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Space Age Medicine

Dennis Augustine
Christopher Gardner

Little Green Things: Dennis Augustine, medical director of the Santa Clara County Medical Marijuana Center, shows off the humble beginnings of Califoria's first legal pot plants.

San Jose's medical marijuana center seeks high-tech help for its newly approved hydroponic growing operation

By Eric Johnson

Help Wanted--Pot grower. Knowledge of indoor operations a plus. Must be willing to work with NASA on developing new hydroponic marijuana cultivation technology and submit to police background check.

IT'S NOT A JOKE, and it's not a DEA trick designed to rope in surreptitious horticulturists. An ad just like the one above may in fact be placed in next week's Mercury News by the state's first legal private pot-growing operation.

San Jose's zoning department just granted a permit to the Santa Clara County Medical Marijuana Center allowing its staffers to cultivate marijuana. The center's directors, Peter Baez and Jesse Garcia, say they will launch a search for an experienced pot grower to help them.

Baez and Garcia see the decision as an opportunity, and they have a plan to meet the challenge. But they aren't exactly thrilled about the center's new role.

Sitting in his modest office, smoking a Marlboro, Baez seems a bit nervous. The windows behind his desk have new steel security bars. It's not what he imagined when he started passing out pot to medically needy people in the Valley Medical Center parking lot a few months ago.

"I got into this because I wanted to help sick people," Baez says. "Now I'm being told I have to put together a grow room. That's a full-time job in itself."

Recognizing the gravity of their situation, the SCCMMC is appealing for help to a very powerful source. Next week, Garcia is set to meet with David Bubenheim of the Ames Research Lab, a NASA affiliate in Mountain View.

Bubenheim, a hydroponics expert with the Regenerative Life Support branch of Ames' space technology division, is in Russia this week, possibly discussing a joint project to grow food on Mars (the folks at Ames won't say). Garcia hopes that when the doctor returns, he will be willing to talk about the development of a high-tech system to grow strong buds in a back room on Meridian Avenue.

If it sounds almost like a pipe dream being foisted by a couple of stoners so they and their friends can get high, it feels different than that in person.

Baez and Garcia are both medical marijuana patients--Baez suffers from cancer, and Garcia has AIDS. The clients in their office during two visits last week were clearly ailing. Nobody is doing bong hits in the lobby. That makes the San Jose facility unlike the buyers' clubs in San Francisco, Oakland and other cities throughout the state, where clients go to self-medicate.

Local zoning ordinances do not allow patients to smoke on the premises. Baez and Garcia say they are comfortable with the local laws. Both have been disappointed to watch local and national TV news bits featuring heavy-lidded, grinning faces at the buyers' clubs.

"That's not the message we want to send," Garcia says. "This is not about recreational use. This is about getting medicine to people who need it."

Health Care Reform

AFTER AN ABORTED attempt a few months back at partnership with an activist named Robert Nyswonger, Baez and Garcia took off in a new direction. They decided their facility should be a marijuana dispensary. They replaced the word "Club" with the word "Center." On their business cards, the word "Medical" is underlined.

Dennis Augustine, the center's medical director, believes San Jose is crafting a program that will serve as a statewide model. A retired foot doctor who has volunteered for years with the local "harm reduction" team--distributing needles to IV drug addicts to curb the spread of AIDS--Augustine says San Jose is on its way to a workable means for allowing compassionate use.

"We would have preferred to commission a local grower," Augustine says. "But since the city is requiring us to cultivate on-site as a condition of our special-use permit, that is what we will do to implement the law and relieve some individuals' suffering."

Augustine says he is frustrated about the federal government's threats to punish doctors who recommend marijuana.

"Medical science knows that marijuana can help people--especially patients with AIDS or cancer--deal with nausea," he says, "and it helps them keep their body weight up. Nothing else works as well. These scare tactics are straight out of Reefer Madness."

"Some doctors are still leery," Garcia says. "The message from DC is that they're going to jail for this."

Locally, it's a different story. San Jose's civic leaders recognize the SCCMMC's efforts to safely provide marijuana to people with chronic pain, glaucoma, arthritis "or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief," as the Compassionate Use Act instructs. That is a large part of the reason why the city is cooperating with the Center. (That and Baez's political connections--a longtime local AIDS activist and volunteer, Baez has a photo on his wall of himself with Mayor Susan Hammer and his famous folksinger-cousin, Joan.)

The meeting between Garcia and Bubenheim was set up by San Jose Police Sgt. Scott Savage. For the past several months, Savage has been helping Baez and Garcia negotiate the vagaries of the new law.

The medical marijuana law, which was enacted by almost 60 percent of California voters, is notoriously vague. While Proposition 215 was clear in its intent to make cannabis available to the sick, it left it up to local municipalities to come up with plans for legal distribution. The law presents a Catch-22: Throughout the state, it is still illegal to transport pot. And, until three weeks ago, it has been illegal to grow it. So everyone involved faces the risk of arrest.

Drug Money

THE SCCMMC serves 130 clients, with each receiving up to an ounce each week--at a cost of $65 an eighth-ounce. As they start growing, their client base is likely to increase significantly. San Jose officials want to keep a handle on this enterprise.

"We can't go to Humboldt or San Francisco and then come back and throw a couple of pounds on the table," Baez says. Local officials, he says, "want to control what goes on here. They want to know how much we're growing and who's getting it."

While both Baez and Garcia say they are happy to have the cooperation of local law enforcement officials, they are worried about being asked to open their files for official inspection.

"Imagine being a person with AIDS, and knowing that the government has access to your files," Garcia says. "These people are afraid. This seems to go too far."

But Garcia and Baez are more worried about how the feds will respond to the local arrangement.

Last year, Garcia wrote a deeply personal letter to President Clinton asking him to reconsider his position against medical marijuana use. In response, he received a form letter stating that the president "strongly opposes ... drug legalization measures."

The spring DEA raid on the Flower Therapy Club in San Francisco had a chilling effect.

Baez, Garcia and Augustine want the city to follow the lead of the city of Oakland, which wrote an emergency statute allowing the cultivation and transportation of medical marijuana.

"I feel the city should create a state of emergency to protect my clients and staff from the risk of arrest," Baez says.

"As soon as our plants start to grow, the DEA can come in and chop them down. I don't feel comfortable about having a lobby full of 10 or 12 sick and dying people when federal agents come pushing through the doors."

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro.

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