'Pot Club' Thrives in Oildale

May 25, 2004

Amy Hilvers, The Bakersfield Californian

 The dry-erase menu board inside the modest storefront has an interesting array of offerings.
 There's Mexican Red Bud, Northern California Outdoor and Mendocino Skunk. And the store even offers marijuana-laced candy bars wrapped to look like store brands.
 This isn't liberal Berkeley, Santa Cruz or Los Angeles, where 'pot clubs' have operated for several years.
 It's downtown Oildale, where it's been for about year.
 All the varieties offered for sale at the local pot club are sold legally. But no one buys, or even enters the premises without a scheduled appointment and a doctor's note prescribing marijuana for their illness.
 And smoking is not permitted.
 The cannabis dispensary is similar to those operating in cities like San Francisco, where medicinal marijuana patients are issued identification cards that confirm they have a doctor's recommendation.
 California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Proposition 215) has finally made it to Kern County. The law allows people to use marijuana for ailments such as cancer, arthritis and migraines if recommended by a doctor.
 The law is becoming even more refined across the state, notably with a bill that went into effect in January. That law mandates the state to set up a voluntary identification card-issuing program for patients. It also allows patients to designate 'caregivers' to grow marijuana for them.
 Local shop owner Joe Fortt took those laws to heart when he opened American Kenpo Kung Fu School of Public Health about a year ago in Oildale, selling weed to medicinal marijuana users and signing up about 50 patients who designated him as a caregiver.
 Fortt believes people have a right to smoke marijuana for health reasons and that the drug far surpasses prescription drugs, without the negative side effects.
 'There is not a patient on our list that's not struggling to survive,' he said.
 Sick people shouldn't be buying their medicine on the streets where it's dangerous, he said. And people who need it appreciate coming to a place that's local, safe and reasonable, he said.
 'I've taken every step I can do to follow the law, so if they're gonna arrest me here I am,' he said.
 Anyone who wants to buy marijuana from the store must fill out a long application to get a medical marijuana user-identification card issued by the shop.
 They must complete a form, get a doctor's signature, authorize the release of their medical information, have a photo ID, proof of residence and pay a $25 fee.The shop will verify the information before allowing a purchase, Fortt said.
 Fortt said that despite the threat of law enforcement shutting down his shop, he doesn't want to stop.
 'I've gotta wake up and look myself in the face. And I'm not going to be silent about it. I'm not going to live in fear of my life,' he said.
 Law enforcement officials say they want to follow the law. But when they believe someone's skirting the edges, they'll make an arrest.
 At least a few Kern County juries haven't agreed in recent cases.
 In the last few months, jurors have acquitted at least two defendants on marijuana charges. Those defendants had doctor recommendations.
 Public defender Mark Arnold said the law is clear, but enforcement varies.
 'The law speaks for itself and the law should not have any particular application in one geographical area and have a different application in another area,' Arnold said. 'None of us in law enforcement can pick and choose what laws we like.'
 Kern County Sheriff Mack Wimbish said he doesn't agree with the law, but he has to abide by it.
 He also didn't think Kern was in need of a cannabis dispensary.
 'But again, I will follow the law,' he said.
 Wimbish pointed out that the law has been subject to a number of challenges in higher courts. And federal law still prohibits marijuana.
 For now, he said, suspected medical marijuana cases are handled individually.
 Fortt said he has submitted a proposal asking the Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution to create a medical card identification program in Kern and create local guidelines on the issue. But supervisors haven't responded to his requests, he said.
 He also wants to contract with the county so he can grow marijuana for those who sign up for the program.
 'People are sick and need help. Our county is an agricultural county,' he said. 'Instead of diverting money outside the county, we should be diverting money to the community.'
 Dr. Claudia Jonah, assistant public health officer for Kern County Department of Public Health, said that before the agency can issue cards, the state health department must set guidelines.
 Then the department can issue identification cards, which can be checked for authentication by law enforcement.
 Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office, agreed that the lines on the issue are fuzzy. The 1996 law left some guidelines up to individual communities.
 But the bill that mandates a state ID system may help protect those who use marijuana for medical purposes. The federal law issue is still to be hashed out in court.
 That leaves much of the decision-making up to police.
 'Law enforcement is always going to have to make the determination of, is the patient a valid patient or a drug smuggler who is using Proposition 215 as a guise to escape liability,' she said.
 Fortt said local guidelines could help Kern get a handle on the situation.
 'We can identify what these disagreements are so we can have an understanding,' Fortt said.

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