Special delivery: Medical marijuana

By Marcel Honore, published in The Desert Sun

During the past four years, the Coachella Valley’s elected leaders have limited and even banned medical marijuana dispensaries. But that hasn’t stopped medical pot access from expanding in the valley in bold, creative ways.

At least eight medical marijuana “delivery services” have opened across the valley during the past year and a half to cater to local patients. The services openly advertise.

The operators of these services, who say they verify their customers as medical pot patients before making deliveries, are based in Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and La Quinta.

“You don’t have to get off the couch. You don’t have to waste your gas” retrieving medical marijuana at a dispensary, explained Indio resident David Curtis, who launched The Big 8th Delivery in La Quinta two months ago.

They’re less expensive to set up and run than a brick-and-mortar pot dispensary, but don’t generate nearly as much revenue, local operators say.

The delivery services are especially useful to seriously ill, homebound patients, Curtis said.

Most did not want to say where they received or stored the medical pot they delivered. One Palm Springs-based operator said he cultivated his own. Curtis said his supply came from a medical marijuana patient who has extra to provide.

Another advantage to delivery services is they don’t attract nearly as much attention from authorities as the dispensaries do, they said.

That doesn’t mean the valley’s local governments sanction the deliveries, however.

La Quinta City Attorney Kathy Jenson said the city’s pot ordinance, which bans any facility that “makes available or distributes medical marijuana,” covers delivery services, too.

But city regulations don’t faze Curtis.

“I don’t ever factor that in,” he said.

Business Expanding

Seven desert cities have banned medical pot dispensaries, but new storefronts continue to appear in unincorporated parts of the valley, where the laws governing medical pot aren’t firmly established.

• At least three new storefronts have opened in Thousand Palms while Riverside County sorts out its own medical marijuana policy.

• One Rancho Mirage-based dispensary filed a $530,000 claim this week against the city, contending the city’s medical pot moratorium is illegal and demanding they be allowed to reopen.

• At least five unsanctioned dispensaries continue to serve customers in Palm Springs, openly challenging that city’s strict medical pot ordinance by arguing they’re allowed to operate under state law.

Meanwhile, Riverside County officials are debating how to address the fast-growing number of medical pot facilities in unincorporated areas.

Karen Esposito, chair of the Thousand Palms Community Council, said a dispensary owner in Palm Springs recently asked her about expanding his operation into the centrally located area.

“I didn’t know we had that much of a calling here for it,” Esposito said Thursday. “We already have three.” Esposito could not remember the name of the dispensary owner who contacted her.

Riverside County prohibits medical marijuana dispensaries, according to the office of county counsel. But that hasn’t stopped the number of storefronts in unincorporated areas from more than tripling in the past year.

There were 14 such storefronts in 2009, county officials say. Presently, they estimate there are 47, including the three new Thousand Palms facilities.

Part of what’s led to the county’s medical marijuana boom are “vaguely written laws” on the state level, according to an Oct. 27 letter from County Counsel Pamela J. Walls to The Desert Sun.

Many storefronts claim only to be nonprofit collectives whose members cultivate marijuana just for themselves, as allowed by the state attorney general’s guidelines.

Those claims make it tough for local law enforcement to determine whether they’re actually collectives or illegal dispensaries, Wall’s letter stated.

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors ordered staff in September to draft a new ordinance that would regulate collectives, too.

But at least two supervisors, including Supervisor John Benoit, said during their regular meeting this week that they’d like to see the ordinance ban collectives altogether, according to Benoit’s chief of staff, Michelle DeArmond.

Recently approved bans on dispensaries in Los Angeles and Orange counties helped change the supervisors’ minds because they believe many of those storefronts to the west now will move to Riverside County, DeArmond said.

When local governments ban medical pot outlets, “they turn it into this wild west show where collectives open up illegally and delivery services abound,” said Lanny Swerdlow, director of the Palm Springs-based pro-legalization Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project.

“They just open up because people have the right to this,” Swerdlow said. “If people want something, they’re going to get it. By this refusal to deal … you cause all these crazy, incredible stupid problems.”

Debate Continues

Palm Springs’ medical marijuana ordinance allows only three selected dispensaries to operate.

However, at least five additional unsanctioned dispensaries continue to operate illegally.

The city has been locked in a legal dispute with several of those unsanctioned dispensaries, including The Holistic Collective and California Collective of Choice.

City Attorney Doug Holland did not return requests for comment on the latest with those legal battles.

Patients say the drug, allowed for medicinal use under state law but prohibited under federal law, helps to ease pain associated with cancer, arthritis and migraines more effectively than traditional medications.

Opponents of dispensaries generally worry the operations will attract crime, while local advocates say as many as 12,000 patients in the Coachella Valley rely on dispensaries and delivery services to help reduce severe pain and nausea.

As the debate continues, “the only people who are winning in this whole thing are the lawyers,” quipped Swerdlow, of MAPP.

Editor’s note: This story has been slightly edited

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