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Reefer gladness

Like a cloud of second hand smoke, California’s medical marijuana legislation has been looming over the Central Coast since 1996. The storm finally broke over Morro Bay.

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No one laughed when Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers opened on April Fool’s Day. But of course, it wasn’t a joke. People are serious about their right to use medical marijuana, and with the opening of SLO County’s first and only city-sanctioned cannabis dispensary, Morro Bay City Officials have unequivocally stated that they’re not playing around. Yes, this is the same dispensary that was run out of Atascadero in February, shortly after owner Charles C. Lynch opened up shop there. This time, though, CCCC is being welcomed with (mostly) open arms. Is this a medical triumph or a terrible mistake? Some people may already have their minds made up about this, but it looks like the rest of us will just have to wait and see.
 

GRASS MENAGERIE :  Patients at CCCC can choose from a wide selection of pot varietals, each purportedly providing a slightly different medical effect - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
  • GRASS MENAGERIE : Patients at CCCC can choose from a wide selection of pot varietals, each purportedly providing a slightly different medical effect
# Lynch, for one, seems elated, if a little exhausted. But then, it’s been only six days since CCCC reopened and he might still be getting used to the idea of actually being in business again. He wasn’t open a month the first time before a judge ordered him to shut down until further notice. Even though Atascadero’s moratorium banning dispensaries had already expired, it came to city officials’ attention that the business license they issued Lynch was for a “health service provider,� which didn’t exactly apply to medical marijuana. They needed time to figure out what, exactly, they were supposed to do with him. But closing down meant Lynch had to cut his patients off — more than 300 in just the first three weeks of business — from the county’s only public supply of medical cannabis. So rather than wait for Atascadero to make up its mind, he packed up his goods and moved west to Morro Bay, where there was another expired moratorium and a willingness by government officials to give pot a chance. Lynch, a polite, soft- spoken man with thinning red hair and a lilt to his voice that hints at his southwestern roots, doesn’t care to discuss what happened in Atascadero, saying simply that he’s trying to put the past behind him. Then he proudly shows off his new business license, hanging high in the small foyer of his Monterey Street store. “This is the first one in the county that says ‘medical marijuana dispensary,’� he says, smiling in disbelief. 
 
Some Morro Bay residents were shocked to first find about CCCC’s move in the local news, saying the city never warned them about an impending dispensary. In response to these complaints, Mayor Janice Peters suggests people should start paying more attention to what goes on at City Council meetings. She says that before Lynch ever arrived, she and the other city planners had started laying down the groundwork for allowing medical marijuana within city limits. “About four or five months ago, our moratorium expired and by then we had pretty much decided that legitimate use in the city was reasonable,� she explains. Then CCCC was shut down in Atascadero. “We knew we’d be the next target.� Sure enough, Lynch came to the city with a request to open up in Morro Bay. Peters admits that she’d hoped to have more time to establish clearer parameters, primarily to control the future growth of dispensaries. But she also believes that she and her council members, many whom have known people who benefited from medical cannabis, made the right decision. “We wanted to give it a chance,� she says, “ I only hope our community gives it that same chance.�
 
The community, to be sure, is torn over the issue. While the general consensus seems to be that medical marijuana should be made available to the people who need it, there is some concern that a storefront dispensary might be going a bit too far. Worries range from an increase in traffic to the area, to heightened criminal activity and, because Morro Bay has yet to establish any limits on dispensaries, the possibility that pot clubs will soon be popping up all over town. Though an uncontrollable explosion of dispensaries is highly unlikely (City Attorney Rob Schultz says the zoning restrictions alone make it extremely difficult to open such a business), problems related to dispensaries in parts of the Bay Area and San Diego suggest that these fears aren’t completely unfounded.
 
Lynch appears to be making every effort to ensure that his dispensary doesn’t cause any problems, and neighbors so far seem to have only praise for his outgoing thoughtfulness and courtesy. He even installed special fans and an air purification system when the folks downstairs at Fidelity National Trust complained of the constant smell of marijuana wafting into their office. Even so, Fidelity’s Assistant Vice President Liz Childres is having a hard time accepting that there’s a pot dispensary right next door. Though she considers herself an advocate for medical marijuana — “I voted for Prop. 215,� she says, — she’s concerned about the negative impact a publicly recognized dispensary might have on the city’s image. She would hate to see that affect tourism, an industry she relies on in her line of work. There’s also issue of illegal activities taking place in the area, which is why she has arranged to have a security system installed in her office — even though Lynch has one of his own, complete with surveillance cameras and motion-sensitive alarms.

Childres also worries about drug abuse. She estimates that about half of the “patients� she’s seen walk into CCCC seem to be in fine health and don’t appear to be in any real need of marijuana. “The older people look sick,� she insists; they use canes and walkers. “The young people ride up on their skateboards. They look perfectly healthy.� But the truth is, doctors recommend marijuana to treat a variety of ailments, not all of them obvious to the casual observer. These include, but aren’t limited to: glaucoma, asthma, epilepsy, depression, nausea, chronic pain, and even drug addiction. And in accordance with the law, Lynch requires all of his patients to present a doctor’s recommendation before they can enter the dispensary (because marijuana is a federally banned substance, it can’t technically be prescribed), which is then verified by a receptionist before they can ever get close to the marijuana. Still, Childres thinks there’s got to be a more reasonable way to deal with this. “I don’t know why they can’t all just take Marinol,� she says, referring to the FDA-approved marijuana alternative. “The pharmacies should be handling this, anyway.�
 
But marijuana dispensaries have also proved to be responsible, if unorthodox, businesses in other communities. At the Compassionate Center of Santa Barbara, a dispensary that opened in 1999, owner Patrick Fourmy says that he has never had any problems with the authorities. Furthermore, he thinks it’s ridiculous to worry that a cannabis dispensary will cause mayhem. On the contrary, he claims, properly run dispensaries can actually reduce criminal activity by providing patients with a respectable and legal place to get their doctor-approved medicine. The key, however, is for dispensary owners, their patients, local physicians, and especially the authorities to work together willingly and, sometimes, creatively. Local law enforcement seems to be prepared to give it a try, even though their duties place them directly at odds with the dispensary’s practices. Morro Bay Police Chief John De Rohan is taking his lead from other cities’ agencies that are currently dealing with the medical marijuana issue. The stance seems to be, if there aren’t any problems, then there’s no reason to get involved. Still, he says, what he’d really like is for something concrete to help him “figure out this la-la lawlessness.� 
 

MEMBERS ONLY :  Patients looking for greener pastures must present a valid California State ID card and a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana before they can gain access to “Area 420.� - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
  • MEMBERS ONLY : Patients looking for greener pastures must present a valid California State ID card and a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana before they can gain access to “Area 420.â€?
# On the wall next to his business license, Lynch, as required, has posted the list of conditions he agreed to when the city granted him the license. No one employed by the dispensary may be a convicted felon. No one under 18 is allowed without a guardian. No consumption of cannabis on the premises. There are more conditions, and Lynch has even added a few of his own. Patients may not enter wearing hats or sunglasses, they may not consume cannabis within 100 feet of the dispensary, and they may not loiter outside the building. Signs everywhere remind patients to be considerate of the neighbors by stepping lightly and turning off their cell phones. A security guard greets visitors at the door and they must present their doctor’s recommendation and a California State ID in order to be lead upstairs by yet another security guard, who takes them to the reception area. It’s there, in the sun lit room with large window that provide a peak at Morro Rock and the Bay, that patients undergo clearance and receive their CCCC photo ID card, the front of which bears the Seal of California adorned with cannabis leaves.
Of course, there are those people who think “medical marijuana� is just a euphemism for legalized pot, but patients who benefit from cannabis say they’re no interested in legalizing the drug for recreational use. In fact, because pot is so potent, Lynch says he’s more comfortable keeping marijuana under the “medical umbrella.� He just wants to provide his patients safe and easy access to a something that gives them relief from their pain and discomfort, the same respect they would get if they were using conventional pharmaceuticals to treat their ailments.
  
Pat, who asked that only his first name be used for this story, lives in Paso Robles. He started using cannabis about five years ago to treat his chronic back pain, seizures and anxiety. Prior to that, he says, he’d spent years trying “a truckload of pain pills. I took Vicodan, Norco, Somas, just about every pill there was. But after a while, they’d stop working and so I had to take more and more. Suddenly I was still in pain, and I was also addicted to pain killers.� When a doctor suggested he try cannabis, Pat says he was desperate, and to his relief it worked. Hardly a miracle drug, he says marijuana doesn’t take away all of his pain and he knows nothing can. But it makes his discomfort manageable, which is more than any of those pills did for him. Until CCCC opened, Pat, who isn’t able to drive, had to get family members and friends to drive him as far as Oakland and Bakersfield to get his pot at medical dispensaries. The costly drive was so painful for him sometimes that on more than one occasion he had to hit the streets to score his medication. He had no way of knowing the quality of his purchase and worse yet, a lack of local, legal access to pot had forced him to break the law. “I want to stay above board with this,� he says. “Having a dispensary in the area allows me to do that.�
 
For those who might require a little more proof of healing powers of pot, consider this: The American Medical Association officially recognized the Fourth National Clinical Conference on Medical Marijuana, hosted by Santa Barbara City college earlier this month. At this fully accredited event, doctors, nurses, researchers, clinicians, patients, and advocates from all over the world to gathered to discuss the established, debunked, and possible benefits of using marijuana as a medicine. Healthcare professionals even received official credits for attending the conference, just as they would have if they’d attended a conference on heart disease.  
 
“Area 420� lies just beyond a tropical beaded curtain, and it’s in there that one faces the reality of medical cannabis as a serious player in SLO County. Green, sticky buds fill a huge glass display case, shelves filled with more than a dozen varieties, all with playful names like “Purple Power,� “Lemon Drop,� and “First Lady.� It’s easy to understand what the neighbors were talking about; the thick, musty smell of marijuana fills the air in the windowless room, giving the placebo effect of a contact high. A dry erase board notes the day’s specials. All funniness aside, this is not a joke, and Brandon, a patient who also works at the dispensary, explains that each variety, grown from cloned plants, provides a distinctively different medicinal effect. Patients are encouraged to sniff small sample jars to get an idea of what they’re choosing, and several reference books are available to answer any questions. Of course, he says, he’s happy to offer advice, but there is usually a period of trial and error before patients find exactly what they’re looking for. Their selection made, patients walk out of the dispensary with their purchase in hand along with a list of health and safety guidelines for marijuana usage. It certainly gives new meaning to the word drugstore.
 
Things are running smoothly right now for CCCC, but Lynch still has to prepare for a possible struggle with the feds, should they come knocking on his dispensary’s door. With all social taboos he’s had to break, and the many legal entanglements he continues to face, one has to ask the question: Why? After 15 years as a law-abiding member of the community and with a perfectly respectable job as a software designer — why would he want to stir up the community by opening a marijuana dispensary? Lynch, who uses marijuana to treat his migraine headaches, says he finally got tired of driving to other counties to get his medication. His voice cracks a little as he describes the first time he purchased cannabis in a recognized dispensary. It was a relief, and as a patient who genuinely benefits from this drug, it was validating. He’s doing this to give the people of SLO the same legitimate claim to their rights. “I’m not a criminal,� he says in a final effort to explain his position. “The law says this is allowed.�  ∆


Alice Moss is full of compassion. Pass your comments to the left at amoss@newtimesslo.com


 Battle of the bud

“It was like trying to open a marijuana dispensary in Marlboro Country,� Lou Koory, Charles C. Lynch’s San Luis Obispo-based attorney, quipped of CCCC’s former home in conservative Atascadero. “This is just a much better location in every sense. It just feels right here.�
 
In simple geographic terms, the move to Morro Bay appears a brief haul-little more than 17 miles of pleasant, winding mountain road separate the two Central Coast towns. Yet, in an ideological scope, the dispensary cut a swath across San Luis Obispo County, illuminating a stark contrast in the moral and rhetorical climates surrounding the rediscovered reality of medicinal legalization. But more than that, what Lynch and his coalition of medical marijuana users discovered in this transition was a logistical paradox of legislation: Crisscrossing and frequently contradicting state and federal laws making the true legality of Nurse Mary Jane more a matter of opinion than the letter of the law.
 
Of course, Washington’s position on how to approach a medical marijuana dispensary from an enforcement angle is clear—“bring ‘em down.� However, in Sacramento, a statement released last year by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer coaxed-in a not-so-direct directive-police to enforce the state law. Striking a balance in areas where medical marijuana storefronts prove more common, like in neighboring Santa Barbara County, law enforcement tends to take its cues almost primarily from the local government. But this practice offers little clarity as the political microclimates surrounding the issue continue to spur drastically different legal standards, even within individual counties. The result is a general sense of confusion, particularly among departments freshly exposed to this new breed of establishment, with the metaphorical buck stopping somewhere between local DEA office and Never-Never Land. 
 
“There’s no clear direction for law enforcement to handle this,� Morro Bay Chief of Police John de Rohan said. “Hopefully somebody will make a decision. Until then, it’s a big, conflicting mess.�
 
More than one legal expert approached by the New Times stated the flexibility of State Senate Bill 420 — an update to Prop 215 designed specifically to protect dispensaries — tends to promote a trend of creative management. With their options wide open, some cities adopt and perpetually renew temporary moratoriums (San Luis Obispo, Grover Beach); others dig up justification for outright bans (Pismo Beach); and still others draft what dispensary owners call de facto bans — ordinances reportedly so restrictive they make it impossible for co-ops to operate. Koory and Lynch believe this to be the case in Atascadero, where the city council approved a measure last Tuesday putting strict limitations on any primary caregiver looking to take center stage as the town’s one and only marijuana dispensary.

According to the ordinance, an applicant must establish the storefront at least 1,000 feet away from any school, church or park — a restriction more austere than any Central Coast city places on convicted sex offenders, save Paso Robles. But before reaching that stage, the prospective caregiver must first file with Atascadero Police Chief John Couch, who sets the terms for background investigation and can strike down the application at his discretion. Surprisingly, no applicants have yet come forward.
 
All of this begs the question: Where lies the source of all this legislative crossfire? It appears a return to Battleground 10th Amendment, yet again.
 
All though semi-officially, not-really-but-kind-of legal in this state and ten others, to the federal government, Marijuana still falls into the bin of Schedule I narcotics — those believed to elicit a high potential for abuse and possessing no medically — founded pharmaceutical value. In a landmark Supreme Court decision last June, justices sided with federal law enforcement agencies, upholding the constitutionality of raids and investigations conducted in the name of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. The primary petitioner was Angel Raich, a 38-year-old medical marijuana patient in Oakland with a laundry list of health conditions. The court decided that, even though medical marijuana did not constitute an interstate trade, it still affected interstate commerce and deserved adequate federal attention. Needless to say, the indirect nature of the ruling churned up quite a bit of controversy.
 
“Americans like to put things in terms of war. They call it a war on drugs, but really it’s a war on patients, a war on people and a war on California,� Koory said of the decision. “The federal government doesn’t like its authority questioned.�
 
In the wake of Raich vs. Ashcroft, opponents of medicinal legalization declared the end of the pharmaceutical pot debate — obviously, a false prognostication — and also dubbed the decision the ultimate justification for federal law enforcement to ignore state law. By and large, raids conducted by the DEA or local police in California tend to take place in urban areas and involve reports of widespread abuse. Officials with the California Narcotic Officers’ Association (CNOA) said, in many areas of the state, local task forces are so consumed up in battling non-medical marijuana growing facilities that the ones allowed under 215 are largely ignored. Still, the thought of federal officers crashing through glass ceilings on zip cords remains plastered to the consciousness of dispensary owners.
 
“It’s a definite concern,� said Jim McGowen, operator of Bakersfield’s American Caregivers Association. “We make it a point to operate under certain guidelines but there’s always the threat of federal harassment on the basis of federal laws.�
 
The largest raid to occur in California took place Dec. 12, 2005 when DEA officers fanned across San Diego in a move against 13 area dispensaries. Because the investigation is still ongoing, DEA San Diego spokesman Dan Simmons would not comment on pending charges but called the action a ‘collection of evidence’ and cited the Controlled Substances Act as justification. Though supplies of medical marijuana were taken as evidence, the only arrests made in the raid stemmed from active warrants and other offenses. According to Simmons, one man was taken in after arriving at the dispensary with a satchel of marijuana and a handgun -— one of the two items violated local laws.
 
Unlike Morro Bay, San Diego city and county governments deferred regulation of marijuana dispensaries in protest of the SB-420 — a point made clear in a suit brought recently by the county executives against the state. Thriving in this Petri dish of deregulation, dealerships continually opened up under the guise of medical dispensaries and sometimes, asserts CNOA Executive Director Bob Hussey, “changed the whole demographic of the area.� In addition to angering many neighborhoods where the unbridled pot shops operate, these installations drew the ire of southern Californian dispensaries striving to operate on the straight and narrow.
“They’re doing a great disservice to what we’re trying to accomplish,� vented Virgil Grant, owner of Holistic Caregivers of Compton. “You have these idiots who jump in for the wrong reason and it hurts the people who need this treatment as an alternative to synthetic drugs.�
 
Yet, many local narcotics officers retain certain concerns even if dispensaries follow preset guidelines. Lt. Paul McCaffrey of the Santa Barbara Police Department — who described himself as neutral in the medical marijuana debate-lamented on the scarcity of record keeping at many dispensaries. “If someone broke into a pharmacy and stole Oxycontin, the pharmacist would have an obligation to the community to report it-he’s in a position of moral trust,� McCaffrey theorized. “Would you expect a marijuana dispensary to do the same?�
 
“Why would they?� Morro Bay City Attorney Rob Schultz rhetorically responded. Koory answered the claim by pointing out that SB-420 sets no requirements for record keeping and believes extensive paperwork could open the door to federal harassment of patients.
 
Whatever the case, Morro Bay city officials plan to take the matter in stride until results from San Luis Obispo County’s first medical marijuana field test begin to trickle in. Meanwhile, the possibility of federal intervention quietly looms like storm clouds over the Pacific, a point of increasing worry to Lynch as his efforts garner greater regional attention. For now, the mild-mannered dispensary owner and his outspoken attorney continue to communicate with the local government; happy enough this batch of legal potpourri smells sweeter than the last.
 
Regardless, in the event fears of federal investigation actually turn to reality in Morro Bay, Schultz outlined the town’s possible recourse in one word.
“Nothing.� ∆


 Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at
pklemz@newtimesslo.com



Mari-what?

In addition to Congress, another government body possesses the authority to reschedule marijuana as a narcotic. If the Food and Drug Administration determined cannabis to offer any medicinal value, by definition, pot could no longer constitute a Schedule I substance. For 15 years after the Controlled Substances Act passed into law, scientists launched a barrage of studies looking to establish the efficacy of pot. 
    
In 1985, the FDA approved a THC synthetic, under the trade

LEGALIZED IT? :  Marinol.jpg (can be placed with info box) - In 1985 the FDA approved a synthesized version of THC, the most psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Marinol continues to receive mixed reviews from patients and their doctors. - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
  • LEGALIZED IT? : Marinol.jpg (can be placed with info box) In 1985 the FDA approved a synthesized version of THC, the most psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Marinol continues to receive mixed reviews from patients and their doctors.
#  name Marinol, designed primarily to relieve nausea symptoms resulting from chemotherapy and trigger appetite in AIDS patients. Although similar in their applications, dried marijuana contains a total of 66 cannaboids, while Marinol just isolates the effect of one-TCH. Proponents of medical marijuana call the pharmaceutical offering a meager substitute, claiming nausea patients simply regurgitate the pill in the 30-60 minutes it takes to dissolve.
    
Other objections surrounding Marinol include its lofty price, alleged ineffectiveness in some treatments where studies show marijuana proved effective and, of course, reported side effects. According to Dr. David Bearman, a Santa Barbara practitioner who both prescribes Marinol and issues recommendations for marijuana on a regular basis, patients taking the synthetic pill often complain of severe dysphoria (or, mental discomfort). It’s an unfortunate effect of what recreational users might call ‘too much of a good thing’—the narcotic element of marijuana running amuck when removed from its natural setting. Recent studies indicate a naturally occurring non-psychoactive chemical in marijuana called cannabidol (CDB) helps take this edge off.
 
“Marijuana contains 483 chemicals and THC is the most pharmacologically active,� Bearman said. “The CDB actually helps mitigate the excessive euphoria caused by THC.�
 
Arguments in support of Marinol hail it as a safer alternative to gambling on the unknown dangers of long-term marijuana use. The FDA maintains that no whole plant could ever be considered a pharmaceutical product since it’s far too difficult to isolate and catalogue the effects of every single chemical ingredient. And, even though a recent study by UCLA’s Dr. Donald Tashkin helped dispel the myth that smoked marijuana has a carcinogenic effect, the threat of respiratory infection remains. In response to criticisms of Marinol’s sluggish response time, development of an aerosol delivery system is in the works. ∆

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