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Medicinal cannabis clubs face scrutiny

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Although the medicinal use of cannabis has been legal in California since 1996, in Sacramento there’s a growing concern over the uncertainty that surrounds local cannabis clubs — nonprofit clinics that sell cannabis in various forms to qualifying patients.

On Tuesday night, the Sacramento City Council voted unanimously to adopt a 45-day moratorium on the development of medical cannabis dispensaries in the city. No new dispensaries can be created and existing dispensaries will be unable to physically expand their operation, though they can still take on new clients.

The moratorium is intended to investigate the current status and number of medical cannabis clubs in the city to better inform future regulations, because even city officials acknowledge that they don’t know.

Estimates vary on how many clubs operate within the city. Assistant City Manager Gus Vina estimated between 20 and 24, whereas at least 34 can be found online at sites such as Sacramento Cannabis Clubs.

These dispensaries bear various titles that may cause confusion over their actual services and legal standing. Some are wellness collectives, others are healing centers, some offer holistic or alternative medicines and others are labeled as delivery companies. Labeling in this way, many clubs avoid registering themselves as cannabis dispensaries with the city government and exist completely under the legal radar. The city council is uncertain as to how many exist within city limits and how many of those are working within legal statutes.

"That’s one of the biggest problems," said Sacramento Special Projects Manager Michelle Heppner. "It’s hard to say whether the city should regulate, prohibit or leave the dispensaries alone if we may have a zillion of them out there."

The city council heard testimony from a long list of interested parties before the vote, including medicinal cannabis activists, dispensary owners and patients benefiting from prescriptions. Among the speakers was Rich Guitron, CEO and general manager of R&R Coffee Wellness Collective, who vocally defended medicinal usage of THC.

"It’s not just pot anymore," Guitron said. "There are thousands of strains that treat different ailments. It’s a cutting-edge industry." He also highlighted discrepancies between drug legality and safety. "Over-the-counter medications kill 20,000 people a year and medical marijuana has never done that."

Currently, medical cannabis dispensaries are in legal limbo, caught between state and federal law.

Medical cannabis has been legal in California since 1996’s Compassionate Use Act and further defined by the 2003 Medical Marijuana Act (a.k.a. Senate Bill 420), which allows for non-profit provision of THC herbal medicines. Sufferers of THC-treatable ailments, ranging from AIDS and cancer to depression and anxiety, are protected from arrest for the possession and cultivation of cannabis so long as they possess a doctor’s recommendation or a medicinal cannabis ID card.

Yet, federal law still lists cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. This means that although dispensaries are protected in state law, federal drug enforcers could raid stores, seize assets and prosecute distributors at any time.

In fulfilling an Obama campaign promise, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Justice Department has ceased federal raids on state-legalized dispensaries. However, Drug Enforcement Administration agents, although overseen by the DoJ, have raided and dismantled at least six California cannabis clinics this year, according to media reports.

Cannabis dispensaries are also illegal according to Sacramento city code, which complicates proceedings. During the moratorium, all cannabis dispensaries are asked to register themselves with city government. Once the dispensaries are registered, city government will not pursue enforcement and will allow them to continue operation, provided they remain within legal limitations on permits, sale volumes and clientele.

West Sacramento passed a similar moratorium on July 8 and other city governments have made similar moves to reexamine the weed community that has sprung up under their feet.

Local artist Rena Davonne provided the last piece of testimony, running to the City Hall after seeing the discussion on TV. "Marijuana saved my sister’s life," she said, and detailed how her sister recovered from life-threatening illness with the help of THC. Cannabis didn’t work for Rena’s chronic pains, but seeing the relief the plant brought her sister made a believer out of her. "I would like to see medicinal marijuana expand, or grow, if you will."

Photos by Cheya Cary / courtesy James Leynse of Corbis

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