Oct. 26 2011 12:09 PM

CityBeat's guide to cutting through the haze of medical-marijuana misinformation

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith are blazing.
Photo illustration by Adam Vieyra

There's one question on the minds of most medical-marijuana patients and advocates right now: What the eff is Obama thinking?

In recent weeks, California's four U.S. attorneys, under the authority of Obama's Department of Justice, have launched a full-scale war on dispensaries in California. The attack is mostly legal in nature, starting with letters sent to dispensaries and property owners ordering them to shut down within 45 days. U.S. attorney Laura Duffy, whose jurisdiction includes San Diego and Imperial counties, has been among the most vocal. Having previously worked with District attorney Bonnie Dumanis to raid collectives in 2009, Duffy's now backing San Diego City attorney Jan Goldsmith in his crusade to shut down San Diego's 150-plus collectives using the city's zoning rules.

We've found that prosecutors are backing up their arguments not with verifiable facts, but, rather, scaremongering propaganda and fuzzy assumptions—which we will now debunk for you.

Dispensaries are ‘prohibited' in San Diego

Following a judge's decision to temporarily shut down the Oasis Herbal Center in City Heights, Goldsmith's office issued a press release claiming that the judge had made a “sweeping statement” that dispensaries are “prohibited” in San Diego. That doesn't exactly paint a full picture of the situation.

While the judge correctly noted that the zoning code does not permit dispensaries, the code doesn't expressly prohibit them, either. In fact, another part of the municipal code welcomes them.

San Diego's Health and Sanitation Code states that the city's goal is to “promote and protect the public health, safety and welfare of the citizens of San Diego by allowing and strictly regulating the cooperative cultivation and exchange of marijuana” and includes a long list of rules for how collectives may operate.

The problem is that the code also requires collectives to carry business permits, which they haven't been able to do since July 2009. That's when Development Services Director Kelly Broughton decided to stop issuing permits to dispensaries because he couldn't find a proper category for them. The city attempted to pass a zoning law, but medical-marijuana advocates thought it was too restrictive and collected enough signatures for a referendum. The City Council then repealed the measure to avoid a costly special election.

But zoning issues aren't what led the judge to shut down the Oasis collective. The judge said the primary reason was that Oasis was operating within 600 feet of a school, which is prohibited under state law.

‘Magnets' for crime

Prosecutors have begun cultivating a perception that dispensaries are “magnets” for crime, often soliciting state ments from law-enforcement officers that aren't always grounded in facts.

Take, for example, 4015-4009 Park Blvd., a building in University Heights that housed as many as seven collectives and was one of the first sued by the city attorney. A San Diego police officer gave sworn testimony that he'd observed an uptick in “calls for service” nearby and submitted seven pages of call logs to back it up. CityBeat analyzed the data and found there was no consistent trend in the calls— up, down or otherwise—and that the officer hadn't filtered the calls for relevancy. Requests for tow trucks and routine traffic stops inflated the numbers substantially. The officer also told the court that he'd witnessed what “appeared” to be a pimp with his prostitutes outside the building, waiting to buy marijuana. His evidence: The women were “scantily dressed” and carrying their high heels.

Using official regional crime-mapping software, we found that only 11 crimes were reported within 500 feet of the building in the last six months—a number that's unremarkable compared with levels in other areas in the community. Nine times that amount of crime has occurred within 500 feet of the Gila Rut Aveda Salon (run by Duffy's wife) a half-mile away.

Maybe curlers attract crime, too.

The big marijuana industry

At a recent press conference outlining the crackdown, Duffy described marijuana as fueling a “pervasive, for-profit” marijuana industry that's “not about providing medicine to the sick.” She's partially right.

If dispensaries employ at least five people each (a rough average), then it's possible that San Diego could abruptly lose a thousand jobs overnight. The marijuana industry extends well beyond the storefronts. The market, estimated to be somewhere between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in California, has provided tenants for landlords whose properties might otherwise sit empty, and the trickle-down revenue has flowed to a variety of complementary businesses, including hydroponics supply shops, doctors, lawyers, security firms and media outlets—such as CityBeat—that accept ads for all of the above.

Several pieces of bipartisan legislation are moving through Congress to further legitimize the marijuana industry, including bills to allow collectives to make standard business deductions and work with banks.

As for the other part—it's easy to say it's not about providing medicine if you don't believe it's medicine to begin with.

‘No medicinal value'

This past June, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rejected a request by a pro-medi-pot group to remove marijuana from the list of drugs considered to have no medicinal value. But is the DEA's position supported by medical experts?

Created by the California Legislature in 1999 to answer the question, “Does marijuana have therapeutic value?” the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) at UCSD has spent the last decade studying marijuana's medicinal efficacy. In a February 2010 report to the Legislature, CMCR said that its researchers had found, after five clinical trials, there was “reasonable evidence” that cannabis can help folks suffering from pain and diseases of the nervous system, though more research is needed.

Two weeks ago, at its annual meeting, the California Medical Association released a report saying basically the same thing: Studies completed so far are promising but few, and the feds need to reschedule cannabis “to encourage research lending to responsible regulation.” In addition, the CMA report calls the criminalization of marijuana “a failed public health policy” that leads to unregulated use and diverts money away from vital health, education and transportation programs.

They're selling to kids and junkies!

There's a difference between “children” and “minors.” When it comes to marijuana, the feds refer to anyone younger than 21 as a minor, while the city's collective ordinance considers minors to be younger than 18—those younger than 18 can access marijuana only with parental consent.

A CityBeat reporter has visited numerous dispensaries around town; in every case, someone at the door has checked IDs to keep minors out. CityBeat can also attest that medical-marijuana patients exist in all levels of societal strata—they include business owners, prominent attorneys, media professionals and senior staff at City Hall.

The district attorney's most recent statistics—published in 2006 but still circulated today by anti-pot advocates—found that the under-21 demographic accounted for only 12 percent of marijuana dispensary customers. On the other hand, patients older than 30 accounted for 43 percent.

One may well ask whether the remaining 40 percent of patients who are in their 20s are using it recreationally. That's the healthiest age group, so they can't all be suffering from cancer, AIDS or other debilitating diseases, right? Right—it's true that some “patients” use medical marijuana recreationally. But consider this: Young adults in their 20s are the largest uninsured population in the U.S. It stands to reason that young adults would be more likely to experiment with marijuana as a medication rather than paying out of pocket to see a doctor.

Prosecutors go after only the bad ones

Ryan Trabuco, a member of the San Diego County Alcohol and Drug Advisory Board, once asserted on Twitter that if a collective was raided, then it must've been doing something wrong because it wouldn't have been raided otherwise. That's a circular fallacy. What's worse is that it ignores the record.

Perhaps the most prominent case in San Diego involved a Vista collective operator, James Stacy, who was doing all the right things to stay consistent with California law. He hosted farmers markets to connect growers directly to patients and allowed patients to trade labor for medicine. However, of the 14 collectives busted in 2009, his was one of the few to end up in federal court. After more than a year of pre-trial maneuvering, he was offered a plea deal in which the U.S. attorney could claim a conviction but Stacy would be essentially let off the hook, with no jail time.

Stacy's not the only one: In the case of Eugene Davidovich, the San Diego Police Department had to return his marijuana after his acquittal for possession with intent to distribute. Jovan Jackson, who ran another collective, was also acquitted when a jury found the district attorney's argument lacked sufficient legal clarity.

That's not to say there aren't bad actors raking in huge sums from collectives and laundering it through a variety of nefarious schemes. A case unsealed recently by Duffy's office involving Club One Collective in San Marcos and Extreme Holistic Care in Wildomar shows significant evidence of the collectives' operators moving huge sums of money among personal bank accounts. The defendant had already been busted once in 2007, according to North County Times, for being $430,000 delinquent on his state taxes.

Collectives are going to shut down

The U.S. attorney has sent hundreds of letters to collective operators and property owners (and even to people who haven't been engaged in either for a long time) giving them 45 days to shut down.

So, will they? Many have—some calling in to report their closure as we write this. Yet, as CityBeat columnist John R. Lamb reported last week, former Medical Marijuana Task Force chair and Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor Alex Kreit believes that there's no way Duffy's office can follow through on her threats. Supporting that statement, attorney Lance Rogers says two of his clients have closed, but at least three plan to stay open. A large-scale lawsuit against the federal government on the behalf of collectives is expected to be filed within the next few weeks.

Nevertheless, marijuana advocates tell us that patients should begin stocking up in early November.

Kelly Davis contributed to this story. Write to davem@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

Correction: In the print edition, we stated that 10 times more crime occurs within 500 feet of the Gila Rut Aveda Salon, operated by US attorney Laura Duffy's wife, than a nearby building housing multiple marijuana collectives. It was actually closer to nine times. We regret the error.


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