Pubdate: Wed, 26 May 2004
Source: Bakersfield Californian, The (CA)
Copyright: 2004, The Bakersfield Californian
Author: Amy Hilvers, Bakersfield Californian staff writer


Doctor's Signature, Long Application Required Before Drug Sold to Users

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

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

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

"We can identify what these disagreements are so we can have an
understanding," Fortt said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake