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SANTA MONICA - Along a quiet street lies a nondescript condominium where nothing, it seems, is out of the ordinary.

But a narrow walkway running around the side of the building leads to the door of Steve Corchado, 51, who for nearly two years has sold thousands of dollars of marijuana for a profit from his home.

Corchado maintains that his company, Comfort Care Group Inc., is not operating outside the bounds of the law. It is, he says, a legitimate business that sells marijuana only to seriously ill patients under the provisions of the Compassionate Use Act, which California voters approved as Proposition 215 in 1996.

State officials, however, question the legality of distribution facilities such as Comfort Care Group and the nonprofit Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood.

"There's no express provision in 215 for their existence to begin with unless they can somehow convince local authorities that they are designated primary caregivers," said David DeAlba, special assistant to Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.

"What they're doing is an interpretation of 215 that has not been addressed by the courts."

The differences in how state officials and medical marijuana providers interpret the law is reflected in the way cities like Santa Monica and West Hollywood enforce it.

The law permits "seriously ill Californians" to obtain and use marijuan a for medical purposes when a physician has determined that a patient's health would benefit from the use to treat ailments such as AIDS, cancer or glaucoma. The law has no provision for how marijuana is disseminated to qualified patients, except to encourage the federal and state governments to implement a distribution plan.

While practices differ around the state, patients join the Cannabis Resource Center, for example, by furnishing a letter of authorization from their doctors.

The center, which claims to have the strictest rules in the state, will then contact the doctor to make sure he or she has issued the letter and knows the patient. Finally, the center will check the doctor's credentials with the state medical board before deciding whether to grant membership to the applicant.

Patients and their primary caregiver are not subject to criminal prosecution or sanction under the Compassionate Use Act.

Still, state authorities continue to crack down on Californians who cultivate marijuana for medicinal purposes. At the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency order in August preventing the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative from distributing marijuana.

Now, as the justices decide whether to hear arguments in that case--a hearing that could dramatically alter how cannabis centers across the nation operate--the disparities between Comfort Care Group and Cannabis Resource Center have raised some key questions in the battle over medical marijuana, including whether centers should operate on a nonprofit or for-profit basis; whether to work closely with local authorities; and the legality of providing patients with medicinal marijuana that may have been purchased on the black market.


Corchado, a Vietnam veteran who uses marijuana because of the cancer he contracted from exposure to asbestos, fell into an epileptic, diabetic coma last month. With his fate uncertain, loved ones gathered close by and waited while he struggled for life.

Ten days later, Corchado awoke, and he has since returned to Comfort Care Group, the company in which he has invested his money and his passion.

In grand fashion, Corchado and medical marijuana activist Richard Eastman told local officials in 1999 about what was initially called 215 Santa Monica Patients Medical Marijuana Society outside an inaugural celebration for Gov. Gray Davis. But after announcing Comfort Care Group's opening with a splash, Corchado now prefers to lie low and declined to be photographed.

The Santa Monica Police Department has not received any complaints about the center and knows little about its operations, said Lt. Gary Gallinot, a department spokesman.

"As long as there's no criminal activity, then we don't have a position one way or the other," he said of the legality of the center.

But the Santa Monica city attorney's office has a different opinion.

"In terms of the issue if there could be such an establishment . . . we have interpreted our local zoning code to prohibit such activities," said Barry Rosenbaum, the city's senior land-use attorney. "There are other cities that have allowed it and have had significant problems with it."

Just how Santa Monica will deal with Comfort Care Group is uncertain, considering that the City Council has never tackled the issue of medical marijuana centers.

"It's never been discussed in a public session nor has it been agendized in a closed session," said Santa Monica Councilman Mike Feinstein. "It's never even been on the radar."

Officials in the city attorney's office said they were unaware of Comfort Care Group because the company does not have a Santa Monica business license. Under the municipal code, all businesses in the city need such a license.

Corchado said his company only recently incorporated in Nevada and that he hopes to soon obtain a business license and storefront to better serve the approximately 40 regular customers who depend on Comfort Care Group for their medicine and another 60 members who visit the condominium less frequently.

Corchado said his company buys no marijuana on the black market. Instead, some of the cannabis it sells is grown on-site and the rest is purchased from two outside growers, whom Corchado maintains are allowed to cultivate marijuana under Proposition 215.

Police officials may have a different interpretation of the law, however.

In early August, for example, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department arrested four Ventura County residents, all medicinal marijuana patients, for cultivating some 340 pot plants to supply the Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood.

Ironically, the same department returned a confiscated marijuana plant to a patient last week, citing ambiguities in Proposition 215.

Even if Comfort Care Group's supply remains intact, it is unclear when Corchado will be able to afford the storefront of his dreams.

While he does sell marijuana for a profit, he said the $45,000 that his company grossed last year earned a profit of $15,000, which is not enough to allow him to rent a store. As a result, he must continue to operate out of his residence, finding clients through word of mouth.

By comparison, the Cannabis Resource Center has nearly $1 million in annual expenses, which it covers through the sliding-scale contributions of its 845 members.

Corchado insists that his goal is not to make money, but to help the sick.

"All the money we've made we've thrown right back at the patients," said Corchado, who was one of the organizers of the Millennium Medical Marijuana March in April in Washington, D.C. "What we want to do is stay low-profile and show that we're doing something for the patients and not for us." Whether that means operating as a for-profit or nonprofit, he only wishes that the government would establish hard and fast rules. "Uncle Sam has to make up his mind," he said.


On the other side of town, Scott Imler, also a medical marijuana patient, runs the Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood in a much different fashion.

The nonprofit organization has fostered an open relationship with the city, which supports the center.

In fact, the city recently approved a $350,000 combination grant and loan that has enabled the Cannabis Resource Center to purchase the commercial building on Santa Monica Boulevard out of which it operates.

In addition, the city will host the Millennium Medical Marijuana March and Rally from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday in West Hollywood Park at San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards.

"The city has made a conscientious public policy position that we support the use of medicinal marijuana," said West Hollywood Mayor Jeffrey Prang.

"We recognize that there are unresolved issues . . . but we are also determined that we are not going to allow outdated prejudices and posturing to interfere with efforts to give aid and comfort to the sick and dying."

Deputy Don Mueller of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's West Hollywood division said that the Cannabis Resource Center has not caused problems for deputies.

"We are basically in agreement with City Hall in allowing them to continue as long as there is no illicit use coming from the center," he said. "So far they're doing a good job."

Imler said the reason his center has fostered an open relationship with the city is a desire to confront the many issues raised by Proposition 215.

"We want to shine the light of day on medical marijuana," he said. "And when you're going to shine the light of day on it, you've got to make sure your house is in order."

Part of those housekeeping responsibilities include maintaining what Imler calls the strictest rules for a cannabis club in California.

The Cannabis Resource Center does not accept membership cards from other access facilities, preferring instead to complete its own background check on patients and doctors.

"We were strict because we didn't want to be closed down. We didn't want DEA [federal Drug Enforcement Administration] agents getting in here," Imler said. "We were strict because we think the cavalier attitude on the part of many medical marijuana advocates has been detrimental to the cause."

But with more than 800 members, the Cannabis Resource Center is unable to grow enough marijuana on-site to meet demands. To make up the difference, the center procures about one-third of its cannabis from the black market. Last year alone, it purchased more than $213,000 from illegal drug dealers.

Imler said now that the center will own the property on which it operates, it will be able to grow more marijuana on-site. But if supplies run low, Imler said he would rather buy cannabis on the black market than make members scour the streets for it.

"I think it's worth it to our members that they don't have to go out on the black market to get it," he said. "It's worth it to them that we can get it in bulk and they can come to a safe place to pick it up."

Imler said he would give up his center if patients could obtain medical marijuana in a pharmacy.

"The day [the patients] are not knocking on my door, I will be happy," he said. "The day that they put this in a pharmacy, I feel that we will have reached our ultimate goal."


When that day will arrive, if ever, is unclear as centers continue to remain in a precarious position four years after Californians passed Proposition 215.

And in the end, the differences between organizations may matter little, as long as state officials think the centers are trafficking in a controlled substance.

"Whether it's for profit or not, I don't think that distinction salvages the operation one way or another in the sense that it's still against the law in the state of California to furnish or sell marijuana," DeAlba said.

Medical marijuana advocates say the vagaries of Proposition 215 forced centers to establish their own operating rules.

"There was no book or guide on how to open a cannabis club or run a cannabis club," said Eastman, who helped set up both Westside clubs. "When we set this up, there were no rules or regulations . . . We did it on our own."

John Duran, an attorney for the Cannabis Resource Center, said he thinks it is important for facilities to maintain a working relationship with the cities in which they operate.

Cannabis Resource Center "is a model for how law enforcement and medical marijuana advocates could work together to follow the law," he said.

But West Hollywood resident Tom Demille, 45, who has AIDS and is a member of both Comfort Care Group and Cannabis Resource Center, is pleased that he has two options to choose from so that people like himself who survive on scant resources aren't lost in the shuffle.

"We're paving new ground here, and I think the most important part of this groundbreaking is to include the indigent," he said. "This is America, and if we're going to say yes to this then we need to have some healthy competition."

MAP posted-by: Derek
Newshawk: Cannabis News - marijuana, hemp, and cannabis news
Pubdate: Fri, 27 Oct 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact: letters@latimes.com
Address: Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Website: Los Angeles Times
Forum: http://www.latimes.com/discuss/
Author: Jeff Adler