By Alfa · May 26, 2005 ·
  1. Alfa

    OAKLAND - When it comes to medical marijuana, Alameda County may be on the verge of going where no local government has gone before: setting up a dispensary for medical cannabis at a county-owned hospital.

    "I would like the county to do this," said County Supervisor Nate Miley, who will present a proposal today to set up a marijuana dispensary at Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro.

    "It would help bring legitimacy to the whole medical marijuana situation."

    It also may help cool a considerable amount of heat being generated within the ranks over Alameda County's protracted efforts to come up with a law regulating medical marijuana dispensaries.

    Much of the heat comes from Sheriff Charles Plummer, who says he is so frustrated by the lack of resolution that he has set a June 17 deadline for the county to finalize a marijuana dispensary ordinance. Monday's public meeting of the transportation and planning committee of the Alameda County Supervisors is meant to get discussion going on the issue.

    If the county misses the deadline, Plummer says he will cite federal law and order his deputies to shut down the seven dispensaries now doing business in unincorporated Alameda County.

    He says he is not blowing smoke.

    "If they don't come up with an ordinance, they will see this is the real deal," he said.

    Miley, a longtime advocate of medical marijuana, says the pressure applied by Plummer has provoked creative thinking and is partly responsible for the Fairmont dispensary proposal.

    It would allow the county to help patients who need medical marijuana, he says. But it would still impose the kind of tight regulations critics have called for to counter dispensaries offering what they say is back-door legal cover for people to smoke marijuana without legitimate medical need.

    Miley's not ashamed to admit another key advantage: The idea is supported by Plummer, and therefore could prevent a meltdown within the county ranks over medical marijuana.

    "It's brilliant," Plummer said of the Fairmont proposal. "I hate the idea of selling marijuana, but on the other hand, we have a state law that says some people should be able to get it. I think we should set up a program that would be a model for everyone else to see."

    Alameda County has held public hearings on an ordinance since last October, striving to develop rules that reflect the strong voter support for medical marijuana.

    Reaching consensus on local regulations has been difficult, however, because of the disconnect between state laws sanctioning medical marijuana and federal laws that prohibit any possession, use or sales of the drug.

    That conflict is at the heart of a legal case brought by Oakland medical marijuana patient Angel Raich now pending before U.S. Supreme Court.

    County Counsel Richard Winnie says a Fairmont dispensary would probably involve leasing space at the hospital to an outside contractor who would run the dispensary, not unlike other community organizations with which the county contracts for medical services.

    "There is the obvious question of whether the feds would attempt to interfere," Winnie said. "But any questions of liability I believe could be covered in our contract."

    A spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, Casey McEnry, said she would not speculate on whether federal authorities would try to stop a marijuana dispensary on county property.

    "Selling marijuana is still in violation of federal law no matter where it's sold," she said. "No agency is above the law."

    A draft of Miley's proposal circulated by Winnie's office calls for allowing five dispensaries to operate in unincorporated county areas, under permits administered by the county.

    That means at least two dispensaries now operating in unincorporated areas of Hayward and San Leandro would have to shut down if the law is passed.

    In addition, the proposal would draw five districts in the unincorporated areas and allow only one dispensary per district in order to enhance geographic access to dispensaries, while guarding against the clustering of clubs in certain neighborhoods.

    But the idea would impact operations of at least two existing clubs because three dispensaries currently operate within a two-block area of East 14th Street in San Leandro.

    "It troubles me that this law focuses on hard numbers and geographic districts without addressing specifically how well an existing club is run," said Sparky Rose, executive director of Compassionate Caregivers, which operates one of the dispensaries on East 14th Street. "More than anything, this law should be about helping the best-run organizations operate in the best way possible to meet the needs of patients."

    Rose said he is proud of the Compassionate Caregivers operation, and would be interested in seeking a county contract to run the Fairmont dispensary.

    Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who is dead set against any county permits for neighborhood dispensaries, said the Fairmont proposal is likely one he could support.

    County Health Director Dave Kears said he also sees positive aspects to Miley's idea but wonders if the strict approach suggested by a Fairmont operation would send patients looking elsewhere for their medical marijuana.

    "The only question is, if you really run this the right way, would anybody come?"

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