High time

DRUGS ISSUE: California could legalize pot this fall -- so why are medical marijuana providers grumbling?
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steve@sfbg.com

DRUGS With polls showing that California voters are probably poised to approve Proposition 19 in November and finally fully legalize marijuana, this should be a historic moment for jubilant celebration among those who have long argued for an end to the government's costly war on the state's biggest cash crop. But instead, many longtime cannabis advocates — particularly those in the medical marijuana business — are voicing only cautious optimism mixed with fear of an uncertain future.

Part of the problem is that things have been going really well for the medical marijuana movement in the Bay Area, particularly since President Barack Obama took office and had the Justice Department stop raiding growing operations in states that legalized cannabis for medical uses, as California did through Proposition 215 in 1996.

In San Francisco, for example, more than two dozen clubs form a well-run, regulated, taxed, and legitimate sector of the business community that has been thriving even through the recession (see "Marijuana goes mainstream," Jan. 27). The latest addition to that community, San Francisco Patient and Resource Center (SPARC), opened for business on Mission Street on Aug. 13, an architecturally beautiful center that sets a new standard for quality control and customer service.

"This is the culmination of a 10-year dream. We're going to have a real community center for patients with a great variety of services," longtime cannabis advocate Michael Aldrich, who cofounded SPARC along with Erich Pearson, told us at the club, which includes certified laboratory testing of all its cannabis and free services through Quan Yin Healing Arts Center and other providers.

Yet cash-strapped government agencies have been hastily seeking more taxes and permitting fees from the booming industry, particularly since the ballot qualification of Prop. 19, an initiative that was written and initially financed by Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee that would let counties legalize and regulate even recreational uses of marijuana.

Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and other California cities have placed measures on the November ballot to tax marijuana sales, and the Oakland City Council last month approved a controversial plan to permit large-scale cannabis-growing operations on industrial land (see "Growing pains," July 20).

In an increasingly competitive industry, many small growers fear they'll be put out of business and patient rights will suffer once Prop. 19 passes and counties are free to set varying regulatory and tax systems, concerns that have been aired publicly by advocates ranging from Prop. 15 author Dennis Peron to Kevin Reed, founder of the Green Cross medical marijuana delivery service.

"It's tearing the medical marijuana movement apart," Reed told the Guardian. "It's a little scary that we're going to go down an uncertain road that may well scare the hell out of mainstream America." Indeed, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — who ended the raids on medical marijuana growers — has said the feds may reengage with California if voters legalize recreational weed.

Yet Lee said people shouldn't get distracted from the measure's core goal: "The most important thing is to stop the insanity of prohibition." He expects the same jurisdictions that set up workable systems to deal with medical marijuana to also take the lead in setting rules for other uses of marijuana.

"It will be just like medical marijuana was after [Prop.] 215, when a few cities were doing it, like San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley," Lee told us. "And for cities just coming to grips with medical marijuana, it will be clean-up language that clarifies how they can regulate and tax it."

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