Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Using marijuana for medical reasons has been allowed in California for a dozen years. But court challenges to medical marijuana and federal prosecutions, have put a limit on groups that want to provide and sell it until now. KPBS Health Reporter Tom Fudge tells of this year's dramatic increase in activity around medical marijuana.
SAN DIEGO Using marijuana for medical reasons has been allowed in California for a dozen years. But court challenges to medical marijuana and federal prosecutions, have put a limit on groups that want to provide and sell it until now. KPBS Health Reporter Tom Fudge tells of this year's dramatic increase in activity around medical marijuana.
Five months ago, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told some reporters that federal raids on state-sanctioned marijuana dispensaries would stop. His statement marked a dramatic change from the Bush administration. And it got the attention of Steve Walter, assistant chief of narcotics for San Diego District Attorney's office.
"Shortly after that happened I started getting a lot of phone calls from members of the public wanting to know if the could open a dispensary," says Walter, "asking me for guidance on how you go about doing it."
Attorney Patrick Dudley, who has defended some distributors of medical marijuana, says he got about two calls a day for two months following the Holder statement. Dudley estimates there are now more than 60 medical marijuana dispensaries in the city of San Diego. The growth in the medical marijuana industry has raised a lot questions, and it's caused two local cities to call for a time out. Chula Vista and National City have passed moratoriums that prevent the creation of any dispensaries for at least 45 days. Steve Castaneda, a Chula Vista councilman, says his city wants to know the rules and protect the public interest before it moves forward.
"We're trying to understand how best to insure that we have the restriction and regulations and that we have the business owners that will comply with the laws that we set forth," he says.
Proposition 215, passed in 1996, allows people to cultivate and to consume marijuana with a doctors recommendation. But it left many questions unanswered. More recently, the legislature has passed clarifying laws and the State Attorney General has issued guidelines. Current law allows medical marijuana users and care givers to form non-profit collectives to grow and provide marijuana. Sales to anyone outside the group is still a crime, under state law.
One of the more established marijuana dispensaries in San Diego is called Hillcrest Compassionate Care. Founder Paul Derrick Cody says his collective is run on donations from members. Cody himself uses a wheelchair as a result of a spinal cord injury.
"Pain is something that is continuous on a day to day level," he says. "Cannabis is something that allows my legs to relax, that allows the spasms to subside. But more so, I've known other people that the cannabis has helped across the board."
Cody says it has helped people who are bipolar and schizophrenic. Its helped people with Alzheimer's disease and people suffering from post-traumatic stress. Ads for dispensaries suggest marijuana could help reduce anxiety, insomnia, depression, even asthma.
Prop 215 allows doctors to recommend marijuana for anything they think it will help. Prosecutor Steve Walter says he agrees with those who say prop 215 has become a bit of a joke.
"This was something that was sold to the electorate as a proposition that was going to help those who were grievously ill. But I think the vast majority of the people who are doing this are just doing it to get high," says Walter.
Marijuana does have some proven medical uses. Studies run by the University of California have found marijuana is very effective in treating pain in AIDS patients. A UCSD study of people with multiple sclerosis found marijuana reduced pain and muscle spasms. That study also showed people who used marijuana suffered a significant loss in cognitive skills. Yes, they did get high.
Attorney Steven Feldman has been a proponent of marijuana legalization. He says the desire some people have to get high doesn't mean medical marijuana is a joke.
"I'm sure that people use marijuana for recreational purposes. But that doesn't mean that we should outlaw the use of the opiates that are used for patients in serious pain. Nor does it mean that we should outlaw the use of those marijuana patients who benefit from the use of marijuana," says Feldman.
Tomorrow San Diego's city council committee on public safety and neighborhood services will take up the subject of medical marijuana dispensaries.