Pubdate: Thu, 12 Jun 2008
Source: San Mateo County Times, The (CA)
Copyright: 2008 ANG Newspapers
Author: Michael Manekin
Cited: Americans for Safe Access
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)


When federal drug enforcement agents raided three medical marijuana 
dispensaries in San Mateo last year, county officials responded to 
the outcry from local cannabis patients by calling for guidelines to 
distribute the controversial medication.

But the Peninsula's last remaining dispensary was raided by federal 
agents two weeks ago, and the county is still far from creating a 
promised model ordinance designed to help medical marijuana patients 
receive their medication.

What's the hold-up?

For one thing, the legal landscape for medical marijuana in 
California keeps shifting with every new appeals court decision and 
proposed legislation, according to Deputy County Counsel Penny Bennett.

Drafting a model ordinance presents another problem because the 
county counsel's office must check with the various municipalities 
that would even consider implementing guidelines for the distribution 
of cannabis, Bennett added.

But Ken Estes, the 50-year-old owner of Holistic Solutions, the San 
Mateo-based medical marijuana dispensary that federal agents put out 
of business two weeks ago, believes the county has delayed regulation 
for too long.

"People in the local government should really stand up and support 
us," Estes said during a recent interview in his abandoned dispensary 
on Second Avenue and South B Street. "But if they think that medical 
marijuana is such a righteous thing, what are they really doing about 
it? I have sick patients who have to drive now 30 minutes into San 
Francisco, and they have to go to bad neighborhoods, too.

"Here," he said, pointing toward the jars of herbal teas and bottles 
of tinctures that provide the window dressing of legitimacy for his 
dispensary, "the patients had a real good thing--a nice safe 
environment with quality medicine."

Estes, who said he began fighting to legalize medical marijuana after 
he was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident nearly two decades ago, is 
the owner of three medical marijuana dispensaries. He also has 
locations in Richmond and Lake County.

All three dispensaries have remained closed since May 28, when DEA 
agents conducted their raids on Estes' operations, which also 
included several growing areas in the Bay Area and Humboldt County.

"I'm notorious for having high-quality medicine at an affordable 
price," Estes said, a boast substantiated by several advocates and 
patients who say he carried a great variety at affordable prices.

By the time federal agents shut down Holistic Solutions, Estes said, 
he was serving some 5,000 patients at his downtown San Mateo dispensary.

Many of those patients relied on Estes' dispensary to treat ailments 
ranging from chronic arthritis and attention deficit disorder to 
terminal diseases such as cancer and HIV, Estes said.

Then again, he added, other patients probably experience no such suffering.

No Questions Asked

At Holistic Solutions, as at nearly every other dispensary where cash 
is exchanged for medical cannabis, some of the clientele have no 
legitimate medical need for medical marijuana, Estes said.

Many of the young men in their late teens and early 20s who 
frequented Holistic Solutions probably scored their medical cannabis 
prescriptions from "pot doctors," physicians who make their living, 
in part, by signing off on prescriptions with few questions asked in 
exchange for a couple hundred dollars, Estes said.

Rich, a 20-year-old San Mateo resident who asked that his last name 
be withheld to protect his identity, said he visited such a doctor in 
San Francisco to treat "stress" and "back pain" with medical 
cannabis. No questions were asked, he said.

Many medical marijuana advocates and dispensary owners, including 
Estes, insist the state's inability to regulate how doctors prescribe 
cannabis has tainted dispensaries with reputations for serving 
individuals who simply want to use marijuana as a recreational drug.

When Holistic Solutions opened its doors nearly a year ago, San Mateo 
police Chief Susan Manheimer and Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve 
Wagstaffe paid a visit to the dispensary and told Estes they were 
concerned about the number of "young and healthy" customers lining up 
for medicine, Estes said.

"I told them I agreed with them," Estes said, explaining that he told 
the two law enforcement officials that state law requires dispensary 
owners to serve anyone with a state card or a doctor's note. "Doctors 
have to be responsible writing prescriptions, but the state needs to 
work out the logistics," he said.

The Slow Wheels of Government

Actually, county officials committed to working out the logistics all 
by themselves -- but that was more than nine months ago.

The officials' commitment, made in the wake of the federal raids that 
eliminated three of the Peninsula's four dispensaries, didn't promise 
to fix the problems with the "pot doctors" or repair the fundamental 
contradiction that state law's sanction of medical marijuana is 
disregarded by the federal government.

Instead, officials asked the county counsel's office to draft a model 
ordinance with the reasonable goal of regulating how medical 
marijuana patients receive their medication -- something that several 
dozen cities and counties throughout the state had already accomplished.

"San Mateo County has always been at the forefront of attempting to 
meet the needs of its citizens, and we have a heart," county 
Supervisor Jerry Hill told the Times last year. "If someone is 
suffering, we want to prevent that. And if someone is suffering from 
a disease, and medical marijuana is their only relief, we want to 
facilitate that within the law."

More than nine months later, Hill said officials are still "trying to 
create the legal opportunity for (patients) to obtain their medical 
marijuana." Then, he echoed the county counsel's opinion that the 
task is difficult when the legal landscape keeps shifting.

Nonetheless, he added, the county counsel's office continues to meet 
with various city attorneys to nail down a final draft.

For local medical marijuana patients, who have waited nearly a year 
for local officials to help them access their medication, there's 
just one problem: When the county finally gets around to drafting an 
ordinance, the regulations won't allow them to purchase their medicine.

Interpretations of Law

Exchanging money for medical marijuana is against state law, 
according to District Attorney James Fox.

State law allows medical cannabis patients to get their medicine from 
nonprofit cooperatives -- a provision that leaves much room for interpretation.

While defenders of medical marijuana argue that the law allows for 
dispensaries that accept money from multiple patients in exchange for 
cannabis, Fox maintains that such operations serve "customers, not 
patients." Dispensaries serving hundreds of patients are hardly 
nonprofit cooperatives, according to Fox, whose office has made his 
position abundantly clear to the county's city attorneys, local officials say.

In fact, Fox previously told the Times he alerted the DEA to the 
presence of one dispensary in San Mateo -- information that led to 
the bust of the three dispensaries last year.

Fox said the district attorney's office did not tip off federal 
agents to Holistic Solutions in San Mateo (Estes said he believes an 
arrested wholesale supplier informed on him to negotiate a better 
deal with the federal government), but his office has remained firm 
in its position on state law.

"Our interpretation of the law is that (dispensaries) violate state 
law," Wagstaffe said.

Meanwhile, Bennett and various city attorneys continue to defer to 
the district attorney office's interpretation of the law as doctrine.

How is it that several dozen local governments in California -- 
including 29 cities and eight counties -- have chosen a different 
interpretation of state law, choosing to enact ordinances that 
regulate the distribution of medical marijuana through dispensaries?

"If dispensaries are unlawful, I don't know how other agencies 
regulate them," Bennett said.

Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an 
Oakland-based advocacy group for medical marijuana, calls Fox's 
interpretation of the law "false."

"If San Mateo County argues that dispensaries are illegal under state 
law, that would mean in essence that three dozen localities in 
California are breaking state law. And we don't believe that's the 
case," Hermes said.

"Meanwhile, now that the DEA has raided the Peninsula's last 
dispensary, hundreds, if not thousands, of local patients are being 
forced to drive long distances to obtain their medicine--and that is 
a travesty."

"Not Afraid of the Truth"

Whether the former customers of Holistic Solutions now forced to 
drive to San Francisco, Oakland and points beyond to access their 
medicine are truly in need is a matter of opinion.

"I can tell you the people pulling up and coming in there are not 
sick," said Laurie, a stylist at a neighboring salon who declined to 
give her last name. "I can tell you there's more boys with saggy 
pants going in there than anyone else."

Many of the Second Avenue business owners whose stores and 
restaurants neighbor Holistic Solutions reported that although the 
shuttered dispensary never caused disturbances in the neighborhood, 
most of the patients lining up for medicine were young men in 
apparent good health.

"The customers were a bunch of punk kids," said John Perez, 27, of 
Atlas, who works at a skate shop across the street. "Some of the kids 
came in here and bought shoes, but they stank like weed and gave our 
skate shop a bad reputation."

Estes, who acknowledges that many of his customers may not have 
legitimate medical reasons for acquiring their doctors' prescriptions 
for cannabis, also admitted that his dispensary acquired 80 percent 
of its product from large wholesale operations that may also deal 
marijuana to the black market.

"You know why (the DEA) came after me?" he said. "Because I'm 
outspoken, and I'm not afraid of the truth."

Estes, who met with federal agents Tuesday, said he was warned that 
the charges against him were serious and that he'd wind up in prison 
for several years. Holistic Solutions, he added, would probably not 
reopen any time soon. 
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