By Marissa Willman
With a flurry of local and state legal battles set to decide whether medical marijuana collectives can legally operate storefronts in the valley and the state, local collectives and medical marijuana activists are concerned that patients who rely on collectives will be unable to access medicine they rely on for issues including insomnia, cancer and kidney disease.
Recently, the county of Riverside sued a number of collectives operating storefronts in Thousand Palms, an unincorporated area of the county. Although collectives are legal under California Senate Bill 420, municipalities such as Riverside County have taken to using zoning laws to ban collectives from operating storefronts.
“Riverside County has chosen to try to supersede the state law by enforcing their own law by saying they do not want any storefront dispensaries in the county of Riverside,” said Abe Robbin of IVTHC, a collective named in the lawsuit.
“The county does not take the time to understand that a lot of these patients are older,” Robbin said. “You’re basically pushing them to go buy these meds from the streets, and then you’re only going to help the drug cartel because you’re pushing these older patients to do that.”
As the collectives await their day in court on June 17th, a larger legal battle that will determine the fate of all storefront collectives in the state will be fought in the state’s Supreme Court.
Lanny Swerdlow, R.N. is a medical marijuana activist and founder of Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center. The collective was sued by Riverside for violating the city’s zoning ordinances that ban medical marijuana collectives and when his appeal was denied by the California Fourth District Court of Appeals, Swerdlow appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
Swerdlow believes law enforcement is the driving force behind the crackdown on medical marijuana collectives.
“Cops are working on the taxpayer’s dime to overturn the will of the voters,” Swerdlow said, citing the amount of revenue police departments received in federal funding for drug law enforcement and asset forfeiture in marijuana-related cases.
The court’s decision in Swerdlow’s case will determine whether municipalities can legally prevent collectives from operating storefronts by banning them under zoning laws.
The ruling on his case will be instrumental, Swerdlow said, because it will set a firm legal precedent for cities and counties in an area where courts have historically waffled on the issue.
Earlier this month, the California Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled in City of Lake Forest vs. Evergreen Holistic Collective that municipalities cannot use zoning laws to ban storefronts as long as the marijuana is grown onsite.
The Thousand Palms collectives are hopeful that the Lake Forest case will set the precedent for their own court date on June 17th and that the legal system will work in favor of their patients.
“We see the real needs of our patients every day,” said Troy Solomon of Desert Care Solutions, a collective named in the lawsuit. “We’re hoping for a favorable outcome for our patients because [Thousand Palms] is the only place where we can serve this side of the valley.”
Solomon sees parallels between the current medical marijuana legal battle and alcohol prohibition in the 1930s.
“We are the bootleggers, the speakeasies of our generation,” Solomon said, “and that’s unfortunate.”
Solomon said the legal bills for Desert Care Solutions to defend itself amounted to “upwards of $10,000,” a steep cost for collectives that operate as non-profits but one that Solomon says is worthwhile because shutting down would be detrimental to their patients. It is an outcome he hopes the collective will not be forced to face.
“It would be very sad because it would push everything back underground,” Solomon said.
A spokesman at Coachella Valley Wellness, a medical marijuana delivery service, said that in that case, the drug cartels would be the only winners.
“The cartels love it because when we get closed down, these people are just going to get their medicine somewhere else,” he said.
He said he is often contacted by people who want to try alternative treatment but are unaware of how to go about getting a recommendation for medical marijuana and know little about the benefits or how to access it. Because of this, his service stresses confidentiality when building relationships with patients.
To get a medical marijuana recommendation, a patient must be suffering from a medical condition that can be treated with medical marijuana, such as cancer or chronic pain. A licensed physician can write the recommendation after taking the patient’s medical history and administering a physical exam. Collectives must validate the recommendation before the patient is allowed to join.
Collectives say they are amazed at how their patients’ quality of life improves with medical marijuana treatment.
“One of the biggest benefits of working in this type of industry is most of our patients are 55 and older. It’s amazing what cannabis does for them. They’re not killing their body with all of these pills that can ruin your liver,” Robbin said. “We have a lot of patients who are going through chemo and radiation and they tell us, ‘This is the only thing that lets me eat, the only thing that lets me sleep.”
Solomon said he has seen people with high anxiety return to school and live a normal life when before medical marijuana they were unable to leave their homes.
“It improves the quality of life for people, whether they’re suffering from a physical or mental illness,” Solomon said.
A spokesman from Coachella Valley Wellness said his service has helped improve the quality of life for patients with Lyme disease, muscular dystrophy and insomnia.
“I feel that clients seem to be maintaining a lifestyle that they want,” he said, adding that the delivery service allows them to serve patients who are physically or otherwise unable to access medical marijuana.
Swerdlow is hopeful that his case before the state’s Supreme Court will eventually pave a path toward full legalization of a substance he believes is less harmful than legal substances such as tobacco and alcohol. As an R.N., he said he sees the proof on a daily basis.
“I never had a patient in a hospital bed because of cannabis,” Swerdlow said. “But from smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol? Every day.”