Uneasy access to herb irks jurors

06/13/2013

The looming closure of the only remaining medical marijuana storefront dispensary in Marin has prompted criticism from the county’s civil grand jury over diminishing access to the drug—in the face of the overwhelming support it has from county voters. 

In May, the California Supreme Court ruled that cities and municipalities have the authority to ban storefront medical marijuana dispensaries, making way for the last remaining Marin storefront, Corte Madera’s Marin Holistic Solutions, to be closed next spring. 

“One [storefront] dispensary, already serving 800 patients, cannot adequately meet the needs of a county this size,” the Marin County Civil Grand Jury asserted in its May report, “Medical Marijuana: Up in Smoke?” 

While some alternatives exist for patients—patronizing online dispensaries that deliver their products, growing one’s own or joining a collective—the jury argued that storefronts provide a critical route for transparent access. 

“I believe there is a need for marijuana and marijuana products to be available to people that can benefit from them medically,” Corte Madera’s mayor, Diane Furst, said. But Ms. Furst said the pressure put on many dispensaries in California, coupled with the lack of state regulation, led to a moratorium and subsequent ban that is slated to take effect at the end of the business’s current lease.

The report found that dispensary bans enacted by cities were tied to a fear of attracting criminal behavior or encouraging youth to use it recreationally, and it noted three major studies that found that perception false. 

Marin County passed an ordinance in 1992, supported by 73 percent of voters, sympathizing with those who could benefit from medical marijuana, before the state legalized medicinal use in 1996. But the California law didn’t establish regulations for dispensaries, instead leaving it up to cities and town councils to do the work, resulting in a patchwork of ordinances and now outright bans or impossible zoning regulations.

The report calls on the Board of Supervisors to respect the 1992 vote “by using its authority to uphold access to medical marijuana within the county. Compassion without action is not enough.” It also recommended that supervisors establish ordinances for unincorporated Marin, where currently none exist. 

Joseph Henderson, a spokesman for Marin Holistic Solutions, said that one option for the company would be to relocate to an unincorporated area—but, he said, it would need to remain on the eastern side of the county to provide the most access to the greatest number of people. He added that it would still need to find a landlord willing to rent.

The watchdog report cited one unnamed supervisor who said dealing with medical marijuana was not a priority for the board.

For his part, Supervisor Steve Kinsey told the Light, “Access is important in Marin, and I think there is something that our board should do. We have a subcommittee of supervisors that is working with the Community Development Agency to bring forward a recommendation.” 

Mr. Kinsey believes future county ordinances should allow two or three dispensaries—“access without excess,” he said—that would have to maintain buffer zones around schools, among other conditions. Tom Lai, assistant director of the Community Development Agency, said the supervisors’ subcommittee would likely wait for more clarity about the federal government’s stance on storefronts before proposing any new ordinances. 

 

Marijuana as medicine

West Marin resident Margaret Hink, whose real name she wished to conceal, didn’t know that Marin Holistic Solutions, where she occasionally purchases edibles, was set to close next year. 

A storefront she used to patronize in Fairfax closed in 2011; although Ms. Hink had felt comforted knowing there was at least one storefront dispensary, “knowing that that’s slated to be closed is distressing, an avenue for the free exercise of one’s right to health.”

Medical marijuana patients in Marin would only speak anonymously over concerns about their professional identities.

One patient, Sarah Baumm, also a pseudonym, said that friends generally know of her use but she worries about her career. “I don’t want to put myself professionally in an awkward situation or turn people off who might think something about me and my professionalism based on their strange ideas about what it means to be someone who smokes pot.”

Ms. Hink used marijuana recreationally as a young woman but began taking it medicinally about 10 years ago, when she underwent chemotherapy for cancer.

“It was a gift,” she said. “It was good medicine.” She said it not only alleviates nausea but acts as a mental salve for those who are seriously ill. “It gives us the ability to change the channel, stop being involved in a particular mindset… When you’re recovering from a serious illness, you want to have as large as possible world view that you can.”

Sleeping pills and antidepressants on the other hand, she said, have a number of side effects, and she emphasized her desire to refrain from adulterating her body as much as possible. 

Ms. Baumm uses it for chronic back pain and when she has difficulty sleeping.

Marin Holistic Solution’s Mr. Henderson said that at least half his patients receive physician recommendations for the drug from oncologists. “We are all stakeholders in this fight, whether we realize it or not,” he said: everyone, whether stricken with cancer, chronic pain or nearing the end of their own lives, can benefit from the medicinal herb.

He also noted that some people simply cannot grow their own, whether they are too ill or just don’t have a green thumb. 

In addition to the occasional use of edibles, Ms. Hink smokes marijuana given to her by friends cultivating it for their own medicinal use. (To obtain the full medicinal benefits, Mr. Henderson strongly recommends the use of a vaporizer over smoking.) 

Both Ms. Baumm and another patient interviewed by the Light also grew their own, and Mr. Henderson said that he estimated that perhaps only 25 to 30 of its roughly 800 patients were from West Marin, potentially indicating that many patients here —whether for geographic or financial reasons—don’t rely regularly on storefront dispensaries. 

But the husband of another West Marin patient explained that his wife went to Marin Holistic Solution because she liked to use the paste inside capsules they dispense, which she does not know how to make herself. 

 

Online dispensaries 

The county watchdog expressed skepticism of online and delivery dispensaries, claiming that they could more easily evade taxes than storefronts. It quoted one official who said, “I would never refer my 94-year-old grandmother to a delivery service.” 

When Ms. Baumm purchased clones, or starter plants, from an online dispensary to grow her own marijuana, she said she filled out reams of paperwork and submitted photos of her driver’s license. 

For those in West Marin who may be too sick to grow their own or want a clone to begin growing, delivery services offer a discrete point of access to the drug. 

Mr. Henderson said there is a role for delivery services, which can provide access for those who are especially ill or bedridden, but added that storefronts are particularly accountable and transparent to town councils, neighbors, patients and communities.

A board member for one delivery service in Marin defended his group’s operations. “We do everything by the book,” he said, paying all the requisite taxes and obtaining a business license. People should perform their “due diligence” when using any dispensary, he said, adding that “cowboy dispensaries” give reputable ones a bad name.