Back In the Closet 

California medical cannabis patients are increasingly being forced to hide behind closed doors as bans on dispensaries and home cultivation sweep through the East Bay.

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"I want them to stop messing with us," Barrett told me before the vote. "We're just growing our medicine."


Residents of Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco might not think about it much, but hundreds of thousands of medical cannabis patients and their allies are in an unprecedented struggle across California. A battle is raging in the wake of a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of cities and counties to ban dispensaries. And local governments are now using that decision to also prohibit medical marijuana cultivation for personal use and to levy fines against growers of up to $1,000 per plant on growers.

Based on unfounded, outdated, and narrow-minded fears about crime, odor, and child safety, these bans strike at the very core of voter-approved Proposition 215, which reads:

"The people of the State of California hereby find and declare that the purposes of the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 are as follows: (A) To ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician."

Yet despite that groundbreaking law, the vast majority of Californians now live in cities and counties that have enacted bans on medical pot dispensaries, including much of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. In addition, more than a dozen cities and counties — including Concord and Martinez — have banned all outdoor growing, and a few cities are prohibiting all cultivation. Legal challenges to the more sweeping bans are pending, but the pain is immediate.

"People are definitely being hurt," said Lanny Swerdlow, a registered nurse in Riverside, a Southern California city that is in the heart of ban country. "We are going backward."

Patients, as a result, are now commuting long distances to find dispensaries, calling up unlicensed mobile dispensaries they find on WeedMaps and Craigslist, or growing their own pot when they can. And in cities where medical cannabis is totally banned — like Fresno — they are defying the law or going without medication.

"You can never argue that a sick person with epilepsy who may not even have a driver's license should have to drive even ten miles to get medicine," said David Spradlin, operator of the River City Phoenix dispensary in Sacramento and Magnolia Wellness in Oakland, "that someone going through their third chemo and needs some medicine, that they should have to drive for that medicine — that's the bottom line." Spradlin said he knows cancer patients who are forced to travel up to an hour to Sacramento from Placer, Yolo, Solano, and San Joaquin counties and from Turlock, Woodland, Davis, Vacaville, Marysville, and Yuba City. "And I see that every day. I see people weeping all the time — they're so happy they can come in to a safe place and get their medicine.

"They're still thankful they can drive fifty miles to get it, but it shouldn't be like that," Spradlin continued. "We see this way too much and we fought this fight for way too long to be having such stupid conversations."

According to a 1,000-patient survey conducted by Oakland-based advocacy group Americans for Safe Access this year, one in four medical cannabis patients reported that they have driven fifty miles or more to buy pot. One out of ten said they have driven two hundred miles or more. About half of the respondents — 46 percent — reported that they have gone without cannabis at times because they couldn't buy it easily, and of those, nearly one in five — 18 percent — said they have done so for more than a month at a time.

The bans also perpetuate a sometimes-violent black market for weed. And the bans tend to deny access to the most vulnerable patients — the oldest and sickest; those who can't afford to drive forty miles to Oakland or pay $400 an ounce for clandestine delivery; and those who either lack a backyard to grow it in or the skills to grow. "For our people on fixed incomes — they're sick, they got medical bills stacked up, they're the sickest of the sick that are affected by these bans — it's just brutal," Spradlin said.

The increasing number of bans in California also comes at time when national acceptance of medical marijuana is at an all-time high of 80 percent, according to recent polls. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta told me recently that he thinks medical pot products should be in every pharmacy in America.

"It hits me in the gut," Barrett said of Martinez's ban on marijuana growing. "I thought we were going forward."


In hindsight, it's no surprise that eighteen years after voters passed Proposition 215, the law's clear intent has yet to be realized. If you look at a map of California and color red all the counties that voted against Prop 215. Now color blue all the ones that voted for it, and then you get a geographically red state with a blue coastline including the population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Los Angeles as well as a finger of blue tolerance that pushes in from the Delta all the way past Sacramento to Mono and Alpine counties on the state's eastern border.

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