More MS news articles for June 1999

City's pot clubs live on Ulysses Torassa

June 13, 1999

Keeping a lower profile, but in plain view of the police A year after San Francisco's most flamboyant pot club was shut down by a judge, medical marijuana distribution here is alive and well, with dispensaries ranging from on-call delivery services to clean, well-lit retail spaces and funky activist-run storefronts.

With local politicians on their side and plenty of patients flocking in, four marijuana clubs appear to be quietly flourishing, with a fifth in the works.

Still in legal limbo, each has constructed its own set of rules. Some, but not all, of the clubs require proof of a doctor's recommendation, which Proposition 215 - the medical marijuana initiative passed in 1996 - said patients must have before they could legally smoke pot.

A recent government-commissioned scientific review concluded that marijuana may help a handful of conditions, such as intractable pain, nausea and appetite loss associated with AIDS or cancer. But the clubs attract people with a much broader range of stated ailments, including menstrual cramps, lupus and migraines.

Many patients also say they need it for psychiatric or psychological conditions, such as manic depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder - even heroin addiction.

Local law enforcement officials maintain a hands-off policy toward the clubs, which are careful to operate more discreetly than Dennis Peron's Cannabis Healing Center, where crowds congregated on the sidewalk and smoked pot in front of TV cameras. The club since has been shut down.

Although they have cited some club members for smoking in public, police are not overly concerned, according to Lt. Mike Puccinelli, acting captain of the narcotics division.

"There's so many other problems with narcotics in this city, it's not really a big priority," he said.  The legal fog the clubs operate in may be clearing somewhat. A task force convened by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer is about to unveil proposed legislation to set standards for deciding who is entitled to possess and use marijuana.

The legislation wouldn't address federal laws outlawing marijuana, although activists hope that Congress eventually will reclassify it as a prescription drug.

A draft of the proposal would create a state ID card issued to people with verified letters from their doctors. It would also sanction distributing medical marijuana by "cultivation cooperatives," run by and for qualified patients, as well as by licensed health care facilities, like nursing homes and hospices.

None of the current group of San Francisco clubs meets those definitions. One is run much like an ordinary business, with a city license; two others shun all official corporate status for philosophical reasons; and a fourth operates under the auspices of a board of directors. The delivery service is headed up by a Hayward woman who hopes to morph it into a standing dispensary under the nonprofit umbrella of a local Catholic church.

Door-to-door service Jane Weirick operates Compassion on Wheels (COW) with a donated pager and cell phone out of her 1984 Saab, which is filled with plastic cows of all sizes. She was a member of the support team for Peron's operation until it closed.

She says she gets no salary, supporting herself by cleaning houses and doing other odd jobs. Her prices, she says, just cover the cost of buying, packaging and delivering marijuana to a few hundred patients who have written recommendations from their doctors.

Weirick and her associates are scouting for a location to set up what they see as an elaborate operation combining the nonprofit dispensary with a separate organization running an adjacent retail store and Internet cafe where patients could socialize.

She says she doesn't want marijuana sales to underwrite the other activities. Some of the criticism of pot clubs is that they can generate large amounts of tax-free income, the final destination of which is not always known.

At least one other local dispenser "told me directly he was in this to make money," which Weirick says disturbs her.

No documentation needed At the ACT UP San Francisco dispensary on Market Street, members of the collective who work in the cannabis club are paid $15 per hour, what the group considers a living wage.

Its dark, funky space is guarded by a door monitor who checks memberships. Only those who have signed a notarized statement under penalty of perjury that they need marijuana for a medical condition and have discussed it with their doctor are eligible. They don't verify the statements, or ask for documentation.

"For us, it's about the patient's right to medicate," said ACT UP member Michael Bellefountaine.

With more than 1,000 members, the dispensary takes in an estimated $100,000 per month. A sampling of patients visiting on a recent day found one woman who needed to help ease appetite loss from lupus, and a man who said he needed it because he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder from being sexually abused as a child.

Paul Barber Jr. of the Tenderloin was getting marijuana for what he said were seizures brought on by having been born to a heroin-addicted woman.

"I've been using it medically for 10 years," he said. While he's been hassled at times by police, he objects to the idea of getting a state-issued ID card. "It's like Big Brother or something."

Bellefountaine says the vast majority of money goes to pay for marijuana, rent and salaries. The group holds weekly meetings where patients and collective members can discuss any aspect of the operation.

A small amount of income helps fund the controversial group's other activities, which include promoting the idea that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and reopening the city's gay bathhouses. The group is not affiliated with ACT UP Golden Gate.

No fancy displays Farther up Market Street near Castro, James Green calls his second-floor Market Street Club the "Un" Club - the Castro District's Discreet Alternative.

There is no pot on display, no signs with prices, no marijuana-laced baked goods. Industrial gray carpeting, track lighting and a tall formica counter with a single stool in front discourages loitering. Off to the side a few shelves carry hemp-based skin care lotions, aerosol vitamins and body detoxification products. Green says he is registered as a business, pays sales tax on his non- marijuana sales and carries only what he considers "medicinal grade" marijuana, grown in the United States and highly potent.

He also says he trims off more of the unsmokable parts of the buds, and sells his product for more than anyone else in town - as much as $85 for an eighth of an ounce. Recently he's been offering a promotion - a discount on the next purchase for members who bring in a new qualifying member.

"I run it like a business," he said. Green, who is HIV- positive, credits medical marijuana with saving his life when he was wasting away with AIDS.

Green requires a letter of diagnosis and medicinal marijuana recommendation, as well as a fax confirmation from the doctor's office. With about 300 members, he estimates he grosses about $20,000 per month.

A libertarian view The other for-profit business in town is Rich Evans' Patients and Caregivers Health Center, which opened in October on Mission Street near 16th Street.

With 600 members and growing, Evans sells both foreign-grown and U.S.-grown pot, cannabis-laced banana bread and even small pot plants that people can use to grow their own supply. Many customers learned about the club from $5-off coupons he distributed around the Haight earlier this year.

Evans is a libertarian who doesn't believe in registering his business with authorities, although he says he has discussed his operation with police and the district attorney's office.

He says he uses pot himself because he suffers from manic-depressive disorder. But his involvement with medical marijuana began as an outgrowth of his activism on behalf of legalizing marijuana in general.

Evans requires members to sign a statement that due to their condition they face "imminent harm," and cannabis alleviates that harm. They also attest that no other drug works. No doctor's note or involvement is required, nor is the statement signed under penalty of perjury.  Customers can buy as much marijuana as they want at a time, but can come in only once per day.

At least two dozen customers arrived during the first hour of business on a recent Saturday, one in a wheelchair. One young woman said she used marijuana for menstrual cramps, and a psychologist who treats heroin addicts said he had been told about the place by a client who said marijuana helped keep heroin cravings at bay. The psychologist said he used it for his own migraines.

A venerable club The most established of the clubs is Cannabis Helping Alleviate Medical Problems (CHAMP), in a brightly colored building on Church near 14th, which has been operating since 1996, well before authorities shut Peron's club. They also have the strictest requirements, including having doctors' recommendations renewed each year. Not only do they verify letters with doctors, they say they check with state authorities to make sure the doctor is licensed to practice.

CHAMP hosts ancillary services, including wellness and support groups, yoga classes and social activities. Free fruit and vegetables are available every day, supplemented by soup and bean pies on Wednesdays and a full dinner on Saturdays.

Although they don't have a formal designation, the club operates as a nonprofit with a board of directors. Executive Director Kenneth Hayes Jr. says he does not know how many members are enrolled, and declines to say how much business the club does per month or what its prices are.  Hayes himself is facing charges in connection with growing medical marijuana. Last month, county narcotics agents raided his Sonoma County home, where authorities say he had an elaborate cultivation system, and have charged him with a felony. He says he hopes the district attorney will be persuaded to drop the charges. "It's being grown for sick people," he said.