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San Diego’s tensions high over medical marijuana

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Medical marijuana is legal in California, but some say you wouldn't know it in San Diego County. The Board of Supervisors is suing the state to overturn California's medical marijuana law. And the district attorney's office has worked with the DEA to close down all of the region's marijuana dispensaries. KPBS health reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

At a busy intersection in San Diego's Claremont area, there's a Coco's Restaurant, and a See's Candy shop. In a storefront just steps away, Jeff Meyer had been operating a medical marijuana dispensary.

But not anymore. Meyer says he had no choice but to close up shop earlier this summer, after his landlord got a call from a DEA agent.

Jeff Meyer: "And the guy said, your tenant is violating federal law, and if he doesn't shut his doors, we're going to come and arrest him. And that scared me enough to remain closed to this day."

In July, local law enforcement agencies and the DEA raided 13 dispensaries and arrested 15 people.

Meyer was one of ten other operators who just got a warning.

Today, there are no publicly operating medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego County. And that suits deputy district attorney Damon Mosler just fine.

Mosler helped coordinate the crackdown. He says local dispensaries were selling to anyone. He offers an example.

Mosler: "A narcotics canine officer got a recommendation from a doctor. He went into the dispensary, filled out his dog's name in place of it. His dog was with him, he called his dog by name, and said I need some marijuana for Storm, and indeed they sold it to him. That doesn't seem right, I don't see my pharmacist at Rite-Aid or Savon selling me Vicadin for my cat."

But Jeff Meyer says that's not how he ran his business.

Meyer: "My shop not only called in the doctor's recommendations every time to verify that the patient was indeed a valid patient, but we even went a step further and verified the doctor's credentials online that his license was valid and current, and we kept records because, this is the best we thought we could do without any clear guidelines in San Diego."

The lack of clarity in the law itself is at the heart of the problem.

California's Prop 215 allows seriously ill patients to use marijuana with a doctor's permission. It allows patients or their caregivers to grow enough marijuana for medical use.

But there's a lot the law doesn't say.

Teresa Shilling is a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

Teresa Shilling: "The law made it legal but it didn't really dictate how much marijuana is okay to have on hand for the patients, who and how is gonna supply that marijuana to patients. So it's created a lot of conflict between what is legal and what isn't legal."

State lawmakers tried to rectify the situation in 2003, when they approved SB 420.

The measure requires counties to launch an ID card program, to protect medical marijuana patients from arrest. It also allows local governments to establish guidelines for cooperatives, so that caregivers can get together to grow medicine for patients.

But the law doesn't mention dispensaries. And it doesn't legalize the buying or selling of marijuana.

Shilling concedes the law is confusing. But she says SB 420 does direct local governments to come up with ways for patients to access their medicine.

Shilling: "So that can come in a variety of different ways. Dispensaries or cooperatives are one way. So counties who shut down dispensaries or shut down cooperatives technically aren't restricting access."

But Craig McClain doesn't buy that argument. He's a long-time medical marijuana user who lives in Vista.

Craig McClain: "The dispensaries are closed therefore my access is denied. Cause I can't go on the street and look for it, and I can't grow it here, at home. I don't want to endanger my wife or my son."

McClain's spine was crushed in a workplace accident in the early 90's. He's used marijuana for years to ease chronic pain. Now, McClain says he's really suffering.

McClain: "Since I've been out of cannabis, I've noticed a lot of pressure on my spinal cord, extreme sweating attacks. I'm having no relief. Even with the hard medications that I have, I'm still barely able to try to get to sleep at night."

Deputy district attorney Damon Mosler says he sympathizes with patients. But he says the law is clear.

Mosler: "People are allowed to grow it. If you are too sick or unable to grow your own marijuana, you can designate someone who helps take care of you, to grow it for you. That is all the law allows."

Government officials in many other parts of California take a completely different view. Since SB 420 was approved, six counties and 24 cities have passed ordinances allowing dispensaries to operate.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to wider acceptance of medical marijuana is that California laws still conflict with federal laws.

And that's become the basis of a lawsuit against the state - filed by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

The supervisors are suing to overturn Prop 215 and SB 420 - arguing federal law making marijuana illegal should reign supreme.

A Superior Court judge is expected to issue a tentative ruling on the case in mid-November.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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