April 23,00
Union Tribune
By Mark Sauer, Union-Tribune Staff Writer


One group started a cooperative garden to provide marijuana to sick people. Police said they had too many plants and shut it down.
Another group opened a private center and sold marijuana to sick people. Police said selling pot is illegal and shut it down.
Four years after California voters overwhelmingly passed Prop. 215, San Diego is once again without a distribution point for medical marijuana.
The closing last week of the California Alternative Medical Center in Hillcrest left several hundred San Diegans who use marijuana to help cope with diseases such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma with no place to get it, short of back-alley transactions or planting seeds.
"I don't have an answer for those who legitimately need to obtain it, other than to advise them to grow it on their own," said San Diego police Lt. Bob Kanaski of the countywide Narcotics Task Force following a raid last week on the county's remaining distribution center.
"We've come across a lot of folks who grow marijuana at their apartments or houses who have a doctor's note to use it, and we've walked away. But Prop. 215 never made it legal to sell marijuana, as this center was doing."
The Hillcrest center, which sold marijuana for as much as $25 a gram, was closed Tuesday after operating for at least a year with the full knowledge of San Diego police.
Though arrests have not yet been made, police will recommend that the district attorney file charges against center owner Carolyn Smith-Konow and others involved in the center, Kanaski said.
Neither Smith-Konow nor her attorney returned phone calls last week.
The padlocking of the center left clients -- who had doctors' written approval to use marijuana -- scrambling to replace their medicine.
"Marijuana stimulated my appetite. I was barely eating one decent meal a day with marijuana; without it I'm hardly eating anything," said former center client Henry Ortiz.
Ortiz, a Navy veteran, said he had a kidney transplant that failed, and he undergoes dialysis three times a week. He said marijuana not only stimulates his appetite (he is 5 feet 11 and weighs about 130 pounds) but also helps control a seizure disorder.
"Now I'm left to buy it on the street, not a good prospect for me at all," Ortiz said.
This latest closure follows a raid last July of another Hillcrest-based marijuana distribution center, the cooperative Shelter From the Storm, in which several hundred pot plants were confiscated along with growing equipment.
But the District Attorney's Office declined to file charges against owner Steve McWilliams, who was already on probation following a previous plea-bargain for cultivating marijuana.
That has left McWilliams, who got his growing equipment back, free to lobby City Council members, police officials and City Attorney Casey Gwinn to establish a procedure to legally distribute medical marijuana.
"We're suggesting the city license medical-marijuana co-ops, which would have to apply for a permit, undergo building inspections and regular review by the police and health and safety people," said McWilliams, who complained loudly that the center was allowed to profit from medical marijuana after he was shut down.
"All we have ever asked for is a guideline under which we can distribute medical marijuana legally in accordance with Prop. 215," he added. "It seems like such a simple thing. Several communities in Northern California have done it, why can't we do it here?"
There is no local task force working on ways to implement Prop. 215 and probably won't be any time soon, according to Gwinn.
"I don't think this is going to happen at the local level in San Diego. It's not anything I would initiate or be a part of," Gwinn said.
"I know cities like Santa Cruz and San Francisco have made up their own system to distribute medical marijuana, but I think it's bad public policy and it's not legal," Gwinn added.
"I spoke at length recently with (state Attorney General) Bill Lockyer on this issue and he agrees this is something the state has got to fix."
In fact, Lockyer spent a good part of last year trying to get the state to fix the Prop. 215 problem.
Strong Voter Backing:
The proposition, endorsed by 60 percent of California voters in 1996, is vague and includes no mechanism for determining those eligible to use the drug, how much they can possess, or how they can legally obtain marijuana.
Complicating matters further is that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and those growing and dispensing it as medicine are subject to federal arrest and prosecution.
Lockyer, who supports medical marijuana, convened a task force of police, prosecutors, medical-marijuana advocates and physicians to try to develop a plan to make Prop. 215 work in California. In fact, CAMC's Smith-Konow was a member of Lockyer's task force.
The group's plan, announced last July, would have established a registry of marijuana-using patients to be run by the state Department of Health Services.
State Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, submitted a bill encompassing the attorney general's recommendations, but the Democrat-controlled Legislature declined to take it up, and Gov. Gray Davis vowed a veto.
Meanwhile, several Northern California communities have forged ahead without direction from the state.
In Santa Cruz, the City Council passed an ordinance last week allowing sick people to grow and use marijuana. At the same time, a bed and breakfast catering to medical-marijuana users opened in the seaside community, an hour south of San Francisco.
And for many years there, the WO/MEN's Alliance for Medical Marijuana has dispensed the drug free to several hundred sick people, some of whom are terminally ill.
Asks For Help From Sheriff:
"When I started working with the sheriff here six years ago, many of his peers laughed. Now they're calling him asking how our system works, how patients can be allowed access to marijuana, and how profiteering can be taken out of the process," said Valerie Corral.
Corral, the founder of the alliance, said she has used marijuana for years to ease the effects of epilepsy. She runs a cooperative garden in which patients donate what they can to offset expenses in exchange for their medical marijuana.
"We require extensive paperwork (from applicants) and insist that physicians are involved in monitoring our members' illnesses and treatment," Corral said. "Our clients come together in weekly meetings and become deeply involved in each other's lives.
"When someone is seriously ill, one of the most important things beyond getting relief from pain is to come out of the isolation of the illness. Sick people are often displaced socially, they lose their jobs, friends stop calling, they are disconnected from society.
"Our group works hard to restore those social relationships."
Corral, also a member of Lockyer's task force, said she is shocked that San Diego officials have shut down both medical-marijuana distribution centers while offering no alternative.
"When local government chooses to close organizations that serve people, they are creating more pain in the lives of people who are seriously ill," Corral said. "I'd call that an atrocity and a misuse of power."

Published: April 23, 2000
© Copyright 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.