The May 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Someone's Sister: Homeless in the East Bay

A Young Mother Dreams of a Brighter Future

Legal Rights of Homeless People

Exposing Wal-Mart Empire

HUD Pulls a Disappearing Act

Devastating Cuts to Section 8

Civil Rights Gets on the Bus

UC Students Brutalized by Police

Activism for Economic Justice

Night of Humanity and Courage

Nonviolent Vigil for San Diego's Poorest

The Faithful Fools

Medical Pot in Santa Cruz

Poor Leonard's Almanack

Poetry of the Streets


February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

No Tolerance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz

Nine years after Prop. 215, marijuana remains inaccessible to patients in Santa Cruz and the police still use pot laws to persecute the poor.

by Becky Johnson

The same day a positive article appeared in the Santa Cruz weekly Goodtimes announcing the successful operation of the Pacific Coast Cooperative (PCC), a professionally run dispensary for medical marijuana patients, the Santa Cruz planning department shut it down for a zone violation. Even hostile media reported that no complaints of noise, loitering, traffic problems, marijuana resale, or untoward behavior had been lodged in the six weeks the dispensary was open.

In 1996, Santa Cruz County voters passed Prop. 215 with 74 percent of the vote, the second highest in the state. The Compassionate Use Act legalized marijuana for medical use.

In 2002, in response to a federal raid against WAMM (Women and Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana), a marijuana co-op north of Santa Cruz, city officials, including the current mayor, invited thousands of people to a WAMM distribution event. Yet, for the past five years, it has been city law and not federal law or state prosecutions that have assured that Santa Cruz has no distribution center.

While San Jose, a major city, has no distribution facility either, many find it hard to believe that liberal Santa Cruz actually has a prohibitionist mentality.

One potential facility has been tied up in the Planning Department for five months and has not yet received its use permit. Two others were shut down in 2000 because the City Council passed an ordinance which outlawed the locations. Another bailed when it realized how onerous the permit process is.

Meanwhile, on Pacific Avenue, in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz, use and sales of marijuana are frequent. Pot arrests remain a key tool the police use to intimidate and drive off Pacific Avenue any young and/or homeless people that police consider undesirables. While few of these young people can use medical necessity as a reason for use of the herb, for a pot-tolerant community, the SCPD policy is surprisingly unbending.

Police have charged these young people with felony sales, and obtained convictions, when they have only possessed a few grams on their person. Multiple charges of possession or use quickly become stay-away orders from the entire downtown area. This policy keeps the merchants happy.

Berkeley activists noted a similar policy in the late 1990s contravening Berkeley's 1979 cannabis ordinance which requires police to make grass busts the lowest priority.

But the vilification of recreational marijuana users undercuts respect for sick people using marijuana for medical reasons. And if the patient is also homeless, it's double trouble.

Getting a doctor's letter for marijuana use costs $100 and up. Homeless people who qualify for using medical marijuana have no place to smoke it since they have no home to go to. SCPD policy is to arrest and confiscate the medication, leaving the courts to sort out those with "legitimate" medical marijuana needs from those who are "criminal" drug users. By the time the plants are returned, they are unusable.

Matt Hilliard and Peter Koch, of the Pacific Coast Cooperative, looked extensively for an office in the commercial corridor and industrial areas for a legal place to open their dispensary. No landlord would rent to them in the 10 percent of the city where such clubs can legally locate.

No dispensary is allowed anywhere in the downtown area, although Andrea Tischler of the Compassion Flower Inn says that this prohibition is unique to Santa Cruz. "In all other cities, the downtown area is the most logical place to open."

WAMM operated in the downtown area for years prior to the enactment of the ordinance, as did the illegal but tolerated Santa Cruz Cannabis Buyers Club from 1995 to 1998. Valerie Corral's WAMM, which is remembered for dispensing marijuana on the steps of City Hall in 2002, currently does not have a city operating permit.

Determined to open and show they could be good neighbors and good providers, Hilliard and Koch fudged their application by claiming to be a consultant business, which was true to a point. They did not announce they were opening a dispensary. After a month and a half of serving satisfied customers and getting positive reports from their neighbors, they agreed to an interview with the Goodtimes.

After investing nearly $50,000 to open the PCC on Pacific Avenue across from the bus station, Hilliard and Koch were shut down by a city law which prohibits such dispensaries anywhere downtown.

"This location is ideal for wheelchair-bound patients who can utilize the bus to get their medicine," Tischler told a group of supporters at her nearby bed-and-breakfast. "We had a club in the downtown area for almost four years, and it worked fine." Other sections of the ordinance require a special use permit which require public hearings and give significant power to conservatives in the neighborhood.

The question begs to be asked. Does Santa Cruz support medical marijuana patients or does the city persecute them?

Mayor Mike Rotkin, who was on the council when the law was changed in 2000, has promised to reform the law for the last year and a half, but has so far done nothing. All indications are to expect more of the same.

Quoted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Mayor Rotkin was unmoved. "I would like to be encouraging to this group to find a location that works for them," he said. "I don't think we're going to open it up to Pacific Avenue. I don't think the council is going to risk the positive atmosphere we've worked so hard to construct there."

Fears that legitimate patients might light up on exiting or immediately start selling on Pacific Avenue appear to be driving those merchants who remain opposed. What is not groundless, is that the 200 people who were served by the PCC in the six weeks it was open, now have nowhere to go.

"Mike" is one of them. He looks on the thin side and has a long white beard. He's often seen on the south end of Pacific Avenue with a sign asking for spare change. He has degenerative joint disease and arthritis.

"One day, several weeks ago, I was approached by the doctor who consults at the PCC," he told HUFF. "He invited me to come down for services." Mike says that even though he had no money, the doctor not only helped him to get a legal medical marijuana card, but agreed to provide medicine for him at the price he could afford: Free. But the day he went to get his medication, he found the doors were locked.

"I don't have anywhere else to go, except buy from someone on the street."

Ironically, the very same reason the mayor gave as to why a dispensary is inappropriate downtown - the fears of merchants - is the same reason this man must now look for pot from a street-level dealer. Rotkin thinks it is perfectly fine to send patients in wheelchairs out to the industrial sections of the city to get their medicine, as long as the police and merchants are satisfied.

"What I find most disturbing is how this ordinance treats patients like criminals," said local attorney Kate Wells. "Rather than allow a dispensary to open near Longs Drugs or Walgreens, it must open in the most remote corners of the city."

The very language of the ordinance was copied from one which regulates hard alcohol stores. However, even liquor stores are allowed on Pacific Avenue where the mayor is adamant no marijuana dispensary should be.

"The whole tone of the ordinance treats the person like a criminal suspect rather than what he really is, a sick person taking a medication that gives him/her relief," said Wells.

The ordinance requires that dispensaries, in addition to being far from schools or playgrounds, must only be staffed by patients. Yet they are prohibited from using their medication on the premises. No profit can be made, yet owners must give their product away to those who can't afford it.

Wells points out that there is a provision which requires the proprietor to prevent loitering within 50 feet of the premises. "How am I going to do that?" she asks. "Am I supposed to go up to some guy and tell him he can't stand on a public sidewalk 50 feet away from the borders of my business?"

Unless the Santa Cruz City Council relents and liberalizes its marijuana ordinance, patients are going to have to be trekking up to Oakland or San Francisco for some time to come.

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