Pubdate: Thu, 20 Dec 2007
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Heather Won Tesoriero
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Chronic Pain)


For years, when Janet Seaboyer sought relief from her frequent bouts
of anxiety, she went to the Compassionate Center of Santa Barbara and
ordered from a marijuana menu that featured chocolate pecan truffles
and cannabis strains with names like Purple Urkle and Sweet and Sour.
But the Compassionate Center shut down at the end of October, and the
54-year-old Ms. Seaboyer -- who says she has suffered from epilepsy
since childhood -- is considering going back to clandestine street
purchasing. "I wouldn't want to, but if I have no other choice that's
what I'd have to do," she says. Californians legalized marijuana for
medical use in 1996 when they passed Proposition 215. But a recent
crackdown in this Southern California enclave and elsewhere in the
state by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has forced a
number of dispensaries out of business and highlighted the awkward
tension between state and federal laws.

California has an estimated 300 medical-marijuana dispensaries,
according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit group that
backs medical use of the drug. Their number rose sharply after a 2003
state Senate bill strengthened the 1996 law. Initially confined to big
cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the dispensaries cropped up
in smaller communities across the state.

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa
Barbara is known for being one of the poshest communities in the nation.

In the past few years, it also became home to a thriving
medical-marijuana business. The city's new cottage industry really
started to flourish a year ago, when the city council passed Measure
P, an order mandating that pot arrests should be the Santa Barbara
Police Department's lowest priority and that a city-appointed board
must review all such arrests.

Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum says 10 new dispensaries sought
licenses to operate in town, which brought the total figure to about
15 for a population of just 90,000. But the sudden sprouting caused
some problems, and they got worse a few months ago, when an incident
outside a dispensary drew a public outcry. Linda Vega was teaching a
flamenco class when a gang fight erupted in front of a dispensary two
doors down, forcing parents strolling by with their children to seek
refuge in the courtyard of her dance studio.

Appalled, Ms. Vega and more than 100 other concerned residents
gathered for a neighborhood meeting to air their complaints.

The incident increased the tension between people like Ms. Vega, who
want the dispensaries closed, and patients and their doctors, who say
the sites offer a safe, appropriate environment in which to purchase
cannabis to alleviate various ailments.

Joseph Rodino, 56, a former masonry manager, bought his marijuana from
the same dispensary as Ms. Seaboyer. He says he needs it to stimulate
his appetite and relieve discomfort from Hepatitis C, a virus that
afflicts the liver and causes pain and fatigue.

Mr. Rodino, who formerly bought the drug on the street from dealers,
says the dispensaries do away with "all the furtive sneaking around
and that whole drug-world sort of thing by making this a really simple
business transaction for something that you need." But Ms. Vega
doesn't buy that argument.

She says the dispensary next to her studio, called Acme, became a
magnet for the same riffraff that street dealers attract.

The only difference, she says, is it had the veneer of being a legal
business. "It wasn't people with cancer who needed it. They were
hoodlums," she says.

Acme's owner, Glen Mowrer, says the problem wasn't as bad as Ms. Vega
makes it out to be and that last summer's fight had nothing to do with
the dispensary itself.

The nearby "low-income housing has something to do with gang members,
not Acme," he says.

In any case, the growing controversy has prompted the Santa Barbara
City Council to impose a moratorium on new dispensaries. The city is
currently developing draft ordinances to regulate the dispensaries
that the City Council will vote on in the coming months.

It is considering a conditional use-fee permit that would restrict
dispensaries to areas away from schools, homes and parks. "That's most
of our city, so it's challenging," says Mayor Blum. Patrick Fourmy,
one of the Compassionate Center's founders, maintains that his
dispensary offered a legitimate medical service.

The center had 3,000 clients, including, he says, people from "the
district attorney's office, the police department and chief executive
officers from Fortune 500 companies." Patients there were served only
if they had a doctor's "recommendation." (By law, prescriptions can be
written only for FDA-approved medications.) Since the center's
storefront closed, it has been operating a delivery service while it
tries to reopen a brick-and-mortar establishment.

But the Food and Drug Administration maintains that marijuana offers
no health benefits and that its possession and sale remain banned by
federal law. Last year, the FDA issued an advisory with other federal
agencies stating that "no sound scientific studies" support medical
use of the drug. The dispensaries' critics have found an ally in the
federal government. When the DEA, which has raided about 70
dispensaries in the state since 2001, issued notices to Santa Barbara
dispensary landlords threatening to seize their properties, several
operations closed, including Mr. Mowrer's Acme. He says his mother
owns the property, and he doesn't want to risk losing it. Joshua
Braun, 30, owned another local dispensary, Hortipharm Caregivers, for
2 1/2 years, but in light of the recent actions by federal
authorities, he says, he turned the business over to others.

Mr. Braun thought Measure P and the initial acceptance by Santa
Barbara's community would insulate him from such problems, but he says
the federal government has found an effective tool to discourage the

"Landlords here have a lot more to lose," says Mr. Braun. "They're
going to lose a building not worth $200,000 but $2 million."
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