In 1969, just back from watching people die as a soldier in Vietnam, Dennis Peron opened what was probably the first marijuana club in San Francisco. He was selling pot before Holland’s first cannabis coffeeshop ever opened its doors.
The only other Frisco places to get pot in a “retail” setting were in the world-famous Haight-Ashbury section of the city. The Haight peaked in the late 60’s as a place of endless LSD trips, hippie consciousness, rip-offs, and marijuana street dealers. As the 1970’s dawned, pot people were looking for safer ways to score, and Peron’s new venture catered to them.
Peron’s potshop was called the Big Top. Located at Castro and Liberty Streets on the uppermost floor of a classic San Fran home, Peron’s spacious apartment doubled as a marijuana market. The classic old school herb was all there: Acapulco, Maui Wowie, Thai, Michoacan, Colombian Gold, Panama Red.
These were the strains of sweet Sativas, when getting stoned meant feeling like you were on mescaline, laughing for hours, not the couchlock Indica steamroller high that has now come to characterize modern commercial cannagenetics. And when the munchies came, Peron’s brother Neil had an on-site restaurant providing mostly-vegetarian entrees and desserts.
Police rolled over Peron’s apartment potplace every so often, but jail in, jail out, he never wavered from his commitment to sell weed. He always went back to selling pot, without guile or shame. Dennis was a man with a marijuana mission.
In the late 80’s, Peron noticed how marijuana helped his young male lover who was dying of AIDS. He noticed that lots of gay men and other people used cannabis more as a medicine than a social libation.
“The best thing about the 1980’s was that I met a wonderful young man, Jonathan West, who was my partner for seven years,” Peron has said. “He had AIDS. Marijuana was his best medicine. The cops came in one night, while he was dying, and stole four ounces of pot that we had been using as medicine. They tried to force him to testify against me. After he died, I looked around and realized that so many of our friends, all the sweet, funny people we had smoked and protested with, were dead. My history had died. And that was when I knew I had to make marijuana available to everyone who needed it.”
Peron conceived the idea of a “cannabis buyer’s club,” chartered to provide “medical marijuana” to sick and dying people. He opened his first club near the heart of the famed Castro district in 1991. Then he moved the club into an upstairs loft at the corner of Church and Market Streets in 1993. Always his clubs were full of customers, but it wasn’t a party atmosphere like the Big Top or an Amsterdam cofshop. It was more like a hospice.
The Church-Market location became too popular, the stairs too steep for crippled customers, impossible to secure the building, some robberies and assaults, no on-site parking, negative police attention, which Peron needed like he needed a hole in the leg. Similar to the hole a police bullet put in his leg in 1977, when cops raided the Big Top and shot Peron, who was “menacing” the officers because they were dressed like civilians and he thought they were burglars. Peron and his wounded leg went to jail for six months, but while he was in jail, he authored marijuana referendums from his cell, and honed his political skills.
In 1995, Peron hatched another grand idea: use the profits from a medpot club to finance America’s first voter-certified medical marijuana law. Peron moved his club to a new location, 1444 Market Street, in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district.
1444 had five stories of pot, music, political committees, medical assistance, homeless shelters, and head shops. On the second floor was Peron’s medpot office, crammed most days with guys carrying duffel bags full of Northern California weed, which Peron bought and sold as fast as he could.
The profits went into garbage bags and the garbage bags went to Peron’s street activist political organization dedicated to putting Proposition 215 on the 1996 ballot. Peron later ran for governor against a fascist Republican attorney general who tried to bust 1444 to stop Peron’s insurgency gubernatorial campaign, and his funding of Prop. 215 signature-gathering and promotions.
Peron had help along the way from millionaires like George Soros, and from activists and allies like John Entwistle, Marc Emery, Steve Kubby, Scott Imler, Wayne Justmann, and near-death AIDS patients, but Peron’s was the most visible public face representing Prop. 215, and no matter what some latter-day egos now say, it was basically up to this white-haired, gay, Italian-American Vietnam veteran pot dealer to sell a revolutionary medical marijuana law to Californians despite the intervention and opposition of three US presidents, their wives, the White House drug czar, and the DEA, who lobbied voters not to approve the law.
In November, 1996, the law passed with an overwhelming margin, and a new medical marijuana era was born in America. As this article is being written, the revolution started by Peron and California voters is in the crucial battlefield of the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule very soon (in the Raich versus Ashcroft case) whether or not federal drug agents can arrest people protected by state medpot laws.
The peaceful rebellion
Even though Prop. 215 has not been implemented as fully as some would have liked it to be, the voter-approved law is a shining example of democracy in action. A bedraggled band of underfunded activists passed a radical anti-prohibition law in America’s most influential state against the will of the federal government. Nearly ten years later, despite efforts of police, prosecutors and drug warriors in local, state and federal jurisdictions, the medpot juggernaut appears unstoppable. Nearly a dozen states have medical cannabis laws modeled after Prop. 215, and other states are considering such laws- even Alabama!
One of the most intriguing developments of Prop. 215 has been the rise of medpot collectives, gardens, and clubs. Beginning in about 1994, people followed Peron’s lead and created their own medpot operations. Initially, most of them were in Oakland and San Francisco.
These cannabis distribution facilities ran into trouble early on, in part because Prop. 215 had not spelled out how medical marijuana patients were to get their marijuana, although it instructed the State of California to ensure that patients had a safe supply of the herb. There were vicious arguments among politicians, pot people, prosecutors and police about providing marijuana to people who wanted to purchase it, rather than grow it for themselves.
In April, 1997, the DEA raided San Francisco’s “Flower Therapy” club, which was one of few pot clubs then operating. A few hundred plants were seized, along with dried medicine and money. Flower Therapy had opened several months before voters passed Prop. 215; the feds raided it after a federal judge ruled that the federal government could no longer persecute doctors who recommended marijuana to patients.
“They just kicked the door in and tore off the lock, but the keys were right here to open the door,” said Flower Therapy co-owner Beth Moore. “We’ve been totally open about all this. We’ve really followed the rules here, and it’s senseless why they should target us.”
DEA spokesperson Stan Vegar defended his agents’ actions.
“Proposition 215 simply did not change federal law, and it did not change the San Francisco DEA’s interest in these types of cases,” he said.
Dennis Peron challenged the DEA to focus on an “epidemic of black tar heroin that is taking over San Francisco.”
“If the DEA wants to go after drugs, go after the hard drugs and leave our marijuana and our patients alone,” he said.
A year later, Peron paid for his comments. By then, 1444 Market had become a massive marijuana club- the largest in the world- with DJ’s, bands, rallies, parties, wakes, head shops, pot bars, cookies, brownies, hashish, and tons of weed, including kilos of brown Mexican that Peron gave away to indigent people, as well as “four star” sticky “Humboldt Green” that sold for $250 an ounce or more.
Law enforcement officers and California’s attorney general gave Peron plenty of warning that he was to be raided, even as he raked in tons of cash and threw it into shopping bags, which were then given to AIDS hospices and other charities, including a massive outdoor marijuana farm and hospice that Peron founded in rural Lake County.
It was a reflection of Peron’s popularity and power that when police finally decided to close his club down, they politely called him up to schedule the bust.
Ironically, the hit was to come on 4-20. That’s right, April 20, 1998 was the day San Francisco’s sheriff strolled into Peron’s office and in front of dozens of reporters from worldwide media handed Peron an eviction notice, which Peron promptly complied with, having already cleaned the club of its grow room, patients, and products.
The white-haired cannabis crusader carried a pot plant in his hand as he said a quick goodbye to the five story building that had been the scene of so much healing and fun. As Peron reached the sidewalk, accompanied by his faithful security agent Wayne Justmann, who is now the leader of a San Francisco medical marijuana club political committee, a sheriffs deputy handed Peron a garbage bag that he had left behind: the bag was filled with cash!
Across the bay in Oakland, baby-faced activist Jeff Jones had created the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative (OCBC). Jones publicly disavowed the party atmosphere typical of Peron’s club. OCBC was boring, safe, antiseptic- but had great medicine.
Even though Jones ran a tight ship, with no pot parties and every club member closely examined to make sure of authentic medical need, the government came down on the club like a ton of dirtweed bricks: OCBC became major legal test case beginning in 1998, when U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco issued an injunction prohibiting OCBC and other pot clubs from distributing cannabis.
Jones appealed the injunction, and on Sept. 8, 2000, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco ruled that the government could not investigate or punish physicians who recommend medpot and that medical marijuana clubs could provide cannabis to patients who could prove marijuana was a “medical necessity.”
The Justice Department appealed Alsup’s ruling, sending OCBC to the Supreme Court. Some medical marijuana activists urged Jones and other pot club managers to withdraw their participation in the battle, fearing an adverse ruling from the US’s top court would set precedent that could be used to close other existing clubs and foreclose the possibility of new ones.
The case went forward anyway, and in May, 2001, the Supreme Court ruled against OCBC’s main legal argument, which claimed that patients’ “medical necessity” gave the club the legal right to distribute marijuana.
The unanimous 8-0 decision, with Justice Stephen Breyer abstaining because his brother, a federal judge, had presided in other cannabis cases in California, said marijuana may not be distributed to patients, even if they prove a medical necessity for the drug. The decision affirmed existing federal law that classifies marijuana as an illegal substance with no medical benefits.
According to the court’s opinion, authored by one of the most retrograde judges ever to be on the court, Clarence Thomas, “In the case of the Controlled Substances Act, the statute reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception (outside the confines of a government-approved research project).”
This ruling was seen as a death knell for medpot clubs, but was not seen as a ruling that applied to patients who formed pot-growing collectives, or for individual patients who grew pot, mainly because the Supreme Court deliberately narrowed its ruling to apply only to the OCBC’s narrow claim that a club should be able to distribute marijuana to people who demonstrate a medical necessity.
Empowered by the ruling, the federal government stepped up its campaign to invade medpot states and ruin cannabis clubs in especially vicious ways. One of the clearest examples of this is what happened to Scott Imler’s Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center (LACRC), which served 960 patients by growing and providing medical marijuana.
Some in the cannabis community accused Imler of being a nark because he ran a transparent operation with full and frequent public disclosure of patient information to police and the DEA. Later, he was accused of providing information to police in the Peter McWilliams-Tod McCormick-Renee Boje cultivation case, which involved a massive medpot garden in Southern California.
Imler said his actions were intended to immunize him from arrest so he could continue providing medicine to patients, but the DEA raided LACRC in October, 2001, even though local police and city officials told feds the club was a community benefit that should not be shut down.
The DEA confiscated LACRC’s property, which was co-owned by the city and Wells Fargo Bank, and made $1.2 million by selling the property via drug forfeiture laws. DEA confiscated the club’s computers with personal information and medical records of LACRC’s 960 clients. The raid also stole 559 pot plants being grown on premises.
The DEA threatened to charge Imler and his co-defendants under racketeering and drug kingpin laws; this scared the defendants so much that they pled guilty to a felony count apiece, even though their felony plea could have resulted in 30 months in prison. In 2003, a federal judge handed out sentences of one year’s probation, community service, and no jail time.
During sentencing, the judge rebuked federal prosecutors, saying, “I think this entire prosecution was badly misguided. Given the huge scope of federal jurisdiction and the great prevalence of crime in our community, to allocate the resources of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in this case baffles me, disturbs me.”
Victims and victories
Ken Hayes is another California medpot club owner who met a dismal fate. Hayes was one of the principal founders of a San Francisco medical marijuana club called Cannabis Helping Alleviate Medicinal Problems (CHAMP). In 1999, police busted Hayes’s Sonoma County medicinal pot garden.
He wasn’t convicted in that case, but was arrested in Canada in 2002 after the DEA took action against another San Fran medical cannabis club Hayes had been involved in. Ultimately, Hayes had to leave Canada to avoid being extradited to the US to face charges in that case.
In Santa Cruz during the same era, the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) set out to avoid legal problems by creating a collective of seriously ill patients who grew and processed their own medicine.
WAMM did not sell marijuana; it merely helped people provide it for themselves. Prop. 215, which has been criticized for being “vaguely worded” and lacking clear instructions about how patients could procure medical marijuana, gives people the right to provide marijuana to each other as designated “caregivers.” WAMM created a non-profit community marijuana garden tended by sick and dying patients. It was not a club, a medpot retailer, or a distributor- it was sick people, all of whom had clear right to cultivate marijuana according to Prop. 215, growing marijuana together. A similar collective grow operation run by Eddy Lepp in Northern California was busted in 2004.
The DEA invaded WAMM’s gardens on September 5th, 2002, using chainsaws to destroy the gardens 250 patients depended on. But the DEA didn’t have the same success with WAMM that it had with Imler and Hayes. Instead, WAMM and the city of Santa Cruz sued the federal government; in April, 2004, a federal judge issued an injunction temporarily preventing the DEA from busting WAMM. Patients quickly moved to plant a new one acre garden, and WAMM is still operating with federal protection against another raid.
Other medpot victories created dilemmas for federal agents. In July, 2000, the city of San Francisco began issuing medpot identification cards that help patients gain access to medical marijuana while protecting them from arrest. The cards are available for a $25 fee. To get a card, a patient has only to provide a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana and an official form of identification. San Fran officials indicated that their city was a medical cannabis sanctuary that would defend itself against a federal attack.
The ID card program has become somewhat of a joke. There are rumors that some doctors aren’t exactly rigorous when it comes to examining patients, and that medical marijuana recommendations are relatively easy to come by. Still, San Francisco’s medical marijuana identification program has been imitated in other jurisdictions, including Hawaii and Oregon, and most police have honored medical marijuana identification cards by not arresting people for marijuana possession if they have valid cards.
Medical marijuana clubs in prohibitionist countries inherently have a hard time fitting in to some communities. That’s because they exist in a black market environment where they are a beacon of weed in a sea of prohibition surrounded by millions of people who want easy retail availability of marijuana.
It’s similar to what happened when Da Kine the potshop opened in Vancouver. As soon as marijuana consumers found out the shop existed, thousands of them flocked there, because thousands of people wanted to buy marijuana from somebody other than street dealers or friends. They lined up in the streets and crowded the sidewalk. They double-parked. They walked across the street not at crosswalks. They smoked pot outside the shop. Some of them got too high on Budder, and ran outside gasping, even vomiting, on the sidewalk- because they couldn’t handle the pure-THC hot knife Budder hit.
The only time police had to visit Da Kine was when they wanted to gather evidence or bust it. The place was peaceful and well-run. No injuries, no date rapes, no purse-snatchings. Still, it was a very busy very controversial business on a very busy street. And once the media found out about the potshop, their hysterical nightly reports made it hard for local government to let Da Kine quietly operate, so the cops and regulators moved in to stomp the flame.
The same kinds of adjustment pains have happened in some California communities. Marijuana clubs are a wee bit too popular, with a bit of aggro around them due to the crowds and all the happy, stoned people. It’s all in the numbers. At most, approximately 160 clubs have opened statewide in a state that has 38 million citizens, and many of those clubs are shut down by police soon after they open. Even if only five percent of Cali’s adult population wants to purchase weed on a regular basis, that’s tens of thousands of customers for a max of 160 shops, each of which has to purchase weed on the black market and supply it to people who claim to have medical conditions that qualify them and the shops for protection under Prop. 215.
The potential for problems is obvious. For one thing, a lot of people contrive medical problems so they can get a weed card. People can easily accuse some clubs and patients of being scammers, of hiding behind medical need to feed a purely “recreational” intent.
The clubs cannot easily be regulated by local governments, because authorities are afraid of condoning violations of federal law by seeming to approve of or license medpot clubs that appear to be federally illegal. When clubs do open, they become magnets for whoever wants weed, which means virtually everyone. There aren’t enough clubs; dispensaries that carry dynamite cannabis are going to have lines of customers, people hanging out in front of the clubs, re-selling of cannabis outside the clubs, and all the debris and commotion that are caused when people buying mind-altering substances gather in business districts and neighborhoods.
People who are in pain, who use marijuana to detox from hard drugs, or who are sick and dying with harsh diseases like AIDS or cancer, some of these people might be disconcerting to marijuana club neighbors. Maybe they cry. Maybe they scream, dance or shout. Having a medical dispensary or clinic of any kind in a community can often be challenging for those who run the clinic and for the community. One this is certain, however, the disconcerting behavior of a few medical marijuana patients is nothing compared to the downright dangerous behavior of people who frequent other types of “medicinal clubs,” such as bars.
Besides, marijuana clubs are “technically illegal,” so police protection is a conundrum, which means that strong-arm robberies, shake-downs and burglaries are a constant hassle for club owners. And what are they going to do if somebody steals a few kilos of Skunk? Call the police, call their insurance agent?
The incessant demand for marijuana that could be met by more clubs concentrates customers at the few medpot clubs that are open, and as medical marijuana advocates and politicians in San Francisco and other California communities have found out, the popularity and dynamics of clubs can make them a nuisance that angers neighbors and erodes community support.
This scenario is exactly what played out in San Francisco recently. After WAMM won its favorable ruling, after the Ninth Circuit found in favor of Angel Raich, and while the whole country waits to find out if the US Supreme Court will overturn the Ninth Circuit ruling or support Raich and thus prevent the DEA from busting patients and patients who are growers, a lot of entrepreneurs and activists forgot the OCBC ruling and assumed a temporary green light to open clubs and sell lots of pot before the Raich ruling came in.
In the last year, communities up and down California, but especially in Oakland and San Francisco, saw a massive increase in the number of new medpot clubs. The clubs are unofficial, unregulated, unlicensed. Basically anybody can rent a storefront and start selling “medical marijuana.”
Unlike other businesses such as bars, methadcone clinics, strip clubs, porn shops, gun shops, dog kennels, garbage dumps and any business that has products or services likely to create difficult situations or affect the local environment, pot clubs are in a gray area between legality and illegality, without zoning or other supervision, so they’ve opened near schools, churches, in hotels and suburban neighborhoods.
Many medical cannabis shops are run by professionals with prior experience in fields like retail sales, bars, health care, entertainment, restaurants, and other customer-oriented enterprises. They have a Dutch coffeeshop environment and menu, offering several types of superb marijuana, along with edible treats, and tinctures, and exotic desserts like bubblehash. They have a warm, laid back ambiance that seems out of place in a repressive country like America.
But some shops are run by people with little experience in business, and some cannabis entrepreneurs have “questionable” backgrounds that can be used to generate a bad image for medical marijuana clubs.
Consider the case of 40-year-old Jeff Hunter, reported in a San Francisco newspaper to be a “former crack addict who spent seven years in San Quentin State Prison for cocaine trafficking.”
According to the report, Jeff is still on probation, but that didn’t stop him from setting up the “Happy Days Herbal Relief Center” on Divisadero Street in San Francisco.
“I was having a midlife crisis and was looking for other ways to make money legally,” Hunter told a journalist. “I make a pretty good income, I’d have to say.”
The newspaper article says that when journalists showed up at Happy Days on a recent afternoon, “Business was brisk, with a stream of young, streetwise-looking customers showing up to buy or sample the goods. On the wall hung a large menu, featuring ‘G. Purple’ for $20 a gram and hash for $35 a gram, along with an assortment of medicine-laced goodies, including giant brownies and chocolate chip cookies. While it might look like a party scene, Hunter insists that ‘100 percent’ of his clients are legitimate medical marijuana users.”
The article’s amused but semi-alarmed and cynical tone is echoed at public meetings and in the halls of power in San Francisco, which is the most cannabis-friendly city in the US.
When somebody opened a marijuana shop in the ground floor of a city-funded “welfare hotel” halfway house that seeks to rehab recovering drug addicts, San Francisco’s mayor and city council hastily called meetings to deal with medical cannabis dispensaries.
“There are 44 McDonald’s in all of Manhattan- more than any location in the world- and we have 37 marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco,” complained Neighborhood Association President Susan Eslick after she learned of plans for another cannabis shop down the street from her house.
San Francisco police blame the formerly-progressive mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown, for their city’s pot club proliferation. Brown and his city government shut down perhaps 15 official and unofficial marijuana clubs in Oakland in 2004, leaving only four of them open, and driving some over to San Fran. Before the shut-down, they were calling the place “Oaksterdam.”
Frisco police also blamed the city of Berkeley, located across the bay from Frisco near Oakland, saying Berkley’s recent tightening of medpot club regulations contributed to more clubs opening in San Fran’s unregulated environment.
Frisco officials appeared somewhat embarrassed that they have zero regulations governing cannabis clubs. They aren’t even sure how many clubs exist, although officials claim they know how many people have city-provided medpot licenses: 8200.
Insiders say San Franciscans of all ages, incomes, ethnic groups, and political persuasion are using clubs the same way cannabis coffeeshops are used in Holland.
Officials are trying to require that the city departments communicate with each other and provide oversight if somebody applies for a cannabusiness license, but recently the city government admitted “there are no comprehensive city laws regulating or monitoring medical cannabis dispensaries.”
Until late March, that is, when Frisco put a 45-day moratorium on the opening of more clubs, with a threat to extend the moratorium, or to start cutting back the number of clubs, as Oakland and Berkeley have already done.
Wayne Justmann, Dennis Peron’s former security officer and himself a medpot club manager, said the moratorium is “going to have to rely on the goodwill of the individuals who claim that they want to come in and be part of the medicinal cannabis community of San Francisco.”
“People are coming in from outside San Francisco and just opening up shop without consulting their neighborhoods or community representatives, and I think greed motivates these individuals,” Justmann said. “Unorganized crime has moved into the dispensary business, and we need to clean the wheat from the chaff.”
The moratorium was strongly supported by Mayor Gavin Newsom, who believes officials need time to sort out questions of permits, taxes, zoning, public safety, and other regulatory issues, in addition to resolving how many clubs can exist within a given area or how close they should be to schools and playgrounds.
Captain Tim Hettrich, who heads the police narcotics unit, said medical pot use was a “great lie” because people with minor afflictions were easily able to secure doctors’ recommendations for marijuana.
The troubles in San Fran have produced a backlash in the rest of California.
In the liberal city of Santa Cruz, a downtown medical marijuana cooperative was recently closed by the city Planning Department.
Founders of the “Pacific Coast Cooperative” said they wanted to show city officials that a medical marijuana dispensary could be a quiet tenant in a building that also houses architects, attorneys, a software company, and a nightclub. Planning officials implied that they had been misled into thinking that the Co-op was a “professional consulting business.”
“They claimed to be a professional consulting business, so we just signed off on it,” said Alex Khoury, a Planning Department official. “The zoning code clearly distinguishes that that use is not permitted in the downtown commercial district.”
Pot-related businesses are only permitted in the city’s commercial and industrial districts.
Michael Moran, owner of a software development company located in the same part of the building as the Co-op, said he had no idea that marijuana sales were taking place nearby.
“I have no complaints at all,” Moran said. “I’m happy they’re here. They’re fine.”
Other cities have also moved against potshops. The West Hollywood City Council recently adopted an emergency 45-day moratorium stopping new medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.
“While the city of West Hollywood supports the use of medical marijuana, we also have to guard against adverse neighborhood impacts such as traffic, noise and loitering,” said Mayor John Duran. “We will soon come up with comprehensive regulations to strike the proper balance on these issues.”
In Northern California, the small city of Ukiah is dealing with its own medpot issues. The Ukiah Planning Commission and local politicians want to squeeze dispensaries and medical growers into parts of Ukian zoned only for commercial activity. If the ordinance passes, home marijuana gardens, indoors or outdoors, would be illegal.
In the Southern California city of Ontario, cannabis clinics, co-ops and clubs looking to sell medicinal marijuana are banned from the city. Councilman Alan Wapner authored the ban after hearing from city officials in Northern California of problems surrounding marijuana dispensaries.
“I want to be proactive,” Wapner said after the meeting. “It’s like adult businesses. I’d just as rather not have them.”
According to a report issued by Huntington Beach, which passed its own anti-medpot club moratorium in February, problems “caused by” medical marijuana clinics range from complaints about customers who “look like drug users” to robbery, public drug use and solicitation of sex. In Fairfax, the report said, one person bought marijuana at a dispensary and then tried to trade it to a minor for sex at a nearby park.
To back up their outright ban of medpot clubs, officials in Rocklin released a report citing examples of petty crime, pot DUIs and illegal drug dealing around existing clubs in Hayward, Oakland and Roseville.
By passing its ban, Ontario joined a growing list of cities taking steps to keep clinics out. These include Rocklin, San Rafael, Fresno, Emoryville, Galt, Woodland, Stockton, San Luis Obispo, Modesto, Temecula, Huntington Beach and Pasadena. Some of these cities have issued temporary bans or draconian zoning regulations; others have issued permanent bans.
The medical cannabis club issue has produced lots of bad feelings, biased media coverage and in-fighting. In “liberal” Santa Rosa, for example, the local “Press-Democrat” newspaper has been accused of running false stories that exaggerate problems caused by medical pot clubs.
It’s interesting that even though several other states have medical cannabis laws, that it is California that has seen the medpot club issue rise to the fore.
Nevada also has a medical cannabis law, but when Pierre Werner proposed to open a medpot club in Las Vegas, the Clark County Commission voted 4-1 to deny him a license to open a business where patients could socialize and smoke the marijuana they’re permitted by law to possess.
“There is nothing in the law to prevent it,” Werner argued. “Patients need a place to come together and share ideas, share recipes and techniques for growing and harvesting.”
Werner’s venture, however, was quashed in March when police, state medical marijuana regulators and the county’s Business License Department recommended the commission deny Werner a license, despite the state attorney general’s office stating that the medical marijuana law doesn’t prohibit pot clubs.
“My familiarity is with the medical marijuana law, and there is nothing in there that would prevent someone from doing that,” Gina Session, senior deputy attorney general, said. “As far as people congregating, medical marijuana users, there would be nothing to stop that as long as they were within the law.”
Commission Chairman Rory Reid said the commission majority voted against Werner’s proposal based on its attorney’s opinion that the commission doesn’t have authority to license such a business.
Asked whether county administrators should develop regulations allowing bring-your-own-marijuana clubs, Reid said, “I don’t see any public outcry for that kind of establishment.”
Jennifer Bartlett, manager of the state’s medical marijuana program, said 540 people statewide have been issued licenses to use marijuana. Patients are allowed to grow their own marijuana or get it from a designated caregiver licensed by the state. To avoid any accusation that caregivers distribute marijuana, each is permitted to provide marijuana to only one licensed patient. Officials say Nevada’s law only allows people to use cannabis privately in their homes, to discourage federal police from attacking medpot people and clubs as they’ve done in California.
Proponents of cannabis clubs in Nevada and elsewhere say a double standard is applied to the cannabis community. Noting that prostitution, gambling and alcohol are legal and part of Nevada’s tourism profits, cannabis advocates point out the many documented social harms associated with those activities, and say that marijuana clubs, patients and marijuana are obviously far less dangerous to communities than boozers and already-existing businesses such as bars, gun clubs, strip clubs, nightclubs, gambling halls, and brothels.
They cite alcohol and bar statistics such as:
* Of the 14.6 million arrests for criminal infractions in 1994, driving under the influence was the offense most often cited among adults. (FBI, 1995)
* In 1997 an estimated 513,200 offenders were on probation or in jail or prison for driving while intoxicated by alcohol (DWI).
* The commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities reported in 1994 that 95 percent of violent crimes on campuses and 40 percent of academic problems are alcohol-related. (The Washington Post, 1995)
* Based on victim reports, each year 183,000 (37%) rapes and sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the offender, as do just over 197,000 (15%) of robberies, about 661,000 (27%) aggravated assaults, and nearly 1.7 million (25%) simple assaults. (US Department of Justice)
* Alcohol is typically found in the offender, victim or both in about half of all homicides and serious assaults, as well as in a high percentage of sex-related crimes, robberies, and incidents of domestic violence.
* Nearly one-fourth of all persons admitted to hospitals have alcohol problems or are undiagnosed alcoholics being treated for the consequences of their drinking.
* Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which can occur when women drink during pregnancy, is the leading known environmental cause of mental retardation in the Western World. Each year 4,000 to 12,000 babies are born with the physical signs and intellectual disabilities associated with (FAS), and thousands more experience the somewhat lesser disabilities of fetal alcohol effects.
* Alcohol contributes to 100,000 deaths annually, making it the third leading cause of preventable mortality in the US.
* 38% of all traffic fatalities (the leading cause of accidental death) are alcohol-related. Alcohol plays a major role in suicides, fires, gunshot wounds, stabbings, falls, drownings, domestic violence, pedestrian injuries, and motor vehicle crashes. Nearly half of all hospital emergency room beds are occupied by patients who were injured while under the influence of alcohol. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1995). Alcoholics are 16 times more likely than others to die in falls, and 10 times more likely to become fire or burn victims. Estimates suggest that alcohol is associated with between 47% and 65% of adult drownings. Up to 40% of industrial fatalities and 47% of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol consumption and alcoholism.
* Research, statistics and common sense show that areas with more alcohol outlets (a business or location where alcoholic beverages are sold) experience more alcohol-related injury and crime. Incidents of sexual and other assaults, domestic violence, child abuse, youth violence, homicides, alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, and drunk driving have all been shown to increase when the availability of alcohol increases. Concern among local communities generally focuses on alcohol availability from commercial outlets, such as bars and retail stores. But public availability of alcohol, or alcohol that is served at public events and in public places such as parks, can also be a significant source of alcohol-related problems in the community.
* The number of alcohol outlets is correlated to violent assaults. One study showed that each additional alcohol outlet created 3.4 additional assaults per year. (Scribner, R., Mackinnon, D. & Dwyer, J.: “The risk of assaultive violence and alcohol availability in Los Angeles County.” American Journal of Public Health (85) 3: 335-340. 1995).
* Alcohol outlet density is the single most important environmental factor explaining why violent crime rates are higher in certain areas of the city than in others. (LaBouvie, E. & Ontkush, M.:”Violent crime and alcohol availability: relationships in an urban community.” Journal of Public Health Policy 19(3):303-318. 1998).
* There are a greater number of alcohol-related injury crashes in cities with higher outlet densities. A 1% increase in outlet density means a .54% increase in alcohol-related crashes. Thus, a city of 50,000 residents with 100 alcohol outlets would experience an additional 2.7 crashes for each new outlet opened. (Scribner, R., Mackinnon, D. & Dwyer, J.: “Alcohol outlet density and motor vehicle crashes in Los Angeles County cities.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol (44): 447-453, July 1994).
* Blocks that have more bars have higher crime rates for murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, grand theft and auto theft. Adding one bar to a block results in 3.38 more crimes committed on that block in a year. It would increase the risk of murder taking place on that block by 5%, and increase the risk of having a violent crime of any type by 17.6%. (Runcek, D. & Maier, P. “Bars, blocks and crimes revisited: linking the theory of routine activities to the empiricism of ‘hot spots.’ ” Criminology (29) 4: 725-753. 1991).
* The level of drinking, drinking participation, and participation in binge drinking are all significantly higher among all college students when a greater number of outlets licensed to sell alcoholic beverages exist near campus. This is particularly true for underage drinking. (Chaloupka, F. & Wechsler, H. “Binge drinking in college: the impact of price, availability and alcohol control policies.” Contemporary Economic Policy, vol. xiv, October 1996).
* Freedom from unwanted interruptions in one’s house or place of business are fundamental legal rights. A basic tenet of law is the right to the “quiet enjoyment” of one’s own property. High densities of alcohol outlets cause noise, traffic, loitering, and other disturbances of the public peace.
* In Vancouver, Canada there were zero reports of violence, date rape, robbery or homicide associated with Da Kine cannabis shop, even though it had thousands of customers in a black market environment. Many Vancouver nightclubs and bars, however, are tawdry venues for noise, stupidity, homicides, date rapes and assaults. Why is Da Kine closed by police in a massive raid, but nightclubs and bars still open?
In considering these abovementioned facts about alcohol and bars, it’s easy to see that medical cannabis clubs and patients are relatively harmless, and are the victims of social prejudices and unfair restrictions. What little commotion is caused by cannabis clubs in San Francisco and elsewhere can be attributed not to the inherent nature of cannabis distribution or the herb’s effects on humans, but on problems created by prohibition.
In Holland, police affirm they rarely if ever are called to a cannabis shop to investigate violence, date rape, or injuries, but that alcohol bars and boozed-up people are a constant source of serious, chronic public harm. The same cannot be said for stoned people, who are generally peaceful and quiet.
In light of this, and regardless of what the Supreme Court rules or what the DEA decides to do about medical marijuana clubs, it is certain that cannabis clubs will continue to operate in America from now on, and to provide more benefits than harms to their communities, especially when compared to the harms and benefits of alcohol outlets.