Pubdate: Fri, 28 Nov 2003
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2003 The Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror Newspaper.
Author: Jean Marbella


Cafes: Cannabis for medicinal use is dispensed like lattes in the area 
dubbed 'Oaksterdam.'

Oakland,  Calif. - Like customers faced with a choice of French roast or 
Sumatra, venti or grande, those at the 420 Cafe have multiple options: Pure 
Skunk or Red Dragon, at $16 a gram or $350 an ounce. Only in "Oaksterdam."

Here, cafes sell marijuana for medicinal use with the studied casualness of 
a Starbucks offering double-shot, soy milk, no-foam lattes. The model, as 
the nickname indicates, is free-wheeling Amsterdam, where cafe patrons 
openly enjoy joints with their espressos or beers.

But there is one big difference: Oakland doesn't have Amsterdam's clear-cut 
laws, which make such sales unquestionably legal.

The Oakland cafes, which number about a dozen, have emerged over the past 
couple of years to dispense medical marijuana, which was legalized in 
California by a voters' proposition in 1996. But federal law continues to 
consider all use and distribution of marijuana a crime, leaving the 
neighborhood that would be America's Amsterdam in a sort of legal limbo.

"We don't have the Roe v. Wade for our issue," said Jeff Jones, a longtime 
medical marijuana activist here.

Many of the cafe owners refuse to speak to the media, saying they fear 
drawing unwanted attention from federal drug agents, who occasionally have 
targeted medical marijuana users, growers and sellers for prosecution.

"People do media, the wrong politicians and authorities read about it," 
said Richard Lee, who owns the Bulldog Cafe, which shares its name with a 
famous group of cannabis clubs in Amsterdam. "It looks like we're rubbing 
it in their faces."

With many of the cafes operating semicovertly, like speakeasies during 
Prohibition, a slight air of disrepute hovers over this neighborhood just 
north of downtown. Bouncers - often huge and with shaved heads - guard many 
of the entrances, some of which don't have a name on the door.

Others look like typical, pleasant cafes found in any city, with outdoor 
seating in nice weather, blackboards listing various coffee drinks and 
twirling cases of fancy desserts - as well as secured rooms in the back or 
upstairs or downstairs to which only patrons bearing medical marijuana 
cards are permitted.

 From the sweet, smoky scent wafting from those inner sanctums, and the 
often blissful looks on the faces of those emerging from them, it's a 
pretty fair guess what's being inhaled in there.

"I'm not hurting," Kerry Gillies said on a recent afternoon, emerging from 
one of the cafes. "It helps relax my nerves. The pain is relieved."

Gillies, who is 39 and uses a walker, said he was prescribed marijuana for 
AIDS "and other issues surrounding the virus." He likes going to the 
Oaksterdam cafes for the marijuana that he uses just about every day 
because they offer a safe, clean environment.

"Before, we'd get it through friends, or we'd have to go to hippie town, 
Berkeley," Gillies, a former truck driver, said of the famously tolerant 
college town just to the north. "It's better quality here. It's 
comfortable. It's clean."

Though the cafes have largely operated without major problems, they have 
drawn detractors. A group for gay and lesbian youth has said it was forced 
to close its offices in the neighborhoood recently because the scent of 
marijuana drifted into its rooms and the cafes attracted recreational users 
trying to buy the drug illegally.

The City Council president has raised concerns over the clubs' 
proliferation and the lack of city enforcement powers over them. The 
council is considering new zoning or requiring permits for the cafes, which 
currently need only a general business license to open.

The reason for much of the problem is that medical marijuana was approved 
by proposition - as many measures have been in this initiative-happy state 
- - so the law is not as painstakingly written as legislation would have been.

"We just have the people's will," said Larry Carroll, Oakland's 
administrative hearing officer.

Oakland initially licensed one dispensary, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' 
Cooperative, run by Jones, the activist, to sell marijuana to those whose 
doctors have recommended it. Within months of its opening in 1998, the 
federal Drug Enforcement Administration shut it down for selling a 
controlled substance.

The case prompted legal action that went to the Supreme Court, which in 
2001 ruled unanimously that there is no "medical necessity exception" to 
the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Last month, though, the Supreme Court refused to review and, thus, let 
stand a lower court decision that prohibited federal authorities from 
revoking the licenses of doctors who advised patients that marijuana might 
help ease their ailments.

With medical marijuana laws remaining muddled, the Oakland cafes quietly 
began opening in the area around the co-op, which remains in business to 
issue medical marijuana identification cards and sell books and 
paraphernalia, but not the drug itself. The cafes and co-op are in a 
triangular area bounded by 17th and 19th streets, and Telegraph and Broadway.

Cafe owners say, and some of their neighbors agree, that they have improved 
a once-declining neighborhood of boarded-up storefronts.

"It used to be dilapidated, no businesses. Now it's thriving," said Estes, 
owner of the 420 Cafe. "You can't find parking now. This was boarded up 
since 1992."

His building is a work in progress. The dispensary selling marijuana has 
been in operation since July, a chiropractor and acupuncturist set up shop 
this week, and Estes plans to open an organic cafe in the front of the 
building's ground floor.

"We want this to be more like a medical park," said Estes, who doesn't like 
the neighborhood's being known as Oaksterdam.

"Amsterdam connotes recreational. This is not what we're about at all," he 

Estes, 45, is a quadriplegic as a result of a motorcycle accident when he 
was 18 years old. It was after that, he said, that a group of disabled 
Vietnam veterans introduced him to the medicinal properties of marijuana.

"I wasn't eating or sleeping, and I was losing weight," he said. "I was in 
pain, and these vets said try it. I started using it daily. I was able to 
get off medication. I don't take any pills now."

As workmen continued to build medical offices in the rear of the building, 
a steady stream of customers approached the dispensary, a large room 
dominated by a mural depicting a Native American figure offering, as it 
turns out, marijuana. Two box office-like windows are carved out above each 
hand, from which employees take orders, offer recommendations if they're 
asked what's good and sell the drug.

On another wall, the day's stock is listed: Urkel Purple, AK 47, Black 
Berry, Black Domina among them on this day. The business isn't set up yet 
to accept credit cards, but an automated teller machine is situated 
opposite the windows.

Unlike other cafes, Estes' 420 is nonsmoking, so buyers take their bags and 
consume the marijuana elsewhere. The city has cited at least one other cafe 
for violating city and state bans on smoking in public places.

Estes said there are ways of getting around the law that allows marijuana 
use only for medicinal purposes. Those with cards can buy any quantity they 
want, for example, and resell it.

"It's the same problem as any pharmacy," he said. "You can go out and sell 
it on the street. I hope they don't do that, because what we're trying to 
is reduce street sales."

Some city officials are concerned that as the Oaksterdam neighborhood gets 
more attention, it will attract the wrong element. One of the clubs was 
robbed this month by four men who tied up the bouncer and stormed into the 
club, making off with marijuana and cash.

Next week, the Oakland City Council is scheduled to discuss means of 
regulating the cafes.

"I still support the fact that people need cannabis for medicinal 
purposes," said Ignacio De La Fuente, the Oakland City Council president. 
"But some individuals have taken advantage of that and are selling it not 
for medicinal purposes but for recreation."

De La Fuente said he has heard reports that it's easy to get the medical 
marijuana cards without a prescription. The city, he said, needs to begin 
monitoring what has largely been an unregulated process of attaining the drug.

"We regulate cabarets. We regulate liquor stores. We need to verify that 
these cafes are checking cards, that there's [disability] access, that 
there are background checks on the people that run them and make sure 
they're not drug addicts," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens