Medical Pot Users Plead Their Case

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A federal crackdown on marijuana dispensaries last month in Costa Mesa, conducted at the invitation of city leaders, has sparked a torrent of pleas and criticism from medical pot users and shop owners.

Seeking to place a human face on what in their view is an issue of access to medicine, people with a variety of ailments — chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, depression and past addictions to painkillers — spoke to the City Council Tuesday about how marijuana has benefited their lives.

Alicia Hamilton said she was in a car accident at age 20 that left her with severe pain. Prescription drugs, she said, were “completely useless,” but treatment at a local marijuana cooperative “changed my life.”

“I am standing before you here today to plead. I would not wish my pain on you. I would not wish my pain on an enemy, but I wish that you could look at me and know that I want to be a productive member of society,” said Hamilton.

“I want to be productive, but I cannot do it without medical marijuana.”

Federal authorities cracked down on Costa Mesa dispensaries last month, raiding two of them and issuing warning letters to at least 24 others. While distribution of marijuana for medical purposes is legal under state law, federal law prohibits it.

Joyce Weitzberg, a retired nurse who has run a marijuana clinic, organized Tuesday’s show of support for the dispensaries.

Weitzberg said in an interview last week that the raids came as a complete surprise, especially given that Mayor Gary Monahan held a recent fundraiser at his bar, Skosh Monahan’s, for a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana.

Weitzberg had said she believed the City Council  asked federal authorities to shut down marijuana businesses. Her suspicion was confirmed less than an hour before Tuesday’s meeting, when the Orange County Register reported that Costa Mesa sent a letter to federal prosecutors in October seeking their help in shutting down the dispensaries.

“We believe that by working together with the U.S. Department of Justice we can eradicate these illegal businesses from our city,” Costa Mesa’s city attorneys wrote on behalf of the City Council.

“In our opinion, twenty-seven dispensaries in a 16.8-square-mile area constitute mass cultivation and distribution of marijuana.”

The letter also stated the city has been “expending significant resources” enforcing a 2005 city ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, including five current lawsuits over enforcement of the ordinance.

Some speakers at Tuesday’s meeting did not mince words when reacting to the council’s involvement in the federal crackdown.

“You have made sick and dying last moments on Earth a little bit more stressful and uncomfortable, being that they no longer have access to what they feel comfortable [taking] in their horrible time of need,” said Kandice Hawes, director of the Orange County chapter of NORML, a marijuana advocacy group.

Weitzberg asked the City Council to enact an emergency ordinance allowing two or three dispensaries to stay open until a more permanent ordinance is written.

“Who are we bothering? How about the cancer patients who sit and suck a lollipop while they’re going through chemotherapy?” Weitzberg asked in the interview last week. “Why does anybody care?”

In all, 14 people spoke in support of the dispensaries and none in opposition. Because the topic wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda, council members could take no action.

Sue Lester, a Costa Mesa resident and dispensary owner, mentioned another recent controversy involving the issue.

A local radio program, “Cannabis Community,” was cancelled on Sunday just before the latest show was scheduled to be broadcast. The cancellation sparked questions about whether the station, KOCI, a low-power FM station located in Costa Mesa, was yielding to pressure from local authorities.

Lester was scheduled to be the guest on Sunday’s show. She said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that the station’s lawyer, Barry Jorgensen, said the show was being cancelled due to pressure.

“KOCI made statements condemning the city, the Chamber of Commerce and the FBI in my presence.” said Lester. “KOCI — specifically Barry Jorgensen — stated they were canceling the program, which has been on the air for several months, because of pressure from the previously stated groups.”

Station officials have denied being pressured to shut down the show, saying instead that they didn’t want their programming to be perceived as one-sided. The FBI and Chamber of Commerce also deny pressuring the station, according to the Daily Pilot newspaper.

— NICK GERDA

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