Pubdate: Wed, 30 Apr 2014
Source: East Bay Express (CA)
Copyright: 2014 East Bay Express
Author: David Downs
Page: Cover Story


California medical cannabis patients are increasingly being forced to 
hide behind closed doors as bans on dispensaries and home cultivation 
sweep through the East Bay.

The pain started for Randy Barrett when he was thirteen years old. He 
was whipping a three-wheeled motorcycle around the hills of Martinez. 
Back then, riding ATVs was "just part of life," he said. "This was 
the Seventies and Eighties. We had dirt bikes; we had three-wheelers 
- - the ones with a big old front rubber tire. I was driving around in 
the dirt and hit a patch of concrete in the road that caught the 
front tire and shot me forward."

Barrett's chest bent around the handlebar and he "flew off and 
flipped and landed in someone's front yard," he said.

He didn't go to the hospital. He went home and told his mom. '"Just 
walk it off,'" Barrett recalled his mother saying. '"It's going to be 
okay. Just go to bed.' That was just how it was back then."

Barrett walked it off, and went to bed. The teenager healed and 
eventually forgot about the motorcycle accident, until decades later, 
when, in 2010, a doctor told him that he had dislocated some ribs and 
vertebrae in his back and neck during the childhood incident. "The 
doctor told me to take my shirt off and asked, 'Did you get hit in 
the chest before?' I said, 'Not really.' He said, 'Really? There's 
this mark right across your chest. It looks a bar had hit it.' The 
motorcycle accident - that was it."

The former Safeway truck driver is now 42 years old, married, and has 
a six-year-old son. He's also a stay-at-home dad with chronic neck 
and shoulder pain. And like millions of Americans, Barrett was 
prescribed Vicodin for his pain. "But it turned me into a jerk," he 
said. "I was always angry and uptight."

By this time, however, Barrett was already open to alternative 
therapies. Back in 2004, he had developed stomach cramps and soon 
thereafter began drinking Pepto-Bismol every day for relief. Doctors 
diagnosed him as having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and so he 
began ingesting large doses of the antacid Prilosec. But the 
resulting lack of digestive fluid wrought havoc on the rest of his 
bowels, he said. Later that same year, doctors put him on Bentanyl, 
Tagament, Latadine - bowel, ulcer, and allergy medications, respectively.

"Nothing ever seemed to work," Barrett said.

Then one day that year, Barrett was hanging out with a buddy, carping 
about his cramps, when his friend passed him a joint. The relief was 
immediate. "Within a few minutes my stomach cramps were gone. I was 
in shock," he said. "I just thought smoking weed got you high back 
then. Then I started reading about how it helps with all this stuff."

But Barrett didn't try to get a doctor's recommendation for marijuana 
- - which has been shown in human trials to treat similar bowel 
disorders - until four years later in 2008. Barrett's doctor, 
however, quickly turned him down. The physician worked for Contra 
Costa County and wouldn't write a recommendation for medical 
cannabis. "But he said, 'I'm glad you found something that works,' 
and smiled real big and stuck his hand out," Barrett recalled.

Barrett got a printed copy of his diagnosis for IBS, took it to the 
medical cannabis clinic MediCann USA in Concord, and got a 
recommendation to use marijuana. He then started driving to Oakland 
once or twice a week to purchase small amounts of different strains 
of medical pot and edibles, seeing what worked best. He hit every 
dispensary in Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley. Harborside was the 
best, he said, but he hated driving his 1994 Ford Explorer that far. 
The cost of gas was astronomical, and that was on top of a month's 
worth of medication (about an ounce) - which cost $400 to $500.

So that same year, Barrett decided to buy some cuttings of pot plants 
at Harborside. He put six of them in the soil outside his Martinez 
home, but the crop quickly failed. The next year, in 2009, he got 
some seeds, "but none of them germinated," he said. A friend took 
pity on him and gave Barrett six female plants. That crop did well, 
with buds the size of his thumb, he said. But, he said, "Those got 
ripped off from me, actually."

So Barrett turned his aboveground Doughboy swimming pool into a 
greenhouse. In 2010, he succeeded in growing a crop of Sour Diesel. 
Ditto for 2011, 2012, and 2013. None of the neighbors complained, and 
he figures that growing weed costs him only $5 an ounce.

Barrett convinced his mother, father, and sister to also obtain 
medical pot recommendations, since they were already using cannabis 
for insomnia, anxiety, and pain. Barrett's dad had both hips replaced 
and is still trying to get off Vicodin.

Barrett, in fact, used pot to get off Vicodin in 2012. Clinical 
trials have shown that smoking cannabis significantly reduces chronic 
pain for people taking opiates and allows them to ingest fewer pills. 
He also quit smoking tobacco. He learned how to create concentrated 
cannabis extracts, and was planning to help treat his great aunt's 
lung cancer with CBD oil, which has anti-tumor properties, according 
to cell and animal studies.

Barrett knows he should be prepping the garden this time of year. 
Cannabis goes in after the last spring rains, grows through the 
summer, and flowers as the sunlight wanes in fall. But Barrett has 
stopped preparing. On April 16, the Martinez City Council voted to 
ban all outdoor medical marijuana cultivation.

"I want them to stop messing with us," Barrett told me before the 
vote. "We're just growing our medicine."

Residents of Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco might not 
think about it much, but hundreds of thousands of medical cannabis 
patients and their allies are in an unprecedented struggle across 
California. A battle is raging in the wake of a 2013 state Supreme 
Court ruling that affirmed the right of cities and counties to ban 
dispensaries. And local governments are now using that decision to 
also prohibit medical marijuana cultivation for personal use and to 
levy fines against growers of up to $1,000 per plant on growers.

Based on unfounded, outdated, and narrow-minded fears about crime, 
odor, and child safety, these bans strike at the very core of 
voter-approved Proposition 215, which reads:

"The people of the State of California hereby find and declare that 
the purposes of the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 are as follows: (A) 
To ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain 
and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is 
deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician."

Yet despite that groundbreaking law, the vast majority of 
Californians now live in cities and counties that have enacted bans 
on medical pot dispensaries, including much of Alameda and Contra 
Costa counties. In addition, more than a dozen cities and counties - 
including Concord and Martinez - have banned all outdoor growing, and 
a few cities are prohibiting all cultivation. Legal challenges to the 
more sweeping bans are pending, but the pain is immediate.

"People are definitely being hurt," said Lanny Swerdlow, a registered 
nurse in Riverside, a Southern California city that is in the heart 
of ban country. "We are going backward."

Patients, as a result, are now commuting long distances to find 
dispensaries, calling up unlicensed mobile dispensaries they find on 
WeedMaps and Craigslist, or growing their own pot when they can. And 
in cities where medical cannabis is totally banned - like Fresno - 
they are defying the law or going without medication.

"You can never argue that a sick person with epilepsy who may not 
even have a driver's license should have to drive even ten miles to 
get medicine," said David Spradlin, operator of the River City 
Phoenix dispensary in Sacramento and Magnolia Wellness in Oakland, 
"that someone going through their third chemo and needs some 
medicine, that they should have to drive for that medicine - that's 
the bottom line." Spradlin said he knows cancer patients who are 
forced to travel up to an hour to Sacramento from Placer, Yolo, 
Solano, and San Joaquin counties and from Turlock, Woodland, Davis, 
Vacaville, Marysville, and Yuba City. "And I see that every day. I 
see people weeping all the time - they're so happy they can come in 
to a safe place and get their medicine.

"They're still thankful they can drive fifty miles to get it, but it 
shouldn't be like that," Spradlin continued. "We see this way too 
much and we fought this fight for way too long to be having such 
stupid conversations."

According to a 1,000-patient survey conducted by Oakland-based 
advocacy group Americans for Safe Access this year, one in four 
medical cannabis patients reported that they have driven fifty miles 
or more to buy pot. One out of ten said they have driven two hundred 
miles or more. About half of the respondents - 46 percent - reported 
that they have gone without cannabis at times because they couldn't 
buy it easily, and of those, nearly one in five - 18 percent - said 
they have done so for more than a month at a time.

The bans also perpetuate a sometimes-violent black market for weed. 
And the bans tend to deny access to the most vulnerable patients - 
the oldest and sickest; those who can't afford to drive forty miles 
to Oakland or pay $400 an ounce for clandestine delivery; and those 
who either lack a backyard to grow it in or the skills to grow. "For 
our people on fixed incomes - they're sick, they got medical bills 
stacked up, they're the sickest of the sick that are affected by 
these bans - it's just brutal," Spradlin said.

The increasing number of bans in California also comes at time when 
national acceptance of medical marijuana is at an all-time high of 80 
percent, according to recent polls. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta told me 
recently that he thinks medical pot products should be in every 
pharmacy in America.

"It hits me in the gut," Barrett said of Martinez's ban on marijuana 
growing. "I thought we were going forward."

In hindsight, it's no surprise that eighteen years after voters 
passed Proposition 215, the law's clear intent has yet to be 
realized. If you look at a map of California and color red all the 
counties that voted against Prop 215. Now color blue all the ones 
that voted for it, and then you get a geographically red state with a 
blue coastline including the population centers of the San Francisco 
Bay Area and greater Los Angeles as well as a finger of blue 
tolerance that pushes in from the Delta all the way past Sacramento 
to Mono and Alpine counties on the state's eastern border.

California's initiative process is unique in that voters can go over 
the heads of politicians, city managers, and chiefs of police to 
directly write the law. Fueled by San Francisco activists battling 
the AIDS crisis, Prop 215 created a medical defense in court against 
prosecution for many marijuana crimes. And it sent law enforcement 
officials into fits.

After Prop 15 passed, then-California Attorney General Dan Lungren 
assembled a conference of about three hundred cops from across the 
state. First, they decided to target any doctor who wrote 
recommendations. Physicians, as a result, had to fight in court to 
clarify their First Amendment right to recommend cannabis - though 
most are still too scared or ignorant about their rights to exercise 
them, said Dr. Donald Abrams, chief of Oncology and Hematology at San 
Francisco General Hospital.

Led by vocal opponents of Prop 215 at the California Police Chiefs 
Association, the California Narcotic Officers Association, and some 
officials within the federal government, police continue to exploit 
loopholes in the measure to harass patients, ex-cops say.

Patients also have had to fight in court to clarify their right to 
recover unlawfully confiscated pot and paraphernalia from the police. 
And patients had to fight for immunity from arrest, which they got 
with Senate Bill 420 in 2003. The law also created a state medical 
pot ID card, as well as the right to associate to collectively 
cultivate and distribute cannabis.

The legislation led to the first dispensaries in bastions of reform 
like Oakland and Berkeley. But red areas of the state dug in their 
heels. The City of San Diego, for example, had to be taken to court 
and forced to issue the ID cards called for under SB 420 - and some 
counties still won't issue them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country moved on. In 2008, the Obama 
administration issued the so-called Ogden Memo, a legal opinion that 
was widely viewed at the time as marking the beginning of the end of 
the war on medical pot. Amid the worst recession since the Great 
Depression, the memo spurred a marijuana dispensary-boom across 
California. Pot became one of the few promising industries in the 
state during the Great Recession. And police fumed.

In 2010, the state appeared to be ready to legalize pot for all 
adults. But then the nation's top cop, US Attorney General Eric 
Holder, flew to the Golden State to denounce Proposition 19. The 
measure's 52-48 lead in the polls quickly evaporated, and it lost on 
Election Day 46 percent to 54.

Police and illegal drug cartel leaders cheered, and, in 2011, a 
second White House memo clarified that all commercial medical 
marijuana activity was fair game for police action. The so-called 
Cole Memo emboldened local chiefs and led to the launch of a joint 
federal-state medical pot crackdown. US attorneys threatened 
thousands of landlords with property forfeiture as raids swept the 
state. Thousands of dispensaries closed. San Diego's dispensary count 
went from more than two hundred to zero; Sacramento County went from 
more than one hundred to zero.

"There was like one-two punches coming at the industry for the last 
three years," Spradlin said.

Cities, counties, and federal prosecutors played whack-a-mole with 
clubs through 2012 and into 2013, forcing them to close, reopen 
elsewhere, and close again. Then the disastrous California Supreme 
Court ruling came down.

In the case of City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patient's Health 
and Wellness Center, Inc., et al., the high court reviewed a series 
of appellate court decisions concerning the right of cities to ban 
dispensaries. The court found that patients had no lawful right to 
access pot - under the law they only had a shield from being 
prosecuted in court. "It represented a devastating defeat for 
patients," said Kris Hermes, spokesperson for Americans for Safe 
Access. "It entrenched the patchwork system."

"I'm still stunned. I think it's lunacy," said 59-year-old Ojai 
resident Risa Horowitz, who has to commute ninety miles to the 
nearest dispensary to treat chronic back pain. She had her first back 
surgery in her twenties. "It's a burden," she said, adding that she 
believes the California Supreme Court has abandoned the citizens of 
the state. "I think it's barbaric and criminal of our elected 
officials to perpetuate that cannabis is an illegal plant.

"Can you imagine if cities banned pharmacies?" she continued. "That's 
essentially what they are saying. It just happens to be a natural pharmacy."

After the high court's ruling, cities with bans on the books doubled 
down on enforcement, and holdout clubs in ban towns shut their doors 
and went to delivery-only.

But Riverside did more than just affirm a city's right to ban pot 
shops. It left open the possibility of also banning collectives, as 
well as personal cultivation.

One of the first locales to ban all cultivation of medical cannabis 
was Live Oak, an unincorporated area of Sutter County, north of 
Sacramento. In December 2011, Live Oak prohibited all medical pot 
growing within its boundaries.

So patient James Maral sued on behalf of himself and as a trustee of 
the collective Live Oak Patients, Caregivers and Supporters 
Association, along with other individuals, on the grounds that Live 
Oak's law violated Prop 215 and SB 420. A lower court ruled in favor 
of Live Oak, so Maral appealed to Third District Court of Appeals in 
Sacramento, which then last year also upheld the lower court ruling, 
citing the Supreme Court's decision in Riverside.

On January 3, 2014, San Francisco attorney Joe Elford appealed to the 
California Supreme Court to review the Live Oak decision, but the 
California Supreme Court declined to take up the case in a split 4-3 decision.

According to a 2013 analysis by California NORML, at least 29 
jurisdictions have outdoor growing bans, and total cultivation bans 
are spreading in their wake. Along with Concord and Martinez, the 
cities of Selma, Tracy, Avenal, Beaumont, and California City have 
banned all growing - as have the city and county of Fresno. Last 
week, Sacramento County banned all pot growing as well.

Similar bans are pending in Colusa County (which, along with Sutter, 
are the only two counties who never enacted a ID card program), Elk 
Grove, Porterville, Lodi, and the East Bay cities of Fremont and San Pablo.

"It's all because of the cops," said Swerdlow, the Riverside nurse. 
"They are winning. And we are losing."

The pain started for Gary Harris way before he saw dead bodies and 
survived rocket attacks in Vietnam. "My dad used to -." The 
61-year-old Fresno resident paused as the memories overwhelmed him. 
"He was an alcoholic."

Born at Edwards Air Force Base in 1952, Harris grew up in the hot, 
unforgiving desert town of Lancaster trying to dodge his dad's rage 
and violence. "He created quite a bit of trauma," Harris said. "I'd 
say that's where most of my trauma comes from."

At the age of seventeen, Harris got out of the desert and joined the 
Army. He drove trucks and forklifts, and then got shipped off to 
Vietnam for a year.

"At the time the stuff is going on, you just kind of blew it off - 
you see dead people lying around; you have rockets raining down from 
the sky; you just kind of deal with it," he said of being in the war. 
"You don't think in terms of being traumatized - but I have nightmares."

Harris is single: never married and no kids. "My longest relationship 
was like three months - nothing serious, ever," he said. "I've always 
been kind of a rambling man."

After Vietnam, Harris lived in San Jose, then moved back to Lancaster 
before going to Sacramento and then Miami. He then relocated to 
Phoenix, then back to California, then to Arkansas, and Florida.

He suffered his first grand mal seizure in 1985 while visiting a 
friend in Virginia. He was driving at the time and rolled his van, 
breaking three bones in his back. The injury later developed into 
rheumatoid arthritis and spread to other parts of his body, 
ultimately disabling him.

Harris had first tried pot in 1965 and has self-medicated for what he 
now realizes is post-traumatic stress disorder since 1970. 
Occasionally he would stop, and in 1991 he went as long as a year and 
half without smoking weed. During those times, his nightmares would 
become increasingly vivid. "I had this nightmare that blew my mind. 
People, uh - ssssss," he hissed through a grimace. He couldn't find 
the words. "It was like my subconscious mind didn't realize it was 
just a dream. Somebody was being murdered and I am going 'Ah. Ah. 
Ah.' I started smoking pot again and it pretty much alleviated the nightmares.

"It made me normal - like the way I was supposed to feel," he 
continued. "I don't know how to say it like someone else could understand."

Being able to sleep helped him focus. He worked as a cable TV 
installer, and then worked in industrial electronics in Florida for 
seventeen years before becoming disabled by the rheumatoid arthritis.

Harris moved back to California for good in 2005, partly because 
Florida was so humid, and because "there is no safety net [there] 
whatsoever," he said. "California was my home and I had been wanting 
to come back for many years. When I was disabled there was nothing 
[in Florida] for me anymore, plus the marijuana laws [in California] 
were a big influence. I knew if I got caught it was a felony in 
Florida. And I knew I would have no problem getting a recommendation 
for medical marijuana [in California] because of my condition."

He picked Fresno because he didn't want to move back to Lancaster, 
and it was in the center of the state. He got a recommendation almost 
as soon as he moved in.

In 2005, there were two doctors in Fresno who would recommend 
cannabis, and Harris has been a patient with one of them ever since. 
He also goes to a VA hospital for his primary care, and said staffers 
there don't give him a hard time about being a cannabis patient. 
"They accept it as part of my medication."

Harris takes pills for epilepsy, stomach, prostate, and arthritis 
problems. His bones are brittle and he's broken three in his back 
since 2005. He has a prescription for morphine and the narcotic 
painkiller Percocet - the opiate oxycodone mixed with acetaminophen.

"That stuff wipes me out," he said of Percocet. "I take that stuff 
and I'm like a vegetable. I'm literally a vegetable. I only take that 
stuff if [the pain is] really out of control. For the most part I use 
marijuana and that seems to keep me happy. I'm not using marijuana to 
get high. If I wanted to get high I'd just load up on my morphine and 
my Percocet. Those are some of the most popular drugs out there."

After he got his recommendation for medical pot, Harris' first source 
was the Fresno black market. Dispensaries have never been tolerated 
there. "When I moved here, I moved into a house and was renting a 
room, and another guy had just gotten out of prison. He knew people 
in the black market. So I started buying it from a Mexican national.

"They could barely speak English, but they were really nice guys and 
they gave me good deals and some of the stuff they had was at least 
as good, if not better than what could be found in dispensaries. You 
could buy cheap, good marijuana that didn't have the taste and flavor 
and the bouquet, but it would do the job. It was still high in THC 
and CBD," he added, referring to the two main active molecules in cannabis.

Harris began growing his own two years later in 2007, but stayed in 
touch with his black-market connections for help when he needed it. 
First, he started growing in his closet with some clones from a 
now-defunct dispensary in Tulare. The crop failed, so he got some 
seeds. He didn't know he was supposed to grow only females, and so 
the males pollinated the females, ruining the medicinal quality of 
the bud, but yielding hundreds more seeds. "So I kept the seeds and 
have been using seed ever since."

Harris moved to a different rental place in Fresno at which the 
landlady was okay with him growing a small garden, he said. His first 
outdoor crop was pretty rough, but he got better. In 2008, he grew 
enough that he didn't need to grow in 2009. In 2010 he grew fourteen, 
ten-foot-tall plants in the drained pool in the backyard, yielding 
nine pounds of weed - vastly more than he needed for the year - all 
at a total cost of $350.

Last year, he messed up his soil and harvested just four plants from 
a screened enclosure on the side of his rental. But he helped a 
neighbor with her six-plant garden, so he has enough supplies to last 
for many more months, he said.

About this time of year, Harris should be prepping his small, 
fenced-off plot of land for his annual marijuana crop. But this year, 
he's reluctant. He recently learned that the City of Fresno had 
passed a total ban on all cultivation - outdoors or inside. Violators 
will be fined $1,000 per plant. One women is fighting a $30,000 fine 
for 30 plants.

Harris was one of a dozen people who spoke out against the proposed 
total ban at a Fresno City Council hearing on March 20. "I think it's 
an injustice to the people who find comfort and relief from 
marijuana," he said. "The only effect the bans will have is on the 
people who are doing it legally. There are a lot of people who don't 
worry about prosecution and they're going to continue."

If he can't grow his own, he's going to call up his black market 
contacts and start buying again, he said. "Now I'm going to have to 
spend $5,000 a year to get my medicine, my marijuana? The fact that 
they banned it isn't going to make it go away. It forces people to 
spend money they don't have and give it to people who don't need it.

"I'm giving it to the Mexican mafia, instead of Home Depot and 
Wal-Mart," he continued, referring to the gardening supplies he 
typically buys at those stores. "That's $5,000 going south and then 
multiply that by however many patients that are going to have to 
start buying it."

Cal NORML estimates that there are about one million medical cannabis 
patients in the state.

"It's strange: the city and [county] board would place the Mexican 
mafia above the Americans who want to produce their own medicine," 
Harris said. "I don't know how they can get away with this but I 
guess they can."

The stark reality is that local bans are the modern face of what is 
now called "marijuana legalization." Colorado's Amendment 64, which 
legalized pot for adult recreational use in that state, also allows 
towns to ban cannabis stores. The law itself also prohibits outdoor 
cultivation. Consequently, the majority of cities in Colorado have 
banned pot stores and all growing is done indoors. Any adult over 21 
can grow up to six plants.

Washington's Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana for adult 
recreational use in that state, also allows towns to ban stores and 
completely bans home-growing. The legislature has proposed sharply 
curtailing medical marijuana patients' rights to cultivation there as well.

Both versions of medical marijuana regulations proposed in Sacramento 
this year also affirm "local control" - which is code for the right 
to ban, activists say. And several of the legalization proposals 
floated for the 2014 ballot included the local control provision.

Dry counties for pot, in other words, appear to be here to stay.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom