Sunday, April 30, 2006
Where's the Weed? -- Everywhere.
From: Los Angeles Daily News
The plainly labeled brown door on the second floor of a Studio City office gives no indication of the marijuana being sold inside.
Valley Collective Care keeps the deadbolt locked. Inside sits an armed security guard; another watches over the stock. There is a surveillance TV in the lobby, a few copies of Amsterdam News and a white poster board with the handwritten message of the Fourth Amendment, protection from warrantless searches.
Between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily, patients walk in with a slip of paper and an ID, and a few minutes later leave with a cure for what ails them.
Valley Collective was one of the first medical marijuana dispensaries in the San Fernando Valley when it opened last August. Now there are at least 20 in the Valley, with about 50 operating countywide and more than 200 throughout the state.
"This is the wild, wild West. Everybody is just trying to stake their claim," said Scott H. Linden, a Pasadena attorney who has helped several Valley dispensaries open.
Ten years after voters approved Proposition 215, legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, these pharmacies operate with little oversight.
Advocates maintain fairly comprehensive databases, but government officials, including those of the Los Angeles Police Department and the county's public health chief, don't even know how many dispensaries exist.
All it takes to get started are a few easily obtained business licenses, a willing landlord and a list of doctor-recommended patients such as Fritz Weaver, 44, of North Hollywood.
"I can function on pot and it doesn't destroy my liver," said Weaver, whose doctor told him to find an alternative to Vicodin for chronic back pain. "It's a no-brainer."
Cannabis clubs, or co-operatives, have been the source of controversy. Patients like Weaver have come to rely on them for comfort, but communities have taken a decidedly different view.
Because they house massive amounts of cash and thousands of dollars worth of marijuana, dispensaries have been targeted for smash-and-grab burglaries; Valley Collective had computers and an undisclosed amount of cash taken March 29. Some co-ops also have been accused of selling to people without prescriptions.
Seeking to limit such problems, some Northern California communities - including San Francisco and Oakland - have moved to regulate where, when and how these clinics operate.
Pasadena and 19 other cities have outright banned them.
And nearly 60 cities - including Simi Valley, Moorpark, Long Beach and West Hollywood, which already had seven - have enacted moratoriums on new dispensaries.
L.A. County Supervisors are scheduled to vote May 9 on a law to allow dispensaries in unincorporated areas, though not within 1,000 feet of schools, youth facilities, churches and parks. The proposed law would also require specific signage, proper lighting and security guards.
Sgt. Lee Sands, a Los Angeles police spokesman, said there has not been a trend of criminal activity occurring around cannabis clubs. The city has no regulations planned.
"Dispensaries must be regulated," said John Furry, founder of Weedtracker.com, which reviews co-ops based on their level of "compassion" for sick and dying people. Low marks fall to those places that overcharge because they know someone will pay.
"Many of these operators are in it just for the money," said Richard Eastman, an AIDS patient who in 1996 helped open L.A.'s first dispensary. "How could someone on Medicare or Social Security afford $20 a joint?"
Federal laws still consider it a felony to grow, sell or use marijuana. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that Californians could be federally prosecuted for using marijuana - even if it was allowed under the state's Compassionate Use Act of 1996.
That means agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration could come knocking on Valley Collective's door any day. That's one reason co-ops keep close to the chest the names of their owners and employees.
DEA has performed dozens of raids during the past five years, the biggest and most recent on 13 dispensaries in San Diego in December. In many cases, paraphernalia has been confiscated but charges have not been filed.
Twenty people involved with medical marijuana have been convicted on drug charges since Proposition 215 passed, according to Americans for Safe Access. The DEA's office in Los Angeles couldn't verify that. To them, there is no distinction between using marijuana recreationally or medicinally - both are illegal.
But agents can't just shut down dispensaries the moment they open, said DEA spokeswoman Sarah Fenno.
"If you read in the paper someone was selling meth out of their house, we couldn't just go and arrest them. We would still have to conduct an investigation and obtain a search warrant or an arrest warrant to identify the players involved," Fenno said.
The Food and Drug Administration entered the politically charged arena April 20, when it said "no scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana."
That was endorsed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which interacts with DEA.
"We certainly don't want the absolutely fraudulent claim that this is some therapeutic medicine to sweep in here and confuse people about the risk that they are running when they take marijuana," Dave Murray, special assistant to the drug czar, said in an interview last week. "This is not a proven medicine. It has not been approved by the FDA."
This has caused much grumbling in the medical-research community.
"It's politics and not science that is driving the train here," said Dr. Donald Abrams, a professor of clinical medicine at University of California, San Francisco, whose studies have shown marijuana benefits some AIDS patients.
To many, the FDA's statement seemed to ignore a 1999 review by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. That 288-page report found marijuana to be helpful with certain cancer and AIDS patients, particularly those having problems eating.
"There is an awful lot of scientific evidence," said Dr. John Benson, co-chairman of the review committee.
Cannabis sativa, as marijuana is known medically, has been found most beneficial for treating chronic pain; muscle spasms, such as those caused by multiple sclerosis; the physical wasting away of AIDS patients; and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
Eastman, 53, of Hollywood was experiencing the wasting. Since contracting HIV in 1994, Eastman has been at death's door several times. Anti-retrovirals are keeping him alive, but they strip him of his appetite. Some AIDS patients literally starve to death.
Eastman didn't want to beat the disease, only to die from the treatment.
Early on he remembered that smoking marijuana as a teen had given him the "munchies," that stoner struggle to fill an insatiable hunger. Eastman's daily routine consists of taking protease inhibitors to combat the now-undetectable AIDS eight times a day and smoking marijuana twice, shortly after he wakes up and again two hours before bed.
"About an hour and a half ago, I smoked some medical marijuana, which is helping me eat this now," he said over a bacon-and-eggs breakfast.
"When we got the law in '96, I thought we'd won. Why do I still have to keep fighting 10 years later?" Eastman asked.
The debate over medical marijuana has been running for more than a century and a half.
Marijuana was introduced into western medicine in 1842, Abrams said. It was a legal, if unsavory, substance until four years after Prohibition ended. In 1937, marijuana had been identified as the drug of jazzmen and Mexican farmers, and Congress moved to outlaw it.
At hearings before the House of Representatives, the only opposition to the Marihuana Tax Act came from the American Medical Association, which thought cannabis cultivation and consumption should remain legal but be regulated.
"The AMA stood alone in opposing it because they believed there was no real evidence it was harmful and they believed it would impede further studies," Abrams said. "And they were right about that."
In 1942, cannabis was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. It wasn't until 1986 that the FDA approved Marinol, a synthetic concentrate of the ingredient THC. Many patients dislike Marinol because it takes longer to enter the bloodstream and is more potent when it does.
"People don't know what it is about," said Gerardo Servin, a 20-year-old Glendale man who uses marijuana for an anxiety disorder. "They just think people are medicinal cannabis users because they want to smoke pot. Every day people look at me and they judge me."
While some of the estimated 150,000 cannabis patients statewide have their prescriptions written by a family physician, like Servin did, many travel hundreds of miles to visit one of the self-proclaimed pot docs.
Many of these 35 physicians, who are listed on the Web site of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, specialize in cannabis-related cases.
Referrals can be found on other Web sites, too. Weedtracker.com has an advertisement at the top of every page that lists a phone number and reads: "Medical Marijuana Recommendations." The 877 number connects to the West Hollywood office of Dr. James Eisenberg, who declined interview requests.
During the past decade, the California Medical Board has disciplined four physicians for prescribing marijuana without a thorough examination. Eisenberg was not among those disciplined.
Once the prescription has been written, patients choose their co-op.
They are called co-operatives because, by law, the dispensary can only have a half-pound of marijuana in stock for every patient on its rolls.
Many of these places resemble "drug dens," said Linden, the attorney who has helped open dispensaries.
"It has started to turn around. The places I'm working with now are more professional," he said, echoing a common refrain of the six co-ops visited.
"When you walk in, it should be the same thing as walking into a doctor's office. That's how it should feel. It should be professional."
INSIDE A CANNABIS CLUB
One of the San Fernando Valley's newest medical marijuana dispensaries sits in a black stucco building, adjacent to the Xposed full nude club.
Racy business cards for the club and next-door bar, The Wet Spot, are stationed throughout the inside of Collective Caregivers pharmacy, which opened in Canoga Park in late March.
Inside is "Taylor," a tall brunette with red and blonde highlights, a nose ring and a deep tan. On a recent day, she was wearing a black Korn T-shirt knotted to reveal six inches of midriff, a belly-button ring and a butterfly tattoo on the small of her back.
Once a patient has been cleared, Taylor, who doesn't "do last names," presses a button that unlocks the pharmacy door.
They enter a temperate room with two jewelry-display cases, an ATM and a safe with 4-inch-thick steel. The dispensary sells smokeable leaves and candy edibles: Peanut Butter Cup, Cannabis Cookie and sugar-free milk chocolate candy bars. Marijuana buds come in 20 varieties, such as Tidal Wave, Train Wreck, Organic Grapefruit Haze.
The $10 candy bars, labeled "Keep out of the reach of children," have several grams of fat and half a gram of marijuana.
The leaves are grown across the state, said Brad Barnes, who identified himself as the general contractor, and cost $15 to $30 a gram.
Collective Caregivers is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., about three hours later than any other dispensary in the Valley.
Barnes insists the co-op is just for those who qualify under state law.
"You can't just say, `I want to get some bud today' and walk in here," Barnes said. "This is a medical office. It doesn't look like you are walking into a 1970s head shop: There are no beads on the wall, no orange shag carpet."