Sonoma may get medical pot club

March 07, 2004

Lori A. Carter, Press Democrat

Aaron James Mitchell, the son of slain San Francisco porn magnate Artie Mitchell, intends to open a medical marijuana club in Sonoma within sight of City Hall.

Mitchell said he decided to open the Sonoma Cannabis Buyers Cooperative at 521 Broadway after police officers arrested him for having hash oil and refused to honor his medical marijuana card. The charges were later dropped, he said.

'I found that to be so unjust I thought I'd get on the legal end of everything,' said Mitchell, who lives in Sonoma. He wants to be open by April 1.

Mitchell said the store would dispense both marijuana for medical purposes and paraphernalia for use, and said he hopes to provide a high-quality service for those, like him, who rely on marijuana for pain relief and other medicinal purposes.

City officials aren't sure the proposal is legal, City Manager Mike Fuson said.

Since the city has no regulations specifically focusing on medical marijuana outlets, he said the issue appears to be a zoning question.

'A business license doesn't make the business legal,' Fuson said. 'It doesn't give you the authorization to run an illegal business, or authorization to run a business where the zoning code doesn't allow it.'

The city expects to meet today with Mitchell to discuss the store.

Mitchell described himself as a businessman who runs a company called Mitchell Bros. 21st Century Film Group. His father, a self-proclaimed 'king of porn,' was shot to death by his brother in 1991 during an argument. The pair, operating as the Mitchell Bros., were pioneers in the live and film porn business in San Francisco. Their 1972 film 'Behind the Green Door' was an influence on contemporary hard-core pornography.

Brother Jim Mitchell served three years in prison and now lives in Petaluma.

While Aaron Mitchell's plan has police and city planners researching whether such a controversial business is permissible, it wouldn't be the first such dispensary in Sonoma.

In 2000 and 2001, Ken Norton quietly operated the Sonoma County Hemp Bank on Napa Street, dispensing the drug to more than 150 patients. He closed the business after a related club in Oakland was raided by federal authorities.

'All we had was a business license,' he said. 'We were low key. We didn't have big signs out or anything, but we did everything on the up and up.'

Mitchell said a new state law that creates identification cards for medical marijuana users bolsters the club's legitimacy.

'I personally believe ... facilities, physicians and patients can finally stop worrying about being unfairly arrested or prosecuted,' he said.

Though California voters approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 215, courts haven't meted out consistent rulings resolving contradictions between state and federal laws. Federal law prohibits all cultivation, sales and use of marijuana.

In Sonoma County, medical marijuana caregivers or patients are allowed to cultivate as many as 99 plants or possess as much as 3 pounds of marijuana per patient per year.

Sonoma County law enforcement officials, medical marijuana advocates and the Sonoma County Medical Association brokered a deal that creates a doctor-approved database of medical marijuana patients.

About 450 Sonoma County residents have received authorization from the group, said Ernest 'Doc' Knapp, spokesman for the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana.

The new state law established a program under the Department of Health Services to provide medical marijuana users with an identification card that protects them from arrest. It is supposed to create uniformity statewide and help police distinguish legitimate patients from lawbreakers.

The state, however, hasn't funded the program. It will be a year before the law is implemented in Sonoma County, said Larry McLaughlin, legal counsel for the Sonoma County Medical Association. He said cities would be wise to hold off permitting marijuana dispensaries until the program is operational.

There are two dispensaries in Sonoma County, both in Guerneville, according to the Sonoma County Alliance for Medical Marijuana. In addition to Norton's former shop in Sonoma, there were two others in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. Those two closed in the past two years after being raided by federal authorities.

Marijuana dispensaries often operate under the radar of local authorities, who have sometimes given tacit approval as long as there aren't major problems, Knapp said.

'They generally don't get permission, they just open,' he said.

As medical marijuana has become more accepted, dispensers are more public about their operations, forcing cities to decide how to regulate them.

Mitchell's mother, Karen Van Kayne, who is helping her son set up the cannabis co-op, said the Sonoma shop will sell marijuana only to verified ID card-holders who have authorization from a doctor.

'This is not a behind-the-scenes type place,' she said. 'This is a legal distribution of a medically prescribed product.... We want this to be right.'

It may not be that simple, Sonoma Police Chief John Gurney said. His department has concerns that the location is less than a half-mile from Sonoma Valley High School and might be the target of robbers or unauthorized users of the drug.

'At face value, we don't want to prohibit anyone from conducting legitimate business. But the question is, is this a legitimate business?' he said. 'We understand Prop. 215 and the expectation associated with accommodating the medical use of marijuana. But Prop. 215 does not discuss distribution.' ____________________________

SONOMA COUNTY RULES

Caregivers or patients can grow as many as 99 plants or possess as much as 3 pounds of marijuana per patient per year.

Database set up by law enforcement officials, advocates and the Sonoma County Medical Association keeps track of patients.

There are about 450 registered medical pot users in the county.
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Staff Writer Carol Benfell contributed to this story.



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