Patients seek Contra Costa cannabis club

March 14, 2004

Bruce Gerstman, Contra Costa Times

Tanya Anderson took nearly 100 pills each week to control her health, weakened by AIDS. The drugs caused a problem: They made her vomit the food she attempted to swallow. She dropped from 150 pounds to 96.

Her body deteriorated further. Then, Anderson tried marijuana.

She said she never had an interest in marijuana, but found that smoking a little with meals restored her appetite.

"It's keeping me alive long enough to raise my kids," said Anderson, the mother of an 8-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl.

But Anderson and others like her in Contra Costa County have a hard time getting what they consider essential medicine. She and her partner, Darrell Tatar, who has HIV, must travel more than 40 miles to a cannabis club in Oakland.

The situation is not likely to change soon, county officials say. Unlike Oakland or San Francisco, Contra Costa officials say they have not heard much support for the medical marijuana movement.

California is one of nine states that permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since voters approved a state ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana in 1996, "pot clubs" have popped up in California cities including San Francisco, Hayward, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz.

But not in Contra Costa County. In Oakley, Anderson said neighbors and other parents never discuss medical marijuana. She said they consider marijuana alongside other drugs associated with crime.

"It's just not something that people talk about," Anderson said. "I don't know if it's the small town frame of mind -- maybe that's what it is."

Another distinction between Contra Costa and Alameda counties is a difference in law. Last year, California adopted a law regulating the amount of medical marijuana that patients can possess. The law allows patients to keep 8 ounces of marijuana for medical use. But it also gives each county and city the authority to establish a higher limit. About 15 counties and five cities have; most allow patients to have between 1 to 3 pounds each.

Neither Contra Costa, nor any city in the county, has modified the law, according to Americans for Safe Access, an organization that promotes medical use of marijuana.

William Dolphin, the organization's communication director, said that while the law is "woefully inadequate" for people who grow their own plants, it may allow enough for people who purchase medical marijuana from clubs.

Anderson agreed, but said the 80-mile round-trip drive is difficult.

"Some days I get out of bed," Anderson said. "Some days I don't because I can't get comfortable."

Patients like Anderson need an easier way to get their medicine, said Chris Farnitano, a staff physician for Contra Costa Health Services. Farnitano writes notes that help his patients purchase cannabis from clubs.

"I do think there is a need for a cannabis club in Contra Costa County," he said. "A lot of our patients have a hard time getting to Alameda County."

Farnitano said some of his patients depend on marijuana to stay alive. If AIDS patients fail to keep down their medicine, the virus can mutate and develop a resistant strain, he said. Patients get sicker and the virus wears away their bodies faster.

"It's probably the most critical factor -- whether they can keep their medicine down," Farnitano said. "Marijuana for some patients really can be life-saving."

The county's top health official agreed that cannabis should remain available to people who need it for medical reasons, but he said obtaining it is easy enough now.

Wendel Brunner, county director of public health, said the fact that marijuana clubs don't exist in Contra Costa County isn't a public health risk. He added that he has not heard of residents indicating an interest in starting one.

"It reflects more cultural issues rather than a problem," he said. "I haven't noticed a hostility to medical marijuana; it just doesn't have the public focus."

Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier said he's heard nothing from constituents about the lack of cannabis clubs or the limits included in the state law. He said he would be willing to reconsider allowing a club depending on recommendations from county health officials.

"I'd take the advice of medical professionals and see what they think," he said. "From a humanitarian perspective, I don't think (a cannabis club) is too much to ask for."

Police, meanwhile, say they will follow the law.

"Whatever the prevailing law is, that's what we're going to enforce," said Barry Garfield, chairman of the Contra Costa County Police Chief Association.

Russell, a 49-year-old Pittsburg resident who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, takes marijuana to manage pain.

Surrounded by the comforts of artwork and furniture in his home, Russell said he experiences pain all day.

He lives with several health conditions, one that has left a web of scars that run across his abdomen -- the result of his appendix bursting when he was a boy. The scars torment him with pain and twist his bowels.

"I've been so sick here, sometimes I can't make it to Oakland," Russell said. "There's no support in this area."

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