Medical marijuana for the masses

In the year since U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced federal drug agents would stop targeting medicinal marijuana use where state law sanctioned it, Santa Clara County -- like other parts of California -- has become the Wild West.

But suddenly, the sheriff has ridden into town.

California, the first of 14 states that now allow medical marijuana, has one of the loosest laws of its kind. It doesn't limit conditions that qualify patients, nor does it require them to register with the state. It gives doctors wide latitude in approving the drug's use. And it doesn't specify how marijuana should be distributed to users.

Even though state voters next month will decide whether pot should be legalized



for recreational use, activists like Denis Peron -- co-author of the 1996 ballot measure that sanctioned medical marijuana -- freely acknowledge the secret that's sparked an explosion of distributors and left officials scrambling statewide:

"Pretty much," Peron said, "marijuana is legal already."

But while that may be true for anyone who takes the trouble to get a doctor's recommendation, the situation is not as clear for medical pot providers. In the past three weeks, Santa Clara County law enforcement has sprung into action, shutting down two dispensaries and a pot-delivery service. And while at first they raided operators who didn't follow basic guidelines demanding a doctor's recommendation, their latest target was one of the


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county's largest and appeared to comply with all the rules.

The reason? Authorities believed the operators had crossed the line from nonprofit collective to cash cow.

"These guys are making truckloads of money," said Bob Cooke, the South Bay's special agent in charge of the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. He said many of the patrons at the dispensaries looked "like the healthiest people in the world."

Even before the raids, San Jose code enforcement efforts to shut down

the most troublesome pot clubs prompted lawsuit threats from club operators who say officials are misinterpreting -- or willfully ignoring -- state law. Peron insists that under Proposition 215, "All use of marijuana is medicine."

Cooke calls the tangle of regulations and court cases that dictate medicinal marijuana use in California "a mess."

"It's a hard time for everybody trying to figure out what is legal and what is illegal," he said. "These days, everybody has a marijuana card, they treat it like it's a joke. Unfortunately, it is a joke. If the law was written easier, it would be easier for us to enforce."

Nearly anything goes

For years after the passage of Proposition 215, U.S. officials continued to enforce overriding federal law, under which pot remains illegal. Even in tolerant towns like Santa Cruz that welcomed medical marijuana, those who openly invoked the state's law faced ruinous legal battles.

But Holder's announcement last fall emboldened sellers and users to test the limits of what California's law might allow -- which appears to be just about anything.

"California may be the loosest," said Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and former White House adviser on drug control policy. "If it's not de facto legalization, then it's getting pretty close."

The ease of obtaining pot from a storefront has attracted a growing number of people like Hillary Breslove, an admitted "recreational user" who calls herself a "high-functioning stoner."

With a doctor's nod, the 45-year-old Mountain View caterer smokes pot for everyday bothers like stress that others might ease with an aspirin. "I was tired of buying it out of the back of someone's pocket," she said.

In San Jose, Holder's move inspired Dave Hodges last year to open the San Jose Cannabis Buyers Collective -- among the first of what are now dozens of dispensaries. After stints as a tech-support specialist at Santa Clara High School and a Silicon Valley PR firm, he says he became a medical cannabis patient to manage job stress. His pot collective now has more than 3,600 patients.

Medical pot shops remain technically illegal in San Jose, where zoning codes don't explicitly permit them. The city is considering zoning to allow a limited number and is asking voters to approve Measure U on the Nov. 2 ballot, which would authorize a tax up to 10 percent on marijuana businesses, legal or illegal.

Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Cruz already limit dispensaries. Some Santa Clara County cities have tried to ban them. While San Jose has dawdled on developing rules, the outlets have flourished. The city, which a little more than a year ago had not a single dispensary operating in the open, now has at least 60 that have paid city business taxes. Online directories suggest at least a dozen others are in operation.

Clinics advertise marijuana approvals for insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, even substance abuse. With a valid state ID and about $50, a physician's approval can be had with no appointment, "20 minutes in and out." Users can then take the approval straight to a dispensary.

San Jose officials say they're waiting to complete work on medical marijuana zoning and regulations until they see what happens with statewide Proposition 19 on the November ballot.

Proposition 19 would legalize adult recreational pot smoking without the pretense of medical need, but California is lurching that way already. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes the initiative, but he just signed a law reducing possession of small amounts without a doctor's recommendation to a mere citation like a traffic ticket -- hoping to counter Proposition 19 backers who argue the state wastes money and time prosecuting low-level drug crimes.

Holder announced last week that the federal government will not look the other way if the state legalizes recreational pot.

How we got here

Even if Proposition 19 loses, it's not likely to change the fact that the state's current regulations already allow almost anyone to get marijuana. Among the reasons:

  • California law doesn't specify what qualifies a patient for marijuana. Proposition 215 lists ailments such as anorexia and AIDS but allows it for "any other illness for which marijuana provides relief."

    Maine's law, by contrast, allows medical pot only for eight specific ailments, including cancer and AIDS, or "intractable pain." And users are required to register with the state, unlike here.

    In California, fewer than 13,000 marijuana patient ID cards were issued in the past year. Yet Lauren Vasquez, a lawyer and pot activist, says there are about 25,000 such patients just in the San Jose area.

  • California law says "no physician in this state shall be punished "... for having recommended marijuana to a patient for medical purposes." While the Medical Board of California may suspend or revoke a doctor's license for marijuana recommendations that violate professional standards, only a dozen physicians have been disciplined since the passage of Proposition 215. And most of them still practice and give out marijuana recommendations, such as Dr. Hanya Barth of San Francisco.

    Barth, 65, said she looks to ensure marijuana use isn't masking a serious condition. "You have to do that as a physician, just as you would if you were giving Vicodin."

  • California courts have yet to rule on whether the law even allows the marijuana dispensaries that sell pot to anyone with a doctor's note. More than 150 communities around the state have banned dispensaries. But an appeals court weighing a challenge to such laws in Anaheim sent it back to a lower court this year without answering the key legal question.

    Maine's law permits only eight state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.

    With California's legal landscape unsettled, all manner of marijuana entrepreneurs are hanging shingles. San Jose's pot clubs range from the spalike Harborside Health Center -- nestled in a tree-lined corporate park and guarded by professional security -- to the stoner stylings of Buddy's Cannabis, which sits next to a car stereo joint on busy Stevens Creek Boulevard and is decorated with homemade, Bob Marley-inspired art.

    There's big money at stake. The state Board of Equalization estimates receipts of up to $105 million in sales taxes last year from medical marijuana sales. Total statewide sales are estimated to be as high as $1.3 billion.

    Steve DeAngelo, Harborside's executive director, laments that the free-for-all attracts shady competitors who may finally be triggering a backlash here from residents, cops and city officials.

    Mayor Chuck Reed said he's well aware many medical marijuana users aren't what most people would consider "medically needy." But, he said, the city is "trying to have some controls" amid shifting federal and state edicts.

    In the face of all the legal loopholes, police in recent weeks have started going after the clubs on grounds that offer more clarity -- such as violating the nonprofit requirement or delivering pot like Chinese takeout, which police and prosecutors say is only legal in certain circumstances.

    Said Reed: "All the pot clubs, collectives, whatever they're called, have to follow the law. That's one of the principles for how we manage this chaos."