The politics of pot

Elected officials in Chico and elsewhere struggle to come to grips with an explosion of pot dispensaries

Dawn Jenkins and her husband, Mike, operate the Tehama County Patients Collective in Red Bluff, which is located next door to the Sheriff’s Office. Every day for more than a month Sheriff Clay Parker came by to issue them citations for allegedly violating zoning ordinances and a county moratorium on medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Dawn Jenkins and her husband, Mike, operate the Tehama County Patients Collective in Red Bluff, which is located next door to the Sheriff’s Office. Every day for more than a month Sheriff Clay Parker came by to issue them citations for allegedly violating zoning ordinances and a county moratorium on medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Dawn Jenkins grew up in the Mormon Church, where her father was a bishop. Her husband, Mike, has owned a pool-service company in Red Bluff for decades. They have deep roots in the community.

They also happen to operate the town’s only medical-marijuana dispensary, called the Tehama County Patients Collective.

Mike has been a medical-marijuana patient and testifies to the herb’s value as medicine. He and Dawn believe in the importance of providing other patients with legal, affordable marijuana and are confident that the law is on their side. So, when they were looking for a storefront for a medical-marijuana dispensary and one came open right next door to the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office, they didn’t hesitate to rent it.

Granted, they had to act fast. They knew the county soon was going to impose a moratorium on dispensaries. They incorporated their nonprofit business, they say, on Sept. 11 and rented the building on Sept. 12, a Saturday. The county’s moratorium did not go into effect until mid-October.

That’s when Sheriff Clay Parker started coming to the Jenkinses’ shop on a daily basis to issue them misdemeanor code-enforcement citations charging them with operating an illegal dispensary and a business in violation of the zoning. Each ticket carries a penalty of up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.

The Jenkinses sell their marijuana for about one-third of the cost on the street—$35 for an eighth of an ounce, for example. And they have pledged to return any income above expenses to the collective’s members in the form of such benefits as a meditation room, access to chiropractors and an organic café.

During a recent interview at the dispensary, Dawn Jenkins told CN&R Managing Editor Meredith Cooper that lately Parker had asked for copies of the collective’s members’ information and threatened to obtain a search warrant. “We’re concerned about our patients’ right to privacy,” she said.

Parker is always polite and “very nice” when he drops by, she said, but the pressure is affecting them. “I’m trying to be relaxed, but there’s still paranoia [about being arrested]. I shouldn’t have that—it’s legal.” A tear rolled down her cheek.

“I feel OK in my heart about what we’re doing,” she continued. “But it’s affecting our family, our good name. Why are we being harassed?”

The Jenkinses’ situation is unique, of course, but it’s also fairly typical of the challenges facing parties on both sides of the medi-pot issue, those who wish to grow and sell it and the public agencies seeking either to keep dispensaries and growing operations out of their communities or find ways to control them.

The conflict has been simmering for years, ever since the passage of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Lately, though, it has become a front-burner issue, as dispensaries have mushroomed throughout California and cooperative marijuana grows have greatly increased the amount of pot on the market. Marijuana is now estimated to be a $17-billion business, making it the largest agricultural sector in the state.

All across the state, cities and counties have responded in varying ways. At least 120 cities, one-fourth of the state’s total, and eight of its 58 counties have banned dispensaries outright. The most recent was Nevada City, the hip little Gold Rush town in the pot-growing epicenter of Nevada County. In September its City Council voted, 3-2, to ban medi-pot shops.

San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s bill would legalize marijuana and give California the power to regulate and tax the drug.

Photo By Nick Miller

Officials in cities that have banned dispensaries often cite Los Angeles as a case in point. There are now estimated to be anywhere from 400 to 1,000 dispensaries in that city, and most have opened following a moratorium that was adopted in 2007 but rarely enforced. In October a judge ruled that the moratorium had been illegally extended, leaving the city with no rules to use to shut down the stores that had opened.

The L.A. City Council is struggling to come to grips with the explosion of pot shops and the angry reactions of neighbors who say the stores open wherever they want and attract nuisances such as traffic and real dangers in the form of robberies.

At the same time the council is concerned, according to the Los Angeles Times, that without the dispensaries genuine medical-marijuana users would be forced to purchase their medicine on the black market, subjecting them to potential danger.

Advised by its city attorney that the sale of marijuana, even to qualified medi-pot users, is illegal, the council has sought a way around that. The result is an ordinance that would redefine the sales transaction by allowing “cash contributions, reimbursements and compensations” for actual expenses, as long as the dispenseries comply with state law, the Times reports. That includes requiring them to operate as non-profits.

The council is also considering putting a cap on the number of dispensaries allowed in the city. A vote was set for Dec. 2, after press time.

Neighboring West Hollywood, on the other hand, reports few problems with dispensaries. That’s because when it was faced with an explosion of dispensaries in 2005, the Times reports, “it imposed a moratorium on them, clamped interim rules on the ones that were open, passed a strict ordinance and capped the number allowed at four, all within two years.”

As a result, it’s been more than two years since a city resident complained about a dispensary, and when the ordinance was updated recently, nobody spoke against it and it passed unanimously.

That’s what Dylan Tellesen and his partners in a group calling itself the Citizen Collective want the Chico City Council to do—adopt an ordinance that allows legitimate, nonprofit dispensaries such as theirs while controlling their number and the way they do business.

After a halting start in its effort to come to grips with the medi-pot issue, the council has tasked its Internal Affairs Committee to come up with a proposal. The IAC is also trying to figure out how to deal with backyard marijuana grows, which neighbors often consider a nuisance because of the mature plant’s “skunky” odor and because attempted thefts sometimes result in violence.

There are two principle obstacles to setting up a dispensary. One is that there are no zones in the city that specifically allow them. The other is that Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey believes state law does not allow marijuana sales and has threatened to prosecute anyone who operates a storefront dispensary.

On the other hand, said Mike Maloney, Chico’s chief of police, there seems to be an interest on the part of at least some council members to figure out a way to provide “limited access on a controlled basis” to legitimate users.

Maloney shares that interest. “We [the police] can bang our heads against the wall like traditional law-and-order people or recognize that the trend today is toward greater liberalization,” he said during a recent phone interview.

It used to be, he said, that when Chico police had reason to believe marijuana was being grown in a house, they’d obtain a search warrant, then “kick down the door and arrest anyone who was there. Now we just knock on the door, ask if they have a medical recommendation and ask to see the plants. If they don’t want us in the back yard, we leave.”

A possible 2010 ballot measure sponsored by Richard Lee, the founder and president of Oaksterdam University, a marijuana emporium in downtown Oakland, would legalize marijuana in California and potentially generate up to $2 billion in annual revenue for the state. It is one of two such measures now being circulated.

Photo By Nick Miller

Maloney’s personal experiences have influenced his attitude. When he was 17 years old, he was hospitalized for what turned out to be a treatable form of cancer. His roommate on the cancer unit was a 26-year-old man with a terminal form of the disease.

“The only thing that brought him relief between bouts of vomiting from chemotherapy was marijuana,” Maloney said in a recent phone interview. “I could see first-hand the benefits he was receiving.”

On the other hand, he continued, “a 20-year-old kid with anxiety because he can’t get a job [and therefore needs medical marijuana], well, that’s a crock.”

Without overtly saying so, Maloney appeared to leave the door open to a more liberal enforcement policy should the council approve a limited number of dispensaries inside city limits.

What Maloney and other law enforcement officials would much prefer to see, however, is for marijuana to be treated as a legitimate medicine, one prescribed by doctors and available at pharmacies.

“The best way to fix the problem would be for Congress to change [marijuana] from a Schedule 1 drug to Schedule 2 or 3,” Tehama County Sheriff Parker said in a phone interview. That way it could be studied to determine its actual medicinal uses, he explained.

“If someone got a prescription from a doctor and had it filled at the pharmacy, that would take all the ambiguity out of it,” Parker said.

Because pot is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, on par with heroin and cocaine, it is largely unavailable for legitimate research to determine just what its medicinal qualities are. The result is that doctors are able to recommend it for just about any ailment in the book.

There have been some small studies showing that cannabis relieves migraine headaches, reduces hypertension in the eyes of glaucoma patients, relieves nerve pain and stimulates appetite in HIV patients, offsets the nausea of chemotherapy, and is effective against various forms of severe, chronic pain.

Otherwise, though, its medicinal effects are mostly unknown, and the states that have legalized medi-pot have done so largely on the basis of anecdotal evidence and popular belief.

Needless to say, perhaps, the current suppliers of medical marijuana aren’t big fans of treating it like other medicines and distributing it through pharmacies. If that happens, they believe, big Pharma and corporate agribusiness will step in and take over what up to now has been literally a homegrown, grass-roots industry—and a highly profitable one, at that.

Nor do supporters of marijuana legalization want to go that route. They want marijuana to be taxed and sold openly, like beer and wine, to adults 18 and older. Their purpose is not to enhance the availability of the drug, but rather to remove it from the black market and thereby eliminate the criminality associated with it.

That’s the reasoning behind Assembly Bill 390, by Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). He believes the bill could generate much-needed revenue—the Board of Equalization has estimated $1.4 billion annually, though the figure is sketchy and hotly disputed—and free up peace officers to focus on worse crimes.

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It would also help to relieve the pressure on the criminal-justice system. The Sacramento Bee recently reported that more than 78,500 people were arrested in 2008 on pot-related offenses, according to state records, at a cost to California taxpayers of billions of dollars.

The damage done by criminalizing marijuana—the creation of an often violent black market, the families broken apart by imprisonment, the lives ruined and the huge financial cost to society—is far worse than anything caused by the herb itself, they argue.

It’s unlikely that Ammiano’s bill will pass, if only because the state would then be in conflict with federal law, which prohibits marijuana possession. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced a new policy of not prosecuting those involved in distributing or using medical marijuana in states that have approved it, but that exemption does not apply to any other use of the drug.

Also, as Chief Maloney pointed out, “What happens if we legalize pot in California but everywhere else it’s illegal? It’s a monster that we’re dealing with.”

As venerable columnist Peter Schrag notes in a recent piece on the online California Progress Report, “the Dutch, who have drawn a lot of attention to their legalization and distribution of marijuana through ‘coffee houses,’ are under pressure from their European neighbors to change the law. Too many residents of Belgium, France and Germany, it appears, are bringing pot back to places whose residents are not as open minded. In response, the Dutch are beginning to reduce the number of coffee houses.”

Nevertheless, the movement toward legalization continues. At least two petitions are currently circulating in California that would legalize the herb for personal use and allow—and tax—its sale.

One is sponsored by Richard Lee, founder and president of a marijuana emporium in downtown Oakland called “Oaksterdam University.” Among other things, reports Nick Miller, writing in the Sacramento News & Review, it houses “medical-marijuana collectives, pot-friendly coffee houses, [and] a weed university complete with a student center and store.”

Last July, Oakland became the first city in America to place a special tax on cannabis sales. It’s expected to generate as much as $1 million annually, on top of the state sales tax revenues it also brings in. Statewide, pot sales generated $18 million in sales tax revenues in 2008.

Lee is confident marijuana eventually will be legalized in California—and polls back him up. A Gallup poll in October showed that 44 percent of Americans favor legalization, a rise of 13 points since 2000. In the West, the number in favor is 53 percent, and in California—the first state to legalize medical marijuana—it’s even higher.

On Nov. 24, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Mark and Dawn Jenkins, appearing in Tehama County Superior Court, agreed to close their dispensary until at least their next court date, which was set for Dec. 2, according to an article in the Red Bluff Daily News.

Sheriff Parker told the CN&R a sign went up on the door to the collective Wednesday morning stating it had been “temporarily closed during legal litigation” and that it would reopen “when a judge says we may.”

The Jenkinses have told the CN&R they don’t believe the moratorium applies to them because they opened the dispensary before it went into effect.

The Tehama County court will decide on the citations, Parker said, but ultimately some other court needs to sort out the legal mess that Proposition 215 has engendered.

In the meantime, he said, medical-marijuana patients can get their pot either by growing it themselves or joining a collective grow. They can’t walk into a dispensary, instantly join a collective and buy it—not in unincorporated Tehama County, anyway.

Not yet.