By Helen Afrasiabi
California Health Report
Mike Kelly opens his medical marijuana dispensary each morning not truly knowing if it will be his last day of business. Kelly, owner of Aloha Community Collective in Santa Ana, provides medical marijuana to patients presenting doctors’ recommendations for conditions ranging from insomnia to cancer.
Though Santa Ana initiated its ban on medical marijuana dispensaries almost five years ago, only recently have code enforcement officers decided to crack down on these operations. Sixty-five dispensaries have been closed by code enforcement in Santa Ana since 2007, according to Jose Gonzalez, public information officer for the City of Santa Ana. Kelly said he wouldn’t be surprised if his was the next to get a random visit from officers presenting a warrant.
Kandice Hawes, Director of the Orange County chapter of NORML- the nonprofit organization supporting medical marijuana legal reform- has not been able to identify the specific reason or pattern associated with the closures.
“It’s sporadic,” Hawes said.
Those approached have been given reasons including operating without a business license and being too close to schools or other dispensaries, according to Hawes. Many have been in business for years, and some only open a few months.
According to the city of Santa Ana’s Department of Planning, the ban on storefront dispensary operations-also referred to as collectives- is tied to the fundamental safety and well being of the residents and business community. Storefront dispensaries may induce local dealers to entice patients with lower prices, driving customers away from neighboring businesses. Dispensaries have sold to undercover police without the proper documentation.
Hawes, along with dispensary owners and patients, has decried the city’s position on dispensaries. “The fact is if they close those locations those younger people don’t have any problem finding it, it’s the older patients who truly need it that will get hurt,” Hawes said.
As both a medical marijuana patient and advocate since 2008, Marla James, 51, has heard every argument against storefront collectives a dozen times. She believes the city is doing medical marijuana patients a disservice.
In the last thirteen years, James said, she was struck twice with necrotizing fasciitis – also known as flesh-eating bacteria – and had partial leg amputation resulting from her diabetes. She also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, she said. She said her conditions left her permanently wheelchair bound and on a litany of prescription drugs. Four years ago, she realized that she was not able to function without opiate painkillers Oxycontin and intravenous Hydrocodone. The addiction left her with little mental awareness and deprived of the ability to do routine tasks such as drive. James has since gotten on medical marijuana, which she says has left her free of pain, alert and functional.
If dispensaries disappear the only choice she’ll have is to buy off of the street, and that is hardly a viable option, she says. For one thing, she is confident in the quality of the the marijuana she gets from a dispensary because she knows the marijuana sold there has been grown under specific conditions and tested for substances such as mold.
“That is why it is important to keep it off the street,” James said. “How do we know what dealers will be selling us?” James is also afraid of the covert nature of buying off the street.
Like James, patient Robin Bollay would be in the same boat if the city rid itself of all dispensaries. She says the only choice it would leave her is to buy from street dealers or go back to medication, and that is not an option. Bollay has huge misgivings about hitting the streets for her marijuana.
“Its sneaky. It’s not like I’m a patient going buy medication, its like I’m pounding the pavement for illicit drugs,” Bollay said.
Born asthmatic and unresponsive to bronchodilators, Bollay had been on steroids since the age of two, and developed Addison’s disease at age 16. According to Bollay, 51, medical marijuana has made her a walking miracle by relieving her of the pain of her illnesses.
Despite California laws, purchasing or dispensing marijuana are in violation of federal regulations, notes Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman Jeffrey Scott. No state law can override or encourage citizens to override the federal law, Scott added.
“Individuals who use dispensaries as a shield for persistent criminal activity are of interest to us,” Scott said. “We have targeted those dispensaries where we believe activities are more indicative of criminal behavior than medical.”
According to Orange County medical marijuana attorney Anthony Curiale, there are two unresolved issues at the heart of the problem.
The first echoes the assertion made by Scott, the lack of a universal law with regard to marijuana users.
“California says if you use with a doctor’s recommendation, you won’t go to jail, but we can’t prevent the feds from enforcing federal law. If they want to, they can come in and prosecute,” Curiale said.
And so it unfolds on a case-by-case basis, Curiale said.
Although dispensaries within hospitals, hospice facilities and other medical environments won’t be touched, according to the city, Curiale says the other problem is the absence of a precise definition of a dispensary.
“There is no legal definition of the term dispensary anywhere. It’s whatever cities decide it is,” he said. He explains further that Santa Ana defines a dispensary as any location that makes marijuana available to two or more patients, emphasizing that the definition focuses on distribution and not sale.
“It’s a very important concept because under these circumstances it’s not just limited to storefronts anymore,” Curiale said.
Dispensary owner Kelly says Aloha isn’t just about paying the bills; its about the people he helps emotionally as well as physically.
Most new patients who walk through his doors ultimately end up becoming his friends.
“We have so many chemo patients and they [city] don’t get to meet these people,” Kelly said.
Bollay acknowledges the city’s concerns about dispensaries are not completely unfounded, but says a solution is within reach.
“There are a few very non-compliant dispensaries that sell ridiculous amounts of marijuana really cheap, and I’m for those ones being closed” Bollay said. “But the Santa Ana police should be able to do their job. We have enough of a police force to go around and keep these guys under control.”