Feb. 22 2012 09:57 AM

Patient Care Association picks up prominent Democratic support, but also new adversaries from within the medi-pot community

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (center) poses with activists representing medical-marijuana collectives at the Democratic State Convention, including Patient Care Association Organizer Cynara Velazquez
Courtesy: PCA

This version of the story has been modified from the print version to include more context about the original city ordinance that was later repealed. 

The medical-marijuana-themed hospitality suite at California's Democratic State Convention last weekend was kicking—a DJ, movies, a gallery show of Chicano Park artists and a flowing contingency of prominent Democrats. 

The suite was sponsored by the Patient Care Association (PCA), a growing organization of collective and dispensary operators that serves as a chamber of commerce for San Diego's medical-marijuana industry. The PCA partnered with Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and the United Food and Commercial Workers international Union to bring in Democratic power brokers: Speaker of the Assembly John Perez made an appearance, as did San Diego County Democratic Party Chairman Jess Durfee and executive director Ryan Hurd. Altogether, it was a celebration that received an unusual amount of establishment support considering the medical-marijuana movement's history of operating on the fringe.

“Afterward, someone told me we've gone a long ways to making this mainstream and acceptable,” says Cynara Velazquez, a Democratic organizer who now coordinates PCA outreach.

Through its political committee, Citizens for Patients Rights, PCA has raised $70,000 and hired the La Jolla Group, a high-profile petition-circulation firm, to collect the necessary 62,000 signatures by June 20 to get new medical-marijuana regulations on the November ballot. The initiative was recently endorsed by Rep. Bob Filner, the only viable Democrat running in this year's San Diego mayoral race.

For all the new alliances PCA is creating, the group may find its greatest adversaries among other medical-marijuana leaders, who've either taken a neutral position or are outright opposed to the proposed Compassionate Use Dispensary Restriction and Taxation Ordinance.

San Diego's medical-marijuana community has long been plagued by warring factions and political undercutting, particularly between groups such as San Diego Americans for Safe Access (SDASA) and the San Diego Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Personal attacks regularly fly over email and Facebook; activists accuse each other of unprofessional conduct, harassment, secretly working for the Drug Enforcement Agency and conspiring to establish a medi-pot monopoly. Steve Elliott, who covers the medical-marijuana beat nationally for Village Voice Media's Toke of the Town blog, describes San Diego as the most contentious medical-marijuana community in the country.

“I observe the medical-marijuana scene all over, and from my observations, San Diego is perhaps the most divisive scene in the United States, full of bitter vendettas, tiresome one-upmanship and counter-productive infighting,” Elliott says.

The most substantial example may have been the brouhaha over an ordinance the City Council passed last year to regulate dispensaries, which was subsequently repealed after medical-marijuana interests collected enough signatures for a referendum. City Council members who were supportive of the collectives expressed shock and frustration when the community continued to oppose the ordinance after changes were made in response to concerns raised through a mass letter-writing campaign. Instead, patients and collectives protested the measure both in public comment and in an attempted sit-in inside the council chambers.

"My sense was that a majority of Council members--especially Todd Gloria and Marti Emerald--sincerely wanted to pass some amendments to the ordinance that spoke to the concerns that had been raised in advance of the vote and that they thought the amendments that they put forward did that," Alex Kreit, the Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor who chaired the city's Medical Marijuana Task Force, writes in an email to CityBeat. "But, as far as I know, the patients and caregivers hadn't made that clear in advance of the vote and hadn't been very specific about what changes they wanted to see. If they had, Council may have voted on different amendments than they did and we might very well have gotten an ordinance that everyone could have lived with."

The council has since washed its hands of the issue.

“We spent 2 years listening to stakeholders and creating an ordinance that would allow access, protect neighborhoods and still get council support,” Emerald said in a prepared statement to CityBeat. “After all that, the proponents shot down our work. Now it's time for them go roll up their sleeves and make it happen.” 

PCA is the first organization to take up the challenge, emerging as a third organization for collective operators who Velazquez says are frustrated with factionalism. The organization introduced an 18-page ballot initiative that would establish basic regulations for storefront dispensaries and a 2.5-percent tax on cannabis transactions. But the provision that spells out the dispensary-approval process is causing the most controversy.

The initiative calls for the creation of independent “Compassionate Use Accreditation” organizations that would certify dispensaries. These organizations would have accreditation boards made up five collective operators picked by the organization along with two qualified patients and three experts appointed by the City Council. The provision is a reaction to a recent court decision that invalidated Long Beach's medical-marijuana ordinance on the grounds that a city can't violate federal law. Although that decision is being considered by the California Supreme Court, PCA believes it can work around it by establishing these third-party accreditation bodies.

“We had to come up with an alternative method for overseeing and licensing [dispensaries] without the city doing it directly,” PCA Chairperson James Schmachtenberger says. “Based on the history of the city of San Diego and how much they have decided to fight back against this issue... if there were any specific things the city had to get involved in with overseeing and licensing, they could tie it up in court, and that could delay the implementation of the ordinance from months to a few years.”

PCA openly acknowledges it plans to become an accreditation authority, though, in theory, there could be more than one body. The problem, opponents say, is that the language is written so narrowly that PCA would be the only group allowed to do accreditation. The initiative says an organization must have been in existence for at least a year-and-a-half before the ordinance takes effect and have a roster of at least 30 collective members.

From PCA's perspective, Velazquez says patients may not have the prerequisite business knowledge to administer the permitting process, which is why PCA decided standards should be written and administered by responsible collective owners. 

Kreit says it's problematic for PCA to control licensing and fees.

“I just can't, for the life of me, see how that makes sense from a policy perspective,” Kreit says. “It seems [like] something geared towards [the dispensaries'] interests, not the interests of medical-marijuana patients and people in the community.”

Stephen Whitburn, a Democratic politician who served as the task force's vice-chair, calls the bill “bad policy.” He says it cuts neighborhood representatives out of the process and sets unreasonable deadlines. He's also skeptical of PCA's self-serving accreditation concept.

“You would be concentrating in the hands of a very few people the power to determine who could operate medical-marijuana dispensaries and under what conditions,” Whitbusays. “Any time you concentrate power to that degree, you are inviting abuses.”

SDASA has taken a neutral position on the measure, applauding the effort while questioning the measure's legality. The group plans to sit this one out and instead focus on passing a medi-pot initiative in Imperial Beach. Craig Beresh, a longtime marijuana activist who organizes the California Cannabis Coalition and San Diego NORML, is more vocal in his opposition.

“The collective directors or owners, whatever you want to call them, they're not fighting for patients' rights,” Beresh says. “They're fighting for profits.”

Beresh worked with PCA closely to repeal the city's ordinance but split from the partnership when PCA did not immediately follow up with an initiative supported both by patients and collectives. Velazquez says changes were made to the initial draft to address some of the community's concerns but acknowledges that no proposal will please everyone.

“Often times ‘good' is sacrificed at the altar of ‘perfection,'” Velazquez says. “People may not like individual provisions of this initiative, but it would guarantee safe access in San Diego and it would guarantee that access is not monopolized in San Diego.

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


See all events on Monday, Oct 24