Part 1: From the feds to the county, the confusion surrounding medical marijuana laws are enough to drive a girl to get stoned.

(L):“I think Monterey County is a bit behind Santa Cruz County in terms of realizing that there’s no shame or negativity associated with medical marijuana,” Dr. Deborah Malka says. (R): Attorney Richard Rosen, the attorney representing MyCaregiver Cooperative, Inc., says the county’s militant approach is putting patients in the red: “You can end up paying over $10,000 once all’s said and done.”

Compassionate Health Options is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place.


Tucked away in a small, second-floor suite off Pacific Street in Monterey, its only signage is a faded piece of paper taped to a ground-level window that lists its phone number and website (and an image of a certain seven-leafed plant) and invites interested parties to “come in and go up the stairs.”


In the waiting room is a diverse crowd: a well-groomed middle-aged man; a sun-kissed young woman; a bleary-eyed father in sweats and an oversized T-shirt, boasting about his son’s Little League team.


I check boxes on the form handed to me by the receptionist as I wait for my appointment with Dr. Deborah Malka. I’m surprised by the breadth of questions about my physical and mental health, including an extensive checklist of symptoms for specific parts of the body – pelvis (“tender; non-tender”), skin (“intact; warm; dry; well-hydrated; no rashes”), etc.


After a few minutes, Dr. Malka emerges and says she’s ready for me. I follow her into the exam room, sit next to her desk, and we chat about the ailments (anxiety, insomnia) and the assignment that have brought me into her office. She asks for proof of residence, prescription numbers and names of my doctors.


“I think a tincture would be best for you,” she says. “It’s the best form of marijuana to address your needs” – and to get a medicinal dose without the lung-damaging effects.


Once she’s satisfied with my medical credentials, Malka signs and presents me with a piece of paper adorned with a golden seal. It’s a therapeutic cannabis recommendation – the first step toward obtaining a state-issued medical marijuana card.


“You can take that to a dispensary,” Malka says. “But you’ll have to go up to Santa Cruz.”


That’s because there are no dispensaries in Monterey County, despite the fact that medical marijuana is legal throughout the state. 


The contradictions don’t stop there. City officials and local cops say state laws are a classically Californian clusterfuck, leaving them in the unenviable position of deciding what’s legit and what’s illegal. Patients and advocates, from moms to mermaids (really), say the state laws are crystal-clear: If you have a state-issued ID card, you can grow it, sell it, buy it, and, yes, stick it in your pipe and smoke it. But then the feds have been known to swoop in and supersede state law, creating confusion and occasionally locking up people, like Dr. Mollie Fry and Dale Schafer, who were abiding by California’s rules but are now wasting away, financially bankrupt, in federal prisons. Some cities, San Jose included, seem to have a handle on how to regulate the budding industry and extract tax revenue from it, but even Silicon Valley’s capital seems to contradict itself in practice, boasting of marijuana’s multi-million-dollar potential while simultaneously shutting down the bulk of its dispensaries. 


As I seek a deeper understanding of how medical marijuana in Monterey County, and in California, really works – or doesn’t, as many seem to think – I find things getting ever hazier, and my anxiety ever more acute. Methinks my new cannabis card will come in handy.


~ ~ ~

City after city – Marina, Monterey, Pacific Grove, Salinas, Sand City, Seaside – have passed ordinances in recent years prohibiting medical marijuana dispensaries from operating within their boundaries, either through temporary moratoriums or outright bans. In February, the city of Monterey, which extended its moratorium for another year in October 2010, served a warrant on medical marijuana collective MyCaregiver Cooperative, Inc. for continuing to dispense medicine at its Lighthouse Avenue storefront in violation of city code, and in defiance of two court injunctions. 


The case went to trial in late May, but has been postponed until July 14 due to a lawyer no-show at a June 6 hearing.


Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer says the MyCaregiver drama is simply a case of deceptive business practices, not the city’s hostility towards medical marijuana.


“[The owners] snuck their business in without telling [the city] they’d be selling marijuana,” Meurer says. “They broke the law, then they ignored the court and continued to operate. It’s a land use and legal issue.”


Richard Rosen, a private attorney representing MyCaregiver, thinks that’s bunk.


“[My clients] have been accused of being in contempt of court, but whatever contempt they may be performing pales in comparison to the contempt of justice the city and county are showing,” he says in his Salinas office.


From his perspective, Monterey County is interfering with the will of the people of California, who passed Proposition 215, the landmark Compassionate Use Act, 15 years ago.


“Allowing the use of medical marijuana is the law in all of California’s 58 counties, and has been since 1996,” he says. “There’s nothing that says that dispensaries or collectives are illegal.”


But there’s nothing in the law that says they’re legal, either. Therein lies the problem, according to Mark Caldwell, a narcotics detective with the Monterey County Sheriff’s office.


“We in law enforcement would like some clarity that doesn’t exist in the laws,” he says. “The Compassionate Use Act is intended to ‘allow more access [to medical marijuana].’ But what does that mean? It doesn’t say anything about dispensaries.”


That’s part of why some cities, like Santa Cruz and Santa Clara, allow them; and some, like Salinas and San Diego, don’t.


He also cites the state’s health and safety code that says patients only need a doctor’s recommendation to obtain medical marijuana. “So is that a recommendation, or is it a written prescription that we all recognize?”


The law’s ambiguity, Caldwell contends, makes it very open to interpretation. “Some choose a strict approach, others are more lax.” He concedes that Monterey County falls into the former camp.


“[City officials] are enforcing their rights to allow or not allow dispensaries based on the way they see things, and the way their population pushes them,” Caldwell says. “They aren’t doing anything against the law.”


Some residents, however, feel they’re the ones being pushed around.


Next: The Medicine

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