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Matt Kenyon, Spring 2013 Students

Marijuana dispensaries searching for solution in San Diego

By: Matt Kenyon

Kyle Williams was diagnosed with lymphoma seven years ago.  He has been in and out of chemotherapy for five years, but his diagnosis has not changed.  Williams is a 49-year-old graphic designer and missed a lot of work at the beginning of his treatment. But he says he is now able to function — thanks to a controversial prescription.

Williams, a resident of Carlsbad is also a medical marijuana patient.  He got his prescription after a difficult first two years of cancer treatment and countless missed days at work.

“It was crazy how much better I felt,” Williams said.  “I mean, I smoked a little in college but that was for fun.  I heard that marijuana was helping other cancer patients so I decided to try it.”

Williams returned to work the week after using the drug.

“My appetite was back and I was sleeping through the whole night with no pain.  I felt stronger,” Williams said.

Things were turning around for Williams; he was back at work and living a more comfortable life, until the U.S. Supreme Court overruled California’s decision to allow marijuana to be used medicinally.

The federal shut down of dispensaries has also had a negative impact on those who worked in the industry, or those who still do.  Although the vast majority of store-fronts have been shut down, there are still delivery services operating in San Diego County.  One delivery driver in San Diego, who asked to keep his name confidential, said that the delivery service is more harmful to the community than having storefront dispensaries.

The medical marijuana industry has been depleted to rely solely on the delivery service to get medicine to patients. In this slideshow, this delivery man gives an inside look at that service.

Disintegrating dispensaries

San Diego County was once home to more than 200 dispensaries.  Big green crosses could be seen in every city advertising medicine to people who sought an alternative treatment.  There are many threads of state legislature that are woven together that allow medical marijuana patients to obtain their medicine and also protect the buyer and seller from lawful harm.  But federal law has the final say in the legality of the matter, and the court said ‘no’.

Medical marijuana has steadily become more accessible in the past 17 years.

  • Prop 215 (1996)- Also known as the Compassionate Act, Prop 215 allowed for anyone with a chronic illness to cultivate and possess marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation.
  • SB 420 (2003)- Established an identification card system for medical marijuana patients.
  • Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act (2009)- Removed penalties for marijuana use, possession and cultivation for CA residents 21 years of age or older.
  • SB 1449 (2010)- Reduced the penalty for carrying up to one ounce of cannabis from a misdemeanor to an infraction.

Laura Duffy is the US attorney for San Diego County and is responsible for upholding United States Law, Medical marijuana was first made illegal by the Controlled Substances Act.  The CSA, established in 1970, divided all drugs into five categories, called schedules, that range from legal without prescription, such as aspirin and cough syrup, to completely prohibited, such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana.  Drugs that are completely prohibited are Schedule 1 and have been declared highly addictive, hold no medical value and come with a high potential for abuse.

In October 2011, dispensary numbers were at an all-time high of 253 in San Diego County.  By the end of 2011, all 253 of those dispensaries had been sent cease-and-desist letters signed by U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy.  By January 2013, there were only 10 operating dispensaries left in San Diego.

This was bad news for patients like Williams, who are concerned about the prospect of having to find a more dangerous way of obtaining medicine.

“It’s just a big hassle,” Williams said.  “I only have one or two places to get my meds from now.  I don’t know what I’d do if they shut those down.”

Whether medical marijuana is morally right or wrong is not the only concern for local residents living in proximity to dispensaries.  San Diegans United for Safe Neighborhoods is a group that fights to ensure community safety and believes dispensaries threaten that safety.  Elena Romo is a supporter of the group and said dispensaries have changed the profile of her community.

“It makes the neighborhood feel sketchy,” Romo said.  “People hang out outside the shops and it just doesn’t feel like the same place.  It feels unsafe.”

San Diegan United for Safe Neighborhoods approves of the high annual fee of $5,000 or more to ensure here-today gone-tomorrow operations don’t come and go as they please.  The problem lies in zoning.  They fear that dispensaries will disinigrate the integrity of their communities by attracting undesirable visitors.

Filner fights feds

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner supported medical marijuana during his 2011 campaign.  After taking office in January, he ordered law enforcement to discontinue any prosecution against remaining dispensaries.  Later that month, however, the City Council unanimously voted in closed session to continue enforcing zoning laws that do not allow for dispensaries.

Although Filner declined to veto the vote, he introduced a new ordinance that was approved by City Council on April 22, according to council records.  The ordinance, based on the 2011 ordinance that was later withdrawn due to its restrictiveness, will allow dispensaries to operate strictly in industrial and commercial zones and charge a $5,000 annual permit fee as well as a 2 percent city sales tax.

Dispensaries are also be required to operate at least 600 feet away from K-12 schools, childcare facilities, playgrounds, public parks and other dispensaries.  Unlike the 2011 ordinance, the new proposal has no distance requirement between dispensaries and churches, libraries and youth facilities.

Dr. John Clapp is the Director of Alcohol and Other Drugs Studies at San Diego State University and believes that there were too many dispensaries in San Diego County before they were shut down.

Dr. John Clapp discusses the lack of research surrounding medical marijuana as well as the future of the industry in San Diego.

Although over 90 percent of dispensaries were closed after the court’s decision, hope is still alive in the medical marijuana community because of the Mayor’s support.  They hope a less restrictive ordinance will allow dispensaries to be able to operate without interferance from the federal government.

The opposition for medical marijuana, such as Romo, feels that the system that was once in place in San Diego made marijuana to accessible for people who did not truly need it, such as abusers and college students.

Former dispensary worker Tom Brown shares the optimism that marijuana will once again be available to those who need it most.  While finishing his final year of undergrad, Brown worked at The Dank Bank, a dispensary two miles from his campus.  Despite living on campus and being in a fraternity, Brown says that he rarely served college kids.

“Students would come in once in a while but most patients were ordinary people you would see in a grocery store,” Brown said.  “Two lawyers would come in about once a week all dressed up in their suits … I always thought it was funny, they were so professional.”

Brown said patients came from every walk of life.  From AIDS patients and cancer survivors to lawyers and nurses, Brown began to enjoy the feeling of seeing the relief on a patients’ face when they picked up their medicine with such ease.

“I applied to work at a dispensary ‘cause I thought it would be a cool job,” Brown said.  “I never thought it could be so gratifying and I wouldn’t mind going back.”

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About matthewkenyon

Journalism student at SDSU

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