Medicinal marijuana patients and workers fight back against city's proposed ban

July 18, 2011

Esther Rubio-Sheffrey, San Diego Gay & Lesbian News

By now, the City Council’s vote in favor of the two ordinances that effectively ban medical marijuana storefronts should have led to the closure of more than 150 medical marijuana dispensaries throughout San Diego. However, within days of the April 12 vote, thousands of patients and more than 60 medical marijuana co-ops mobilized, raising almost $150,000, gathered more than 46,000 signatures, and were successful in calling a referendum seeking the repeal of the ordinances.

The City Clerk recently verified the required 31,029 signatures to move forward with the referendum. The City Council will vote on Monday, July 25, on whether to create new regulations that appease organizers’ requests for safe access, or let city residents vote and decide on whether or not to enact the original ordinances and essentially ban medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the city because of land-use and zoning violations.

Medical marijuana supporters created two organizations, the Patient Care Association of California (PCACA) and Citizens for Patients Rights (CPR) to go up against city hall’s efforts.

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News spoke with Simon Sarkisian, a medical marijuana patient; Pat, a medical marijuana co-op representative; and John, one of the PCACA founding members, about their fight for medical marijuana rights and what their hopes are regarding future regulations.

Due to the polarization surrounding medicinal marijuana on local, state and federal levels, the two latter sources spoke to us on the condition that we protect their identities, citing concerns about becoming targets of prosecution.

Why we fight

All three of our sources not only signed the referendum, but also volunteered their time to help with the signature-gathering efforts. Sarkisian and Pat are patients too, as well as members of the LGBT community.

Sarkisian, 45, said he has lived with severe insomnia his entire life. When he was a teenager, he was once unable to sleep for seven days, suffering similar bouts in his late 20s. “I have tried every prescription drug out there. Ambien. Lunesta. Names I can’t even remember,” he said.

Tired of feeling like a guinea pig after years of various drugs and side effects like mild seizures, Sarkisian began researching marijuana’s potential medicinal uses.

“I always listened to the anti-drug messages. Believed what I saw on TV, but after I did my research I felt like it had all been fear mongering,” Sarkisian said. “The first night I tried it was incredible. I could function the next day. I didn’t feel foggy. I couldn’t believe I had waited that long to try something natural.”

He has been a medicinal marijuana patient now for almost seven years. He speaks out in public when he can about his experience with marijuana.

“My insomnia is one thing, but some of my friends have cancer and others are HIV-positive. I have seen so many suffer – be at skin and bones – because they can’t get proper medication. Marijuana helps them, and these ordinances don’t help the patients,” he said, adding that when he realized how people like his friends would lose access, he had to get involved.

“It is just one of many things I am not happy about,” Sarkisian added. “The assault on abortion rights, gay marriage, teachers, all of it. It’s too much.”

Pat echoes Sarkisian’s sentiment that the issue at stake is a fundamental right, and feels that patients have the right to choose an alternative method of medication in order to function normally in society. He also provides some introspect on the logistical side of things.

“From the municipality side, in terms of permits, licenses, etc., I felt very discriminated against by the process,” Pat said, likening the experience to growing up as a gay man, treated differently because of ignorance.

“We are not actively trying to defy local government. We want to work with them in finding a solution that works for everyone,” he added. “On behalf of patients and on behalf of the laws we set up in this state for those patients, we felt taking action just made plain sense, as standing up for rights usually does. I am extremely proud of the work I have done with [PCACA.]

“It was a lot of hard work … but we have an energetic group of voters ready to demonstrate their ability and voice, and show that we will be heard even when the ears are muffled.”

“It all started the night of the first reading of the ordinances in March,” said John, a PCACA founding member. “We felt the city was getting close to shutting us down, and no one was representing the economic interest of our community.”

What began as the idea of three medicinal marijuana dispensary managers represented the thoughts of 13 others after the first official meeting. Membership grew to 30 during PCACA’s second week; and today they represent more than 60 medicinal marijuana dispensaries. By the time the City Council voted in April, they were ready to mobilize their forces.

According to PCACA records, collectively the dispensaries provide safe access to more than 46,000 medicinal marijuana patients, serving on average about 3,375 patients daily. They employ over 1,400 San Diegans, and provide commercial property owners with over $1.8 million in annual rent revenue. PCACA’s members also estimate that they have contributed over $3.1 million in annual taxes to state and local governments.

“There are a lot of other groups, like Americans for Safe Access, that have helped with legislation and patients’ rights, but we felt it was necessary to stand up as a trade group,” John said. “I cannot speak specifically about our strategy, the referendum was our goal and we focused our efforts on that. Our board will determine the best route for us moving forward.”

John said that all of the operators involved have also been working on creating industry standards that address the concerns of other residents. “We are not opposed to regulations, but giving neighborhoods like Hillcrest with its HIV population, zero access is not reasonable.

“It is also unreasonable that the city is willing to cut library hours, and funds for other essential services, when they have such a burgeoning industry that has every right to exist under state law right here waiting to work with the council, it is ridiculous,” John said. “We can help turn around San Diego’s economic woes if [the city] works with us instead of against us.”

Mother Earth’s Alternative Healing Cooperative, the first legally permitted medicinal marijuana dispensary in San Diego County, recently opened its doors in an industrial park near the Santee and El Cajon border. Within the city’s limits, no location would meet the current zoning requirements.

The legal maneuvering and the City Council’s next move

When PCACA and CPR mobilized their forces two months ago, they utilized a large portion of their funds to hire the La Jolla Group, the professional signature-gathering firm, which tallied the official number of signatures collected at 46,141.

Sources tell San Diego Gay & Lesbian News that there was no doubt in any of the organizers minds that the signatures would qualify, having undergone a rigorous verification process on their end.

Under the advice of their attorneys, PCACA and CPR rushed to turn in their signatures on May 27, just days before the Memorial Day holiday. They did so because city law dictates that if a referendum qualifies, and the council decides to put the matter up for a vote, they must do so within 11 months of the signature verification date.

Since San Diego’s next election is slated for June 2012, there was a small enough gap to force the council to call for a special election; a move that could have cost our cash-strapped city millions of dollars. However, in June, the City Attorney’s Office, citing state law rather than San Diego’s municipal code, allotted the City Clerk an additional 30 days to verify the signatures.

Although the City Clerk did not use the full 30 days, completing the verification on July 13, it saves the council from having to call for a special election should they decide to proceed with that course of action, and allows them to place the issue up for a vote during the June primary.

During the two votes cast by the City Council regarding the ordinances, only three councilmembers voted no -- David Alvarez, Carl DeMaio and Lorie Zapf. Given that DeMaio voted no because of cost concerns and that he is running for mayor on a platform of fiscal reform, it is unlikely he would have cast his vote for a special election. Even though an election in June will not be as costly as a special election, it is still an added expense that medical marijuana supporters argue is not necessary.

PCACA and CPR released a statement urging the council to rescind the ordinances and work with them to provide safe access and clear guidelines that protect patients’ rights and allow medicinal marijuana co-ops to operate in a regulatory environment. The groups have proven their ability to organize and if need be, they are prepared to turn their efforts to defeating the ordinances in an election.

Of the councilmembers who voted in favor of the ordinances, three are up for re-election next year: Marti Emerald, Todd Gloria and Sherri Lightner. It will remain to be seen, if they, along with Tony Young and Kevin Falconer, believe in the current ordinances enough to allow San Diego residents the chance to vote and decide.

For now, every medicinal marijuana dispensary will remain open. 

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