Local medical marijuana dispensaries face an uncertain future in face of government shutdowns
In the spring of 2009, a neighborhood of sick people with cancer, neurological degenerative disease, and chronic pain joined to form the Santa Cruz Mountain Naturals Medical Cannabis Collective and Medicinal Herb Co-op (SCMN). After an Aptos building owner invited the collective to open a dispensary in his building on Soquel Drive seven months ago, this medical cannabis community grew to treat more than 1,500 patients.
“There were a number of sick people going through really serious problems that had been using marijuana as a relief for decades,” says Colin Disheroon, founding member of SCMN. “They were already doing this with doctors’ recommendations, but they were afraid. We began as a group to pool our resources and start providing medicine with intention, together. That is what this whole movement is based on—collectives.”
Although they were not in search of a dispensary site per se, the collective accepted the opportunity to expand and become an official nonprofit and Clean Green Certified Organic facility.
“You can just imagine the variety of medical conditions people come in with—muscular skeletal issues, neuropathy, pain, loss of mobility in legs, cancer patients, people that are wheelchair bound, lots of pain management,” says Disheroon, noting that one of the founding members with cancer was recently diagnosed as terminal.
Now, SCMN and other medical marijuana collectives face an uncertain future as President Barack Obama and federal prosecutors begin shutdowns of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state.
In the beginning of October, California’s four U.S. Attorneys declared that the state’s medical marijuana law had been “hijacked by profiteers” and broadcasted charges against dispensaries and speculators allegedly profiting from supposed nonprofit marijuana stores.
The current crackdown contains some irony. A 2009 U.S. Justice Department memo by then Deputy Attorney General David Ogden stated that the government would target drug traffickers rather than individuals. The memo is largely credited for serving as the catalyst for the explosion of medical marijuana businesses in California.
However, a memo this summer by Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the government would enforce U.S. drug laws in the face of a surge in the scope of “commercial cultivation, sale distribution and use of marijuana for purported medical purposes.”
Disheroon says SCMN is a true nonprofit, which operates well within state and county regulations, but that does not have him convinced the dispensary is immune to a federal raid or shutdown.
“In terms of what a nonprofit is, we’re right there—at the end of the year we’re not going to have any money left over,” he says. “We could be shut down, absolutely. I don’t think that Santa Cruz is immune to a federal raid. … One of the big reasons why [the crackdown] is happening is greed. The law is that [cannabis is] here for medicine. When it’s being twisted into this storefront drug dealing, it’s screaming for the feds to come in and shut it down. That’s the problem. It needs to be done right, and there is need for regulation.”
Ben Rice, a local attorney who represents the patient collective Wo-Man’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) and four dispensaries in Santa Cruz County, says it remains to be seen whether the shutdowns will reach Santa Cruz.
“U.S. attorneys have made it clear [that] they’re most interested in targeting dispensaries that are violating laws in communities that are not particularly open to the medical marijuana laws of our sate,” says Rice. “Our city and county have tried very hard to figure out how to regulate medical marijuana so that patients are taken care of and law enforcement can rest assured that the vast majority of what takes place here is what the voters had in mind when they passed this law.”
Thus far, DEA raids have not reached Santa Cruz, however DEA agents raided a model regulated medical marijuana grow in Northern California, several medical marijuana dispensaries in Southern California, and a dispensary in Colorado in early October. Two medical marijuana dispensaries in Sacramento and Stockton were forcibly shut down on Monday, Oct. 17 as part of the federal crackdown, and some California dispensaries have voluntarily shut down, pressured by warning letters from the DEA.
In Santa Cruz, city and county ordinances support the legality of medical marijuana dispensaries under strict regulation. For example, the City of Santa Cruz tightened regulation on its two dispensaries two years ago. The city requires its dispensaries to have open books to ensure the dispensaries are not working for profit.
Santa Cruz County’s ordinance does not put a cap on the number of dispensaries allowed, but instead regulates the areas in which dispensaries can be opened, such as at least 600 feet from schools. The ordinance also requires an application process that is reviewed by the sheriff.
David Evans of the Drug Free America Foundation says the foundation is in full support of the governmental crackdown on medical marijuana suppliers. “It is a myth that it is seriously ill people who are getting medical marijuana,” says Evans, noting that he is a cancer survivor. “If you look at the data, particularly in California, most of the people who are getting medical marijuana are young people, they are not getting it for serious illnesses. … Anybody can say they have pain. … There are many medicines that are already approved by the FDA for all these conditions that work better. We have a list of these medications that we distribute to people. You don’t need to smoke marijuana, there are medicines available.”
Disheroon says SCMN treats many affluent members of the Aptos community who prefer the organic medicine to doctor recommended pharmaceutical treatment. “People [who] are in their fifties and up are really seeking alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs,” says Disheroon. “The biggest thing I hear about is people that come in with neuro-pain, central nervous system pain, and their doctors are prescribing them Vicodin. They don’t want any opiates, but Vicodin is the only option their doctors are providing.”
The board of trustees for the California Medical Association (CMA), comprised of 35,000 practitioners, unanimously adopted a policy in favor of legalizing marijuana in mid-October at a meeting in Anaheim.
Dr. Donald Lyman, a physician from Sacramento, wrote the group’s new policy. He credited the shift to growing frustration amidst doctors over California’s medical marijuana law. While the law permits cannabis use with a doctor’s recommendation, doctors are stuck deciding whether to give patients a substance that is illegal under federal law. Thus, the organization decided to support the legalization of the drug.
The CMA says the question of whether cannabis is useful or not is still open, and can only be answered once it is legalized and more research is done.
While little scientific research exists to date regarding the effects of cannabis on the human body, organizations like Drug Free America Foundation and Coalition for a Drug Free California maintain that numerous serious health risks result from marijuana use, including birth defects. They cite other issues, such as driving impairment. Medical marijuana advocates across the Internet note that the risks of cannabis consumption parallel the risks of alcohol consumption.
Evans additionally notes that smoke is known to have adverse affects on the body. “Why in God’s name would we want to legalize something that is carcinogenic if we don’t have to do it?” he asks rhetorically.
While Disheroon says the ability for people to make their own decisions on how they treat themselves is a civil and human right, Evans argues that people do not have the right to choose how to treat themselves.
“Why even bother having a FDA or any approved medicines if people can just do whatever they want?” says Evans. “That’s not the way we operate medicine in the United States. …We go through the Food and Drug Administration process. It’s served us for 100 years. It’s not perfect but it’s far better than having a Wild West situation where people can just use whatever they want. That’s how people get killed.”
Disheroon notes that marijuana has been used for thousands of years and has never resulted in any person’s death from its own use.
“But the laws revolving around it have,” Disheroon says. “The amount of money that’s involved with marijuana causes gangs and cartels to rise up [when there is no regulation]; it puts people in danger. … The [Santa Cruz] County needs to stand strong with the regulations that it’s developed. It’s going to take counties and cities backing us up.” Photo: Jesse Clark