; and its oils are infused into a salve to rub on to aches and pains.

The Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, a medical marijuana collective, has been operating from a Riverside business park on North Main Street since December 2009 in spite of opposition from the city and a pending court injunction to close its doors.

Collective members Kay and Mark Dalli, of Riverside, trim their home-grown marijuana buds during the weekly farmers market.

Collectives are member-based organizations and not open to the general public. Joining the Inland Empire center requires an ID and a valid doctor's recommendation for marijuana.

One medical marijuana advocacy group estimates there are as many as 1,500 marijuana dispensaries in California, but what the Riverside collective's operators say sets theirs apart is its farmers market model.

Three days a week the Riverside facility brings medical marijuana vendors in and lets them sell directly to the people who use what they've grown.

Lanny Swerdlow, the collective's founder and a member of its board of directors, said he came up with the idea while pondering the problem of affordability. Swerdlow is also a nurse who runs a clinic for medical marijuana recommendations a few doors away from the collective.

"I started thinking, how can we run an operation that gets the price down?" Swerdlow said.

The collective takes a 30 percent cut of each sale to cover its lease, utilities and employees. Swerdlow said the farmers market has lowered prices by 10 to 20 percent, and he'd like to see them come down further.

CONNECTING PATIENTS AND GROWERS

Though the city of Riverside contends marijuana dispensaries are banned by the zoning code, the collective's operators have taken pains to present themselves as a legitimate organization providing an important service.

The front lobby of the collective looks like a run-of-the-mill clinic and most of the vendors wear hospital scrubs. William Sump, the youthful general manager who also runs a collective in Wildomar, said they observe federal privacy rules with members' medical information and added, "We use all the same coding as a regular medical office."

Swerdlow pointed with a hint of irony to a plaque that shows membership in the local chamber of commerce, and he notes they paid for a table at the mayor's big annual speech. "Everybody loves us," he said.

And the vendors apparently love the collective. Adam Agathakis, a grower from Corona, said he had to put his name in a lottery to get a spot because there's so much interest.

A former investment banker, Agathakis said he started cultivating marijuana to help his cancer-stricken father and he now works with homebound patients.

Swerdlow said there are typically between 12 and 18 vendors offering their wares.

Mike Hawk, a medical marijuana patient since 1999 and a grower nearly as long, said he has dealt with other collectives but found the wellness center different because patients can ask questions about the products.

"We do a lot of talking here," Hawk said.

Torah Alabidi, 41, a Riverside resident said she sees the advantages of the collective's setup. She has a doctor's recommendation for marijuana because of severe Hepatitis C.

She used to buy marijuana off the street and didn't know anything about the varieties available, she said; one kind gave her a rapid heartbeat.

The farmers market model "gives everybody, the growers and the buyers, a chance to meet each other," and it's a chance for patients to educate themselves, Alabidi said.

LEGAL QUESTIONS

Many medical marijuana collectives offer "extras" like clone plants and classes for patients who want to learn to grow at home, and even acupuncture, massage and counseling, said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based advocacy group.

But Swerdlow's claim of originality may be accurate. "It does seem that a collective set up as a farmers market type of environment, where patients can come in and meet the producers, is fairly unique," Hermes said.

News reports describe a one-day marijuana farmers market in Seattle earlier this year, and a Michigan group has advertised a regular event near Battle Creek, but there appear to be few other storefront operations with regular weekly hours.

The Inland Empire wellness center has been one of the most visible dispensaries in Riverside. Swerdlow is an activist who petitions local governments to regulate rather than ban dispensaries.

The collective's operators have argued they comply with the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law and the state attorney general's guidelines for implementing the law.

Prop. 215, passed in 1996, allowed limited cultivation, distribution and use of marijuana for medical purposes. In 2008, then-Attorney General Jerry Brown issued guidelines that describe how collectives and cooperatives must be set up to operate within the law.

But marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and many Inland cities -- including Loma Linda, Riverside and Temecula -- as well as Riverside and San Bernardino counties have contended that they can ban marijuana dispensaries through local regulations.

Officials have argued that dispensaries are a public nuisance, increase crime, and allow people to skirt the law to obtain the drug for recreational use.

Riverside has sought court injunctions to shutter more than a dozen dispensaries. Many have closed on their own when served with court papers, City Attorney Greg Priamos has said.

A Riverside County Superior Court judge in November granted an injunction against the Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, which the city used as a test case, but the order was stayed while the collective appeals.



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