Inconsistent strains: Medicinal users struggle with Sacramento region’s patchwork marijuana laws

Rancho Cordova bans dispensaries, Sacramento allows them and other cities fall in the middle

This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the August 25, 2016 edition.

Sometimes, Stephanie Raskin smokes marijuana to stop thinking about suicide. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, she remains stable through a blend of prescription pills that must be constantly tweaked to match her body chemistry. When the pharmaceuticals fall short, she supplements her treatment with medical marijuana. But her hometown, Rancho Cordova, bans dispensaries. And the closest one is 11 miles away.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “Especially with my condition, I get debilitatingly depressed to the point where everything is a monumental task. I only smoke because my depression can cause suicidal thoughts. And sativa can keep me from reaching those depths. I’m not one of those sit-on-the-couch stoners.”

Raskin brought her complaints to the Rancho Cordova City Council on August 1 and 15, and says she will continue to attend meetings until it reconsiders the ban. But she felt council members merely “humor” her.

The council imposed the ban in 2013, and decided to uphold it a couple of weeks ago, despite the tax benefits that City Attorney Adam Lindgren said the permitted sale of medical marijuana would bring.

Raskin would like to open her own boutique dispensary, preferably in Rancho Cordova if the ban is lifted. But since she’s on a fixed income, Raskin can’t afford a permit to grow personal-use marijuana indoors as it costs $600 per square foot. The cost is so prohibitive that no one in Rancho Cordova has a permit on record. Citrus Heights and Davis have similar bans, but both have delivery services for patients in the area, while Davis doesn’t charge personal-use permit fees.

Sacramento allows residential cultivation of marijuana for personal use and currently boasts 30 medical marijuana dispensaries, which produced $4 million in tax revenue during the 2015-16 fiscal year.

On August 16, the Sacramento City Council unanimously extended by a year a moratorium on commercial marijuana cultivation so grow operations don’t proliferate before proper regulations are in place. Once the moratorium expires on September 18, 2017, the city could open up 22,000 square feet for indoor cultivation in agricultural, industrial and general commercial areas. It’s already received inquiries from 600 potential applicants.

But before that happens, council members want to ensure cultivation facilities are odor-free, environmentally friendly and properly vetted, surveilled and secured before allowing more into the city. “We have to get it right,” Councilman Eric Guerra said before moving to extend the moratorium.

Rancho Cordova has employed a more black-and-white approach.

On July 5, its city council cited its concerns with federal law still classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic, even though President Barack Obama hasn’t targeted states that legalized marijuana and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s platform supports eventual legalization. A speaker at the meeting warned about the drug’s “increased potency,” but Raskin actually desires this. She wants to limit her consumption while keeping the depression-lifting benefits.

California Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Nate Bradley calls potency concerns “fearmongering,” as high-potency strains have always existed and low-potent strains still exist. According to him, the most popular strain sold nationally is Blue Dream, which has a relatively low content of about 12-14 percent THC.

“It’s actually a moderate strain,” he said. “And (it’s for) the same reason why the majority of the nation drinks Coors’ Light and not Everclear.”

Still, inexperienced users may “overdose” on products like edibles that only require one bite.

In 2013, 154 people were admitted to Sacramento County emergency rooms for marijuana, according to a report by the Sacramento County’s Department of Health and Human Services. But that number only represents 2 percent of that year’s total of drug-related visits, with nearly 4,000 for alcohol.

Bradley, a former police officer, claims that Rancho’s dispensary ban only pushes marijuana underground.

“When you ban something, you don’t actually get rid of it, you only relegate it to an unregulated market, which doesn’t test it, sells it directly to children and uses the money to further their criminal enterprises” he said. “So when a city bans it, what they’re saying is, ’I want it sold in my high schools.’”

In 2013, UCLA researchers found that crime actually lowered in the vicinity of Sacramento dispensaries that had security cameras and guards. Additionally, dispensary owners must operate under expensive permits that will be revoked if they sell to minors or non-patients. And a “Track and Trace” program scans a bar code on each sale that can be cross-referenced to security camera footage if need be.

Bradley says that concerned lawmakers would be better off mandating safety requirements, especially since the Adult Use of Marijuana Act proposition boasts support from a coalition of lawmakers, civil rights organizations, environmentalists, retired police officers and medical professionals. It will likely pass in November. If it does, the Department of Finance predicts an additional $1 billion in statewide tax revenue—funds Rancho Cordova (and Davis and Citrus Heights) won’t see unless they lift their bans.

“They’re going to miss out on a lot of new teachers, a lot of new police officers (and firefighters) that they could hire,” Bradley said. “Honestly, they’re doing a disservice to the citizens of the city that they represent.”