As Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Proliferate, Some Argue that State Should get a Cut of the Action

January 10, 2009 – How should the state respond to the growth of medical marijuana dispensaries?

The large wood-frame Victorian house, home to the Medical Kush Doctor and the Kush Clubhouse, rests on the wild and free oceanfront of Venice Beach and in the purple haze of California’s medical marijuana laws.

Even on this eclectic Los Angeles-area beach, a cannabis physician’s office sharing the same roof with a pot bar and dispensary may seem remarkable.

Doctors who recommend medical marijuana to patients are barred from providing the pot themselves. And the California Medical Board warns that physicians directing patients to get their weed at any specific dispensary could be illegally aiding and abetting a drug transaction.

But apparently there is no problem here. A man identifying himself as a supervisor for the medical office insisted that the two businesses operate legally with separate doors and keys.

“There are two licensed businesses here: Unit A and Unit B,” he said. “The doctor’s office doesn’t refer anybody” to the dispensary. “That’s for them to figure out.”

Seemingly a great many people have figured out how to exploit California’s Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, to forge a thriving marijuana economy in the Golden State.

Doctors charge up to $250 per evaluation so people reporting conditions from gastric disorders to general malaise can legally purchase or cultivate marijuana.

Legal growers setting up in pot-friendly places such as the North Coast county of Humboldt are compensated for distributing their pounds of excess weed to members-only cannabis patient collectives.

Proliferating nonprofit urban dispensaries in California pay generous salaries to employees serving the medicinal needs of tens of thousands of marijuana users.

Now legalization advocates are seizing upon California’s untamed, quasi-legal market for medical cannabis to argue for initiatives and legislation to give the state a $1 billion toke in new tax revenues.

They promise that amount – or more – will be California’s reward for fully legalizing marijuana for all adults 21 and over, and taxing and regulating cannabis like alcohol.

Petitioners are seeking signatures on four pot legalization measures for the November ballot. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, is pushing a legalization bill in the Legislature calling for a licensed network of commercial cultivators.

“To put it crassly, there’s gold in them thar hills and business people recognize that,” said Ammiano, who dreams of taxes on legal pot bolstering California’s beleaguered schools, depleted police ranks and social services.

His point is underscored by the flowering cannabis enterprises and political movement of Richard Lee.

Owner of an Oakland dispensary and an acclaimed school of pot, Oaksterdam University, Lee has pumped more than $1 million to back one of the marijuana legalization and taxation initiatives. He says petitioners have gathered 650,000 signatures – 50 percent more than required to qualify his measure before the deadline next month.

In July, Lee rallied Oakland voters to approve a tax on local dispensaries. He sees taxation as an acceptable price for pot’s acceptance. “It’s a reverse tax revolt – no taxation without legalization,” he said in an interview after the Oakland vote.

But Mariellen Jurkovich, director of the Humboldt Patient Resource Center, an Arcata dispensary that grows pot on-site for medical users, views full legalization as a slap at people who legitimately need cannabis for health reasons.

“The fact is I run a medical marijuana facility,” she said. “And it should be medical.”

She concedes that some patients who grow their own pot are leery of legalization – and its wide-open market – “because they feel it would jeopardize the money they make” selling their extra buds to cannabis dispensaries.

Legalization proponents argue that wider acceptance could bring needed governance and sanity to a California pot market that has exploded with nudge-and-wink legal interpretations of Proposition 215.

“I think ultimately it brings clarity,” said Bruce Mirken, outgoing communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates relaxing pot laws. “There are no doubt some gray areas of the (medical pot) law that have caused confusion. But that’s not the same as legality.”

Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 215 in 1996, moved by depictions of AIDS and cancer patients whose appetites were boosted or nausea alleviated through marijuana use. Those patients now make up but a tiny share of the medicinal market.

“There are absolutely no standards for which it can be given,” said Scott Thorpe, a former state prosecutor and CEO of the California District Attorneys Association. “They (Proposition 215 backers) wrote an initiative that is so vague, and so ambiguous, it has resulted in a system where people may have access to marijuana, may use it and maybe sell it, with questionable medical needs.”

Before his death in 2007, Dr. Tod Mikuriya, a California psychiatrist and a pioneer in the cannabis movement, compiled a list of more than 250 conditions – from psoriasis to writer’s cramp – that could be helped with marijuana.

“It is such a safe and effective medicine,” said Berkeley physician Frank Lucido, who surveyed more than 1,000 of his medical pot patients and found that most sought it for chronic pain, followed by anxiety. “And no one has ever died from it.”

But Dr. Morton Barke, whose Medical Marijuana Evaluation Center borders a Venice Beach Botox clinic – not a dispensary – is offended by competitors operating next to hash bars and bong shops.

He is critical of the current system of physician recommendations that amounts to doling out shopping cards for cannabis stores. Barke, instead, wants a law mandating formal prescriptions for pot.

“It should be handled by pharmacies the way they handle Vicodin, codeine and everything else,” he said.

Thorpe argues that marijuana’s full legalization in California could create more confusion by putting the state squarely in conflict with federal law. He warns that it might disrupt a fragile accord that developed when the U.S. Department of Justice under the Obama administration relaxed enforcement policies for 14 states that have legalized medicinal use.

Legalization advocate Mirken says California will lead the cause of defining the future for pot as states “drag the feds, kicking and screaming, toward sanity.”

And as far as any kicking and screaming goes, surely somewhere in California there is a medical marijuana recommendation for that.

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