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Medical Marijuana: An Uphill Battle for Users

By Emily Apel

Monterey County, CA – Medical marijuana users in Monterey County face an uphill battle in trying to get the drug. Fifty year-old Tammy Jennings is one of those people. She's been using medical marijuana for several years now to help ease the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune disease that affects the nervous system. "My balance, walking, my urinary and bowel incontinence problems are top. Fatigue. And the spasticity and pain in my legs and that's mainly why I'm doing medical marijuana," she says. Jennings used to take four different prescription drugs to help her sleep because of the pain. Now she says a few puffs of marijuana do the trick. She smokes almost every night and sometimes during the day if her symptoms are especially bad. Jennings can get her marijuana legally in dozens of California cities. But until recently, she couldn't get it where she lives: in Monterey. "Some days I just don't have the energy or the coordination in my legs to drive to Santa Cruz to get it. It's difficult to try to get to another county to get something that I should be able to get in my own backyard," Jennings says.

Monterey County cities have not welcomed marijuana cooperatives. Both Sand City and Pacific Grove have temporary moratoriums. And Salinas, Marina and Seaside ban them. The outright ban approach landed the southern California City of Anaheim in court. It's facing a lawsuit from a patients' rights group that accuses it of violating state law. Others have been waiting on the outcome of that case before making a move. At least, that's what the city of Monterey hoped to do until MyCaregiver, Inc. cooperative opened on Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey. "To deny us a business license simply because we provide each other medical cannabis amounts to discrimination. This activity is protected by state law and not specifically prohibited anywhere in the city code for Monterey," Jhonrico Carrnshimba told the Monterey City Council during its most recent meeting.

The city passed its moratorium that night. Moratoriums give cities time to decide whether to allow dispensaries, and if so, how to regulate them. "It's clear from the experience in other communities that when these dispensaries aren't regulated at all things can be rather challenging in terms of impacts. You don't want dispensaries near schools, for example, or parks. You don't want them in areas that might trigger activities or behavior that pose a concern. Having some ground rules and a level playing field for all that are involved can be very helpful," says Monterey's Assistant City Manager Fred Cohn. He adds part of the problem is understanding the intent of the voter approved Prop 215. "At the state level, the laws are ambiguous. Citizens initiatives aren't particularly clear. It creates a lot of challenges for us at the local government level in terms of how to manage these things through, but it's the hand we're dealt and we need to make the best of it," he says.

Cohn ordered MyCaregiver to shut-down because he says it violates the city's zoning ordinance. But the dispensary remains open while it appeals. In the meantime, it might soon have some competition.

Less than a half mile away, on Central Avenue, Daniel Maniscalco is turning an old karate studio into what he hopes will become Pacific Grove's first medical marijuana dispensary. "I'm a compassionate person looking out after the patients that are here and trying to create a resource for them to come and provide each other with the medication that they need," Maniscalco says. He tried unsuccessfully to open a dispensary in Sand City late last year. But he's feeling more optimistic about his chances in Pacific Grove. He plans to open his shop after the City lifts its 45 day moratorium, if that ever happens.

Tammy Jennings hopes as more cities allow dispensaries, the stigma attached to what she calls her medicine will eventually go away. "I feel like a criminal. I feel like somebody is going to come in and take me away because I'm doing something wrong and all I'm trying to do it take my medicine and feel better," she says.

The outcome of the Anaheim case could affect what Monterey and Pacific Grove do next. Within the next couple of months, an appeals court is expected to decide whether or not it's legal for cities to ban medical marijuana dispensaries.