Pubdate: Wed, 30 Mar 2005
Source: San Diego City Beat (CA)
Copyright: 2005 San Diego City Beat
Author: Kelly Davis


Medicinal-Pot Dispensaries Open Up And Keep Quiet

An advertisement in last week's CityBeat for a newly opened North Park 
medical-marijuana dispensary featured a hippie in a tie-dyed T-shirt 
throwing a peace sign, the words "weed" and "chronic" and the promise of a 
free "dub" with the ad-if the bearer has a doctor's recommendation for 
medical marijuana, as required by law.

The guy behind the ad, Jon Sullivan, acknowledged it's a little over the 
top and said future ads would be more subdued.

Simply running an ad, though, was a bold move in a city that hasn't 
welcomed medical cannabis dispensaries in the past.

In 2003 the San Diego City Council put a cap on the amount of pot and 
number of plants medical marijuana patients and their caregivers could have 
on hand at any one time, but the law says nothing about cannabis clubs 
(also known as dispensaries). Neither does Prop. 215, the ballot initiative 
passed by California voters in 1996 to allow seriously ill people legal 
access to marijuana for medical purposes.

The law encourages "state and federal governments" to come up with a plan 
that would give patients safe and affordable access to medical cannabis but 
stops short of explaining how that's to be done.

"It was a poorly written law," said Juliana Humphrey, a San Diego public 
defender who served on the city's Medical Marijuana Task Force. "It gave no 
mechanism for people to obtain marijuana-it just lets them use it and 
that's been the whole problem."

Humphrey said she's received calls from patients asking if she knew where 
they could obtain marijuana. Those calls have stopped coming, she said, 
because she put the message out that she didn't know. Now a different type 
of call is coming in, from people interested in opening cannabis 
dispensaries and wanting to know how they can do it legally.

That's an easier question to answer. "The advice I give anyone who contacts 
me to say, 'This is what we're doing, how can we do it legally?' is, you 
can't. The court's been pretty clear on that," she said.

In 1998, then-California Attorney General-and obsessive Prop. 215 foe-Dan 
Lungren prevailed in a case against a San Francisco cannabis club, locking 
in a ruling that says patients can obtain marijuana only by growing it 
themselves or having someone else grow it for them and reimbursing that 
person for expenses.

Despite the ruling, cannabis clubs are fixtures in Northern California 
cities like San Francisco, which has roughly three-dozen of them (last week 
Mayor Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on new clubs when he found out one 
was about to open in city-subsidized housing). Oakland, once a hub for 
cannabis clubs-a portion of the city had been dubbed "Oaksterdam"-last year 
passed a law that allows only four licensed clubs at any one time.

Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of the National 
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and who holds a 
doctorate degree in drug policy from Stanford, says cannabis clubs have 
been operating for so long that, to an extent, they've become "de facto legal."

"It's been a long time since anyone's heard of the cops going in and buying 
pot at a medical-marijuana club and then trying to bust them for 
over-the-counter sales, even though a strict reading of the law says they 
can do that," he said. "I suppose [authorities] feel if they did it at one 
club, they'd have to do it at all of them, and they don't want to do that."

In San Diego, at least four cannabis clubs have opened in the North Park, 
University Heights and City Heights areas within the past few months. All 
but Sullivan's have kept a low profile-they don't advertise and they're 
difficult to locate. They generate clients through word of mouth.

Two club owners CityBeat contacted said they consulted with city officials 
and law enforcement before opening and were told to be discreet. Neither 
would say who exactly they talked to. City Councilmember Toni Atkins, in 
whose district all of these clubs are located, did not respond to requests 
for comment.

San Diego Police Lt. Cesar Solis, who heads the department's Narcotics 
Division, said he's aware of these clubs but his department has limited 
resources and bigger problems to deal with.

"People will say, 'How come you're not there knocking on their door and 
serving a warrant?' I say because it's not just marijuana that we're in 
charge of. We're after meth, rock cocaine-where the guns are."

Solis said he looks at whether a cannabis dispensary poses a threat to the 
community and whether anyone's complained about it. So far he's heard no 

"It's a tough issue," he added, "but the bottom line is that some of these 
so-called dispensaries, they're outside the law. That doesn't mean that 
we're going to come in there and kick their door down and take everything."

Cannabis club operators know they're on shaky ground. Sparky Rose, 
executive director of Compassionate Caregivers (CCG), which runs seven 
medical marijuana dispensaries throughout California, including one that 
opened here in February, said his organization has relied on cities and 
counties to decide whether to allow cannabis clubs and, if they do, how 
those clubs will be regulated.

On the same day CityBeat spoke to Rose, he had just returned from a meeting 
with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department to discuss an ordinance the 
county's crafting to determine how many clubs it'll allow and where those 
clubs can be located.

Rose says CCG makes a small profit-about 5 percent-but that the company 
pays federal, state and local taxes, pays for workers-compensation 
insurance, provides health benefits to employees and invests in stringent 
quality-control and security measures.

That, he said, makes CCG different from a lot of other operations.

"Basically, all the tenets of California corporate law are not adhered to 
by most medical-cannabis dispensaries," he said. Profiteering is what 
attracts law enforcement. "You're basically a glorified street dealer," if 
you don't follow the rules of running a business, he said. "You're not 
paying rent, you have few employees and you're just paying them under the 
table. The cash comes in, you take your cut and the product goes out."

Rose said his company moved into San Diego after realizing that 
medical-marijuana patients from San Diego were driving north to other CCG 
locations to obtain pot-some driving as far as Oakland. In those cases, 
Rose said CCG won't sell out-of-area folks more than 8 ounces-the legal 
limit for possession. "It's really difficult for a cancer patient or an 
AIDS patient to trek all the way up for 8 ounces."

Rose said CCG was advised by city officials to be discrete and "don't 
create any problems." He asked that CityBeat not print the company's 
address but allowed a reporter to visit its small City Heights facility, 
located behind frosted glass in a business complex.

A security guard the size of a linebacker checks patients' doctor 
recommendations and identification before allowing them to enter a 
15-by-20-foot bright white room. On one side, small marijuana plants, or 
clones, sit stacked on shelves, and above a glass display case, a menu 
lists various strains of cannabis with names like "Morning Star," "Kahuna" 
and "God." Ben Molale, the dispensary's general manager, explained that 
different varieties of pot are more effective for different ailments. Some 
are better painkillers, for example, while others counteract depression and 
lethargy. Molale, who moved to San Diego from Oakland two months ago, has 
been working in dispensaries since the late '90s and said he finds 
first-time patients here far more nervous than the ones he worked with up 

As Molale talked, Rudy Reyes, 27, a severely burned survivor of 2003's 
Cedar fire was mulling over the menu. Reyes goes to Compassionate 
Caregivers to buy marijuana.

Before it opened here, he said, he drove to the Los Angeles location.

Reyes, who suffered burns over 75 percent of his body, said doctors at the 
UCSD Burn Unit thought marijuana might help control muscle contractions in 
his arms as he tried to regain mobility.

The pot proved not only helpful in that regard but also helped him cope 
with pain. Soon he was off morphine completely and never had to fill the 
prescription for OxyContin that his doctor thought he might need. Reyes 
says he's free from painkillers and antidepressants and relies strictly on 

The affable, talkative Reyes makes frequent trips around the country to 
talk to other burn survivors.

When he's not doing that, he works as an archeologist for the Barona Indian 
tribe, overseeing construction projects on reservation land.

Aside from questionable legal status, one other issue that dogs 
medical-cannabis clubs is price. The cost of an ounce of pot from a 
cannabis dispensary ($400 on average) is close to its street value.

Humphrey has a real problem with that.

"It's exorbitant," she said. "How does that make them different from any 

Except for maybe they have a higher quality because they can account for 
how they grew it, but the street price of drugs is outrageous."

Humphrey said that, short of the feds making marijuana a Schedule 2 
drug-and therefore legal with a doctor's prescription-she'd like to see a 
government agency be the one distributing medical cannabis "so that someone 
who finds out they're diagnosed with cancer and getting chemo next week 
won't have to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for very little marijuana."

Medical-marijuana activist Steve McWilliams agrees. "My whole thing has 
always been cultivation," McWilliams said-either teaching patients to grow 
their own marijuana or finding people who know how to grow pot and are 
willing to do it for a nominal price.

He says patients shouldn't have to pay "gold" prices for medicine.

McWilliams and his partner Barbara McKenzie say they've always advocated 
"collectives" where a single garden would provide marijuana for a set 
number of patients.

This, they point out, is allowed by law. In a collective model, patients 
reimburse the grower for the cost of initial purchase, care and maintenance 
of the plants. McWilliams himself was a long-time grower for 
medical-marijuana patients.

He says he never received any money.

In 2003, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of possessing 25 marijuana 
plants-well below the 32-plant limit set by the San Diego City Council. His 
case is currently on appeal in federal court.

Pending the appeal, McWilliams is not allowed to use marijuana and must 
submit to weekly drug tests.

Back when the city's task force was drawing up guidelines, McWilliams and 
McKenzie advocated for a city plot of land on which there'd be a community 
garden for medical-marijuana patients. Police, however, quashed that idea 
for security reasons.  CCG's Rose says he's all for patient 
self-sufficiency-that's why his dispensaries sell live plants, but for some 
people cultivation isn't an option.

McWilliams shared an e-mail with CityBeat he received from a woman in 
Murrieta, the second city in California to ban medical cannabis 
dispensaries. "I am a consumer," she wrote. "I want to be able to walk into 
a store, buy my medicine, get the relief I need and never have to think 
about it until I need to refill."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D