Photograph by Rory McNamara
Is the end near for Sonoma County’s besieged medical marijuana clinics?
By Patrick Sullivan
“You’re out of MMW?” The gray-haired woman gives a sigh of disappointment. “OK, well, let me smell that Peruvian. Oh, that looks funky! I’ll try it though. I’ll give it a chance. Gotta be fair, right?” She giggles and lays a sheaf of bills down on the counter. The man on the other side checks her ID again, takes her money, and hands her two neatly wrapped plastic baggies full of marijuana.
The woman stuffs the pot down the front of her T-shirt and heads out into the bright sunshine of a beautiful fall day on the Russian River. As she leaves, she walks past a sign on the wall that offers some legal advice: “The magic words: I am going to remain silent. I want to see a lawyer.”
Welcome to Guerneville, the last bastion of Sonoma County’s beleaguered medical marijuana dispensaries. Here is the final town in the county where a patient with a recommendation from her doctor can walk into a clinic, present her bona fides, and walk out with the medicinal marijuana California law says she’s entitled to have.
But for how much longer? These days, the staff and clients at Marvin’s Gardens are looking over their shoulders. They know that federal agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration may come through the door at any minute. If that happens, those prosecuted could face years, even decades, in prison.
Two marijuana dispensaries currently operate in Guerneville–Marvin’s and the Farmacy, both within two miles of downtown. They are the last dominos standing following a series of federal raids over the past two years that have toppled clinics in Sonoma, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa.
By now, most patients and clinic workers know the score. In the bitter struggle between Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act that California voters approved in 1996, and the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, Proposition 215 wins every time–at least in the court of public opinion, where medical marijuana use consistently scores approval ratings in the 70 percent and 80 percent range.
The recent election saw a victory for San Francisco medicinal marijuana activists when voters passed a measure that allows the city to study the feasibility of growing and distributing its own medicinal marijuana. Studies are all well and good, but implementing any San Francisco home-grown program would likely be immediately shut down by federal officials. This week, the Sebastopol City Council approved a resolution supporting Proposition 215 and encouraging the local police force to not comply with DEA raids. Santa Rosa is working on a similar resolution.
In federal criminal court, state law, local resolutions, and opinion polls carry approximately the legal weight of diddly plus squat. Just ask Brian Epis, arrested for cultivating marijuana for a Chico dispensary and recently sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. Or consider Dan Nelson and Ed Bierling, who face 40- and 60-year sentences respectively after being arrested by the DEA this May for running a dispensary in Santa Rosa.
Spokesman for the DEA Richard Meyer won’t comment on whether the Guerneville dispensaries are under investigation. Meyer also won’t say much about how the DEA decides which pot clubs to target: “We have our priorities and responsibilities, and our manpower is limited,” he says. “That’s really the most critical factor.”
But the director of Marvin’s Garden, a heavyset 51-year-old man named Jerry who, like other dispensary workers, does not want his last name published, believes federal agents have the clinic under surveillance. “Absolutely,” Jerry says. “I’d be a fool not to think that.”
Hide and Seek
“If the Guerneville clinics were closed, I’d have to buy off the street,” explains a 50-year-old Santa Rosa woman as she prepares to exit Marvin’s. She’s just obtained a 3/8-ounce baggie of a variety called Zombie, and when she accidentally drops the pot on the floor, she goes slowly to her knees to pick it up, never bending her back. She says she suffers from sciatica and arthritis. Marijuana, she explains, reduces her pain and helps her move, while prescription medications just make her sick.
But her car troubles and limited income make trips out to the Russian River a serious hardship. She can’t imagine trying to get to dispensaries in Oakland or San Francisco or even down to the clinic in Fairfax in Marin County. She was buying marijuana at the Aiko Compassion Center, a dispensary located in a storefront on Santa Rosa’s Cleveland Avenue. When the DEA shut Aiko down this May, the woman was devastated. “I cried for three days,” she says, “because I knew how far I’d have to come.”
But she’s actually one of the lucky ones, according to Jerry. “We’ve allowed a few people from other clubs that have been shut down to become members,” he explains. “But we can’t provide for everyone who wants to come in.”
That leaves patients unable or unwilling to travel out of the county with few alternatives. None are very palatable.
Patients with green thumbs can try growing themselves. Or they can try to find a caregiver willing to risk arrest by growing for them. Neither course is easy, especially for the sickest patients, according to Santa Rosa resident Rebecca Nikkel, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has used marijuana grown by a caregiver to wean herself off 12 prescription medications. “Growing is a lot of physical work, and a lot of people can’t do it, especially people with MS or people going through chemo,” Nikkel says.
Patients can also buy from dealers on the street. But that can be dangerous, both for the usual legal reasons and because street-bought pot can be laced with almost anything.
So what happens if the DEA closes the Guerneville clubs? A 37-year-old African-American man who comes to Marvin’s from Santa Rosa considers the question with a pained look on his face. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess I’d be like the rest of the people here–scrambling for some kind of alternative.”
By the Book
Marvin’s Gardens was founded by a Sonoma County man with AIDS shortly after California voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996. For years, the cooperative dispensary operated out of private residences, including the basement of a member’s house.
But this February, the clinic moved into its present location, a nondescript commercial building with bars on the window, where it offers locally grown marijuana to more than 300 Sonoma County residents suffering under medical conditions ranging from AIDS and cancer to back problems and chronic pain. The move to a more accessible location helps the clinic serve patients. But it also makes it a more likely target for law enforcement action.
To avoid unwelcome attention, the clinic has a long list of rules. There are no state guidelines to adhere to, because Proposition 215 is notoriously vague and the California legislature and Governor Davis can’t come to agreement on clarifying such issues. But there are local procedures to follow.
Patients can join the club and obtain marijuana only if they are county residents who have been through an approval process that requires signing off by the Sonoma County district attorney’s office. A patient obtains a recommendation from a physician, and that recommendation must be approved by the Sonoma County Medical Association. Then, the club issues a photo ID to the patient.
That adherence to procedure has headed off problems with local law enforcement, which learned to leave medical marijuana users alone following a series of failed prosecution attempts. The sheriff’s department did make an inspection visit to Marvin’s soon after the dispensary opened: “They came in, asked a few questions, watched for a while, and scared everybody off,” Jerry says. “Then they left.”
The marijuana attracts another kind of unwelcome attention: a year and a half ago, armed robbers invaded Marvin’s and seized both pot and money. “That’s part of the reason you see iron on the door and the security system,” Jerry says. “But there’s only so much you can do.”
Poor relations with neighbors have also been a problem for some dispensaries, most notably Genesis 1:29 in Petaluma, which was forced to move out of the residential neighborhood where it began due to complaints. Genesis was raided by the DEA in September, and many observers think a contributing factor was public anger about the huge pot farm the club’s founder maintained in suburban Sebastopol, which the DEA also raided.
Marvin’s Gardens has tried to head off such friction with more rules. No kids are allowed in the building, no product info is given over the phone, no one is allowed to wait in vehicles outside or congregate by the door, and no one walks out with pot in their hands.
It seems to have worked. According to Jerry, most Guerneville residents know about Marvin’s, but they’re not complaining. “I think it was a concern at first for some people who live around here,” Jerry says. “I think if there was a loud voice out there complaining, someone would have shut us down. But they’ve realized how much good it does in the community. And I think they see how secure and careful we are.”
When it comes to public relations, medical marijuana advocates can sometimes be their own worst enemy. For instance, when the DEA shut down the Santa Rosa dispensary, one activist talking to a local newspaper reporter could think of nothing better to call the raid than “bogus,” evoking images of Cheech and Chong.
“Bogus” is about the last word you’d expect to hear coming out of the mouth of Doc Knapp, an articulate, keen-eyed Sebastopol resident who may be the most visible spokesperson for the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana. The activists in SAMM have scored a number of tactical victories, including convincing District Attorney Mike Mullins to make peace with medical marijuana. Now, SAMM is about to open another front in the war.
Rather than simply waiting for the federal axe to fall on Sonoma County dispensaries, SAMM has been quietly laying the groundwork for a political counteroffensive. They have enlisted local governments, including the cities of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, in the fight to preserve public access to medical marijuana. “We would like to get the city involved in creating an appropriate distribution center for patients, much like Santa Cruz did,” explains Knapp.
Both the Sebastopol and Santa Rosa city councils took up the issue this past Tuesday. Sebastopol passed a resolution on a 3 to 1 vote calling on local police not to cooperate with the DEA. In Santa Rosa, police expressed strong opposition to the noncooperation language, and the council referred the resolution to a committee headed by councilmember Noreen Evans. The full council will vote on a revised version Dec. 3.
“We’re hoping for the best,” says SAMM’s Doc Knapp. “There was enormous sympathy from some council members.”
Among SAMM’s allies in this effort is Santa Rosa mayor Mike Martini, who submitted the proposal. A few weeks before the meeting he said, “I’m going to present pretty much what [SAMM] wants me to present. What the council does with the proposal, of course, is another matter.”
Martini won’t discuss specifics. “We need to look at other communities and see what has worked,” he says. “But medical marijuana’s time has come, and we just have to figure out how to do it right.”
SAMM doesn’t intend to stop there: “We’re going to ultimately go to the board of supervisors with it, unless we get some indication that won’t work,” Knapp says. “We do feel there’s considerable support for medical marijuana on the board, but not 100 percent.”
The Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana isn’t the only organization fighting to keep dispensaries open. Americans for Safe Access, a Berkeley-based group, has been organizing across California and around the country, coordinating demonstrations outside federal buildings after the DEA raids a clinic. Both ASA and SAMM collaborated on a recent protest at the federal building in Santa Rosa that drew 300 people.
“I believe that the DEA is going after dispensary operators who are vocal in their opposition to federal policy,” explains ASA’s Hilary McQuie. “Clearly the federal strategy is to scare people into shutting themselves down.”
But ultimately, McQuie is optimistic about the battle for access. “The DEA has a failing strategy,” she says. “Because everything they do just makes our resistance stronger. In the court of public opinion, we’re winning hugely.”
Moreover, as McQuie points out, although the DEA has closed clinics, others have opened to take their place. “[Statewide,] the total number hasn’t changed,” she says.
But that may be cold comfort to patients and clinic operators in Sonoma County. Activists are certainly not aware of any plans to open new dispensaries here. “Not in this climate,” says Knapp with a dry laugh.
Jerry, who is described by one of his co-workers as “the guy who will probably take the bullet” in the event of a raid, believes the DEA might be right around the corner.
The director of Marvin’s Gardens thinks the federal government, driven by the need for cheap victories in the war on drugs, is simply picking off medical marijuana clinics at a pace slow enough to avoid exciting too much public outrage. “I think that’s definitely their strategy,” Jerry says. “They’re going after the easy bust. It’s easy to catch sick people buying medical marijuana in a store. It’s not that easy to catch a meth dealer selling to kids.”
And Jerry knows that all the rules and security procedures in the world won’t protect him or the dispensary if the DEA swoops in. So why keep wearing a bull’s-eye on his back?
“One of the clients who comes to Marvin’s Garden is a young glaucoma patient who has lost vision in both eyes,” Jerry says. “She will never see her son grow up. One thing that’s helping her is medical marijuana. That’s why I’m still involved.”
From the November 21-27, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.