LEGAL PLACE TO BUY POT?
City Officials, Advocates Debate Medical Marijuana Dispensary
SIMI VALLEY -- R. Dean Jones wonders why he must leave Ventura County to find a cannabis club where he can legally purchase marijuana to ease the pain of his diabetes.
"This county should have a facility where medical marijuana patients can purchase their medicine," said the 70-year-old Simi Valley man who drives to clinics in West Hollywood and Santa Barbara. "It's my God-given right to deal with this my way."
Jones said he wants to learn more about a proposal by Michael Simpson, 45, to open a medical marijuana dispensary -- a business that sells the drug to qualified people for medical purposes -- at an undetermined location in Simi Valley.
Simpson's recent proposal has city officials and police debating the issue, which has raised questions at the federal and state levels.
"We don't have rules or regulations to guide us, don't have zoning rules that would govern this facility," said City Councilman Glen Becerra. "We need to have a clarification of the rules.
"Personally, I don't think it's a good fit for Simi Valley."
The Simi Valley Police Department is studying the issue and expects to release a report in 10 months. The council has adopted a moratorium prohibiting the opening of any cannabis club until the study is complete.
Under the state's Proposition 215, a person is allowed to legally smoke, cultivate or obtain the drug for medical purposes with a doctor's approval.
California law, however, conflicts with federal law, which says the drug is illegal, and federal agents have shut down some medical marijuana clinics in other locations.
But Simpson said there is a clear need for a clinic in Simi Valley.
"The only other way for them to get the medicine they need is to get into the black market. They expose themselves to other crimes by growing it themselves," he said.
Other communities have already grappled with the controversial issue.
The Rainbow Country Ventura County Medical Cannabis Center in Thousand Oaks dispensed the drug to about 60 patrons for a couple of months in 1999 before Deputy District Attorney Mitchell Disney won an injunction shutting it down.
"The real concern was the new law only allowed people to possess and cultivate for their own use," Disney said.
He said operators of the Thousand Oaks center were trying to go a step further from what the public approved in the initiative by selling marijuana.
"The sale of marijuana is not covered by Prop. 215," Disney said.
Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the nonprofit Marijuana Policy Project, said cannabis clubs are relatively common, but vary from locality to locality.
"There are dozens around the state," he said. "They tend to be concentrated in places like the Bay Area where they are more sympathetic to medical marijuana, and West Hollywood."
Recently, the city of West Hollywood adopted an ordinance temporarily banning the opening of new cannabis clubs.
The moratorium, which does not affect existing dispensaries, gives city officials time to review concerns associated with unregulated dispensaries and evaluate regulations.
"Well-run dispensaries can be a tremendous service to patients because it saves them from getting the marijuana on the street," Mirken said. "In an ideal world, your doctor would give you a prescription and a patient could get it at the pharmacy."
Doctors, by law, can recommend the drug, but cannot prescribe it.
Retired nurse Lisa Schwarz is the executive director and a founding member of the Ventura County Alliance for Medical Marijuana Patients.
The organization teaches patients how to grow marijuana, sponsors support groups and distributes identification cards, which make it easier for patients to get marijuana. The group does not sell the drug.
The identification cards, along with a letter from a physician, are required at most cannabis clubs.
"I'm all for the dispensary," she said, adding that she has been in contact with Simi Valley officials.
Simpson said he will wait to see whether the council backs his proposal.
"It is not going to happen overnight," said Mayor Pro Tem Barbra Williamson. "There has to be caution when you are looking at something like this.
"If there is a need for medical marijuana and it relieves suffering and pain, I am absolutely in support of it. I would not want my loved ones to be in that state of anguish and medical hurt."
Mayor Paul Miller, former chief of police, said cities with operating marijuana clinics have reported adverse effects.
"It's an attractive target for people to burglarize or attempt to rob those persons who have gone to obtain the substance," he said.
Other cities that allowed such facilities cited increases in illegal drug activity, loitering around dispensaries, falsely obtained identification cards, and other street crime, according to a report compiled by Simi police.
"There's an old saying that if it's predictable, it's preventable," said police Capt. Tony Harper. "You don't want to bring something into your community if you know that with it comes an increase in crime without putting mechanisms in place to preclude that from happening."
Two California cities, Rocklin and San Rafael, have banned medical marijuana dispensaries by ordinance. Several others have adopted moratoriums and are currently studying the issue.
"It should be administered from doctor to pharmacy to patient," Becerra said. "A legitimate use should come from a legitimate source."