Pubdate: Mon,  2 Dec 2002
Source: San Francisco Examiner (CA)
Copyright: 2002 San Francisco Examiner
Website: .ex
Author: J. K. Dineen, of the Examiner Staff


The number of medicinal marijuana cardholders in The City has skyrocketed 
in the past year, pumping millions of dollars into a poorly regulated 
industry and leading to accusations of cutthroat business practices among 
cannabis clubs.

By the end of October, 4,780 San Franciscans had secured medicinal 
marijuana identity cards from the Department of Public Health. Last month, 
229 city residents joined the burgeoning army of those legally smoking 
marijuana to treat a vast array of illnesses, from full-blown AIDS to a bad 

In little more than six months, the number shot up by 1,700, according to 
the Department of Public Health, the department charged with distributing 
the medicinal marijuana identification cards.

The cards are voluntary and are not required to obtain medical marijuana, 
so their numbers do not represent all those seeking the drug.

"Frankly, it's a lot more than I thought," said Eileen Shields, spokeswoman 
for the Department of Public Health. "I guess it's a very popular program."

Popular enough that medicinal marijuana may represent one of San 
Francisco's fastest-growing industries in these lean economic times.

"Medicinal marijuana is the California Gold Rush of the new millennium," 
said Kent Taylor, who is involved in a bitter business custody dispute over 
a Sixth Street cannabis club. "It's the wild, wild West and there are no laws."

Million-dollar frenzy

While marijuana prices vary, several club owners speculated that the 
average cannabis patient probably spends about $80 a week on their 
medicine. Over 12 months, that translates to $19.8 million a year for San 
Francisco's cardholders - excluding the hundreds who hold cards from the 
Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club but frequent S.F. reefer havens.

While the bulk of that money ends up in the hands of growers, who charge 
between $3,500 and $4,000 for a pound of weed, some advocates say the money 
has distorted the altruistic objectives of Proposition 215, which legalized 
medicinal marijuana.

In the case of The Healing Leaf on Sixth Street, for example, current 
operators and other marijuana advocates say they are being muscled out by 
Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana founder Lynette Shaw and Rick Watts, 
who ran the Harm Reduction Center at the Sixth Street address until the 
Drug Enforcement Administration raided the place in February.

In a police report, Healing Leaf's owners Elisa Baker and Kent Taylor claim 
Watts dropped by the store Aug. 6, cut the locks and said they had 30 
seconds to leave because he was "taking the club back."

Watts did not return phone calls seeking comment. He is awaiting trial on 
the February indictment.

Shaw said she could not comment on whether she plans to take over the store.

"I will call you when there is something to announce we're going to do a 
press release later in the month," she said.

Struggle for franchise Marijuana advocate Eric Levy, who used to volunteer 
at Harm Reduction Center, described the battle for the Sixth Street store 
as "struggle for a franchise that is worth a lot of money."

"There was an awful lot of profit running through that place and not a lot 
of compassion," said Levy.

Baker said The Healing Leaf was different from other clubs because it 
specialized in supplying poor clientele with low-grade medicine.

"The people hurt by our eviction are our desperate, indigent clients. We 
have bags for $5. We have compassion pot. We give out free joints at 4:20 
every day to people who otherwise couldn't afford it," said Baker.

The proliferation of cardholders is also a boon for doctors who specialize 
in referring patients seeking medicinal marijuana. Most of the doctors 
charge $200 per referral and have close relationships with some of the clubs.

Jim Green, owner of The Market Street Club, which treats mostly AIDS 
patients, said few of those obtaining cards are really sick.

"I spend most of my time turning away people with bogus paperwork," he 
said. "Basically, pot clubs are becoming the new massage parlors. If you 
went into the clubs you'd have to look around hard for someone who has a 
legitimate medical need. The rest are just working the system."

But Levy suggests Green's criteria for what constitutes a sick person is 
too stringent.

"I'd say everyone's got something wrong with them. There might be some who 
are taking advantage (of the law), but the fact is that cannabis as 
medicine has such wide applications that it's pretty much good for what 
ails ya," Levy said. "It's in the class of aspirin. How many people take 
aspirin recreationally?" 
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