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Marijuana 'du Jour' In Oakland

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Oakland, Calif. - Like customers faced with a choice of French roast or
Sumatra, venti or grande, those at the 420 Cafe have multiple options: Pure
Skunk or Red Dragon, at $16 a gram or $350 an ounce. Only in "Oaksterdam."

Here, cafes sell marijuana for medicinal use with the studied casualness of
a Starbucks offering double-shot, soy milk, no-foam lattes. The model, as
the nickname indicates, is free-wheeling Amsterdam, where cafe patrons
openly enjoy joints with their espressos or beers.

But there is one big difference: Oakland doesn't have Amsterdam's clear-cut
laws, which make such sales unquestionably legal.

The Oakland cafes, which number about a dozen, have emerged over the past
couple of years to dispense medical marijuana, which was legalized in
California by a voters' proposition in 1996. But federal law continues to
consider all use and distribution of marijuana a crime, leaving the
neighborhood that would be America's Amsterdam in a sort of legal limbo.

"We don't have the Roe v. Wade for our issue," said Jeff Jones, a longtime
medical marijuana activist here.

Many of the cafe owners refuse to speak to the media, saying they fear
drawing unwanted attention from federal drug agents, who occasionally have
targeted medical marijuana users, growers and sellers for prosecution.

"People do media, the wrong politicians and authorities read about it,"
said Richard Lee, who owns the Bulldog Cafe, which shares its name with a
famous group of cannabis clubs in Amsterdam. "It looks like we're rubbing
it in their faces."

With many of the cafes operating semicovertly, like speakeasies during
Prohibition, a slight air of disrepute hovers over this neighborhood just
north of downtown. Bouncers - often huge and with shaved heads - guard many
of the entrances, some of which don't have a name on the door.

Others look like typical, pleasant cafes found in any city, with outdoor
seating in nice weather, blackboards listing various coffee drinks and
twirling cases of fancy desserts - as well as secured rooms in the back or
upstairs or downstairs to which only patrons bearing medical marijuana
cards are permitted.

From the sweet, smoky scent wafting from those inner sanctums, and the
often blissful looks on the faces of those emerging from them, it's a
pretty fair guess what's being inhaled in there.

"I'm not hurting," Kerry Gillies said on a recent afternoon, emerging from
one of the cafes. "It helps relax my nerves. The pain is relieved."

Gillies, who is 39 and uses a walker, said he was prescribed marijuana for
AIDS "and other issues surrounding the virus." He likes going to the
Oaksterdam cafes for the marijuana that he uses just about every day
because they offer a safe, clean environment.

"Before, we'd get it through friends, or we'd have to go to hippie town,
Berkeley," Gillies, a former truck driver, said of the famously tolerant
college town just to the north. "It's better quality here. It's
comfortable. It's clean."

Though the cafes have largely operated without major problems, they have
drawn detractors. A group for gay and lesbian youth has said it was forced
to close its offices in the neighborhoood recently because the scent of
marijuana drifted into its rooms and the cafes attracted recreational users
trying to buy the drug illegally.

The City Council president has raised concerns over the clubs'
proliferation and the lack of city enforcement powers over them. The
council is considering new zoning or requiring permits for the cafes, which
currently need only a general business license to open.

The reason for much of the problem is that medical marijuana was approved
by proposition - as many measures have been in this initiative-happy state
- - so the law is not as painstakingly written as legislation would have been.

"We just have the people's will," said Larry Carroll, Oakland's
administrative hearing officer.

Oakland initially licensed one dispensary, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers'
Cooperative, run by Jones, the activist, to sell marijuana to those whose
doctors have recommended it. Within months of its opening in 1998, the
federal Drug Enforcement Administration shut it down for selling a
controlled substance.

The case prompted legal action that went to the Supreme Court, which in
2001 ruled unanimously that there is no "medical necessity exception" to
the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Last month, though, the Supreme Court refused to review and, thus, let
stand a lower court decision that prohibited federal authorities from
revoking the licenses of doctors who advised patients that marijuana might
help ease their ailments.

With medical marijuana laws remaining muddled, the Oakland cafes quietly
began opening in the area around the co-op, which remains in business to
issue medical marijuana identification cards and sell books and
paraphernalia, but not the drug itself. The cafes and co-op are in a
triangular area bounded by 17th and 19th streets, and Telegraph and Broadway.

Cafe owners say, and some of their neighbors agree, that they have improved
a once-declining neighborhood of boarded-up storefronts.

"It used to be dilapidated, no businesses. Now it's thriving," said Estes,
owner of the 420 Cafe. "You can't find parking now. This was boarded up
since 1992."

His building is a work in progress. The dispensary selling marijuana has
been in operation since July, a chiropractor and acupuncturist set up shop
this week, and Estes plans to open an organic cafe in the front of the
building's ground floor.

"We want this to be more like a medical park," said Estes, who doesn't like
the neighborhood's being known as Oaksterdam.

"Amsterdam connotes recreational. This is not what we're about at all," he

Estes, 45, is a quadriplegic as a result of a motorcycle accident when he
was 18 years old. It was after that, he said, that a group of disabled
Vietnam veterans introduced him to the medicinal properties of marijuana.

"I wasn't eating or sleeping, and I was losing weight," he said. "I was in
pain, and these vets said try it. I started using it daily. I was able to
get off medication. I don't take any pills now."

As workmen continued to build medical offices in the rear of the building,
a steady stream of customers approached the dispensary, a large room
dominated by a mural depicting a Native American figure offering, as it
turns out, marijuana. Two box office-like windows are carved out above each
hand, from which employees take orders, offer recommendations if they're
asked what's good and sell the drug.

On another wall, the day's stock is listed: Urkel Purple, AK 47, Black
Berry, Black Domina among them on this day. The business isn't set up yet
to accept credit cards, but an automated teller machine is situated
opposite the windows.

Unlike other cafes, Estes' 420 is nonsmoking, so buyers take their bags and
consume the marijuana elsewhere. The city has cited at least one other cafe
for violating city and state bans on smoking in public places.

Estes said there are ways of getting around the law that allows marijuana
use only for medicinal purposes. Those with cards can buy any quantity they
want, for example, and resell it.

"It's the same problem as any pharmacy," he said. "You can go out and sell
it on the street. I hope they don't do that, because what we're trying to
is reduce street sales."

Some city officials are concerned that as the Oaksterdam neighborhood gets
more attention, it will attract the wrong element. One of the clubs was
robbed this month by four men who tied up the bouncer and stormed into the
club, making off with marijuana and cash.

Next week, the Oakland City Council is scheduled to discuss means of
regulating the cafes.

"I still support the fact that people need cannabis for medicinal
purposes," said Ignacio De La Fuente, the Oakland City Council president.
"But some individuals have taken advantage of that and are selling it not
for medicinal purposes but for recreation."

De La Fuente said he has heard reports that it's easy to get the medical
marijuana cards without a prescription. The city, he said, needs to begin
monitoring what has largely been an unregulated process of attaining the drug.

"We regulate cabarets. We regulate liquor stores. We need to verify that
these cafes are checking cards, that there's [disability] access, that
there are background checks on the people that run them and make sure
they're not drug addicts," he said.

Pubdate: Fri, 28 Nov 2003
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2003 The Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror Newspaper.
Contact: letters@baltsun.com
Website: Baltimore Sun: Baltimore breaking news, sports, business, entertainment, weather and traffic