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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Indispensable: Resource Green's Ken Haus poses with his sidekick, 'Rosie.'

Reefer Madness

What is it about medical marijuana that makes everyone act so funny?

By R. V. Scheide

Marijuana can make people do funny things. Take journalists, for instance. For the past several weeks, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat has run a series of news stories and opinion pieces that have taken a decidedly negative slant on Santa Rosa's three medical marijuana dispensaries, more popularly known as cannabis clubs. In a March 17 column titled "Death to the Medical Cannabis Club," columnist Chris Smith wrote that "the needs of legitimate patients are overshadowed by the inevitable comings and goings of fakers, rip-offs, dealers and recreational pot-heads."

Strong words, and one might presume that Smith had visited at least one of the three clubs before making such a harsh judgment. After all, one of the dispensaries, Resource Green Caregiver and Patients Group, is a mere six blocks from the Press Democrat's offices. However, such was not the case.

"No, I did not got to any of the medical marijuana clubs in Santa Rosa," Smith admitted to the Bohemian.

Press Democrat reporter Paul Payne did visit Resource Green before writing his March 16 story on cannabis clubs, titled "SR Medical Marijuana Club Leaves Neighbors Fuming." The problem is that Payne, according to allegations by three individual sources who were at the club, failed to identify himself as a reporter when he first showed up outside. One patient, disturbed by the incognito journalist's questions, immediately notified a Resource Green security guard, who escorted Payne off the premises.

But the incident was not mentioned in Payne's story, which voiced the unsubstantiated claims of several neighbors that lax security at the club had led to, in the words of one resident, "wholesale drug trafficking in my neighborhood."

If these were the only discrepancies in the Press Democrat's coverage, they might be forgiven as honest mistakes. Unfortunately, they're just the tip of the iceberg. For example, in Payne's first story, one resident complains about "healthy twenty-something customers," and a subsequent Press Democrat editorial mentions "streams of young people coming and going." Editorial director Pete Golis, in a March 23 opinion piece, comments on "the astonishing number of young men coming and going at one pot club," and jokes that an "unexplained health menace threatens young men in Santa Rosa; health officials launch investigation."

The unspoken assumption is that people in their 20s couldn't possibly be sick enough to qualify for a medical marijuana recommendation. This is of course an erroneous assumption.

"The twenty-something thing is deceptive," says Doc Knapp, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Alliance for Medical Marijuana (SAMM) who's been surprised at the Press Democrat's recent bias. "You really can't judge a book by its cover."

If Resource Green's security hadn't been so tight and if Payne's interview with the healthy-looking 25-year-old man who turned him in had gotten off to a better start, the Press Democrat might have realized that.

 

Santa Rosa resident Jeffrey Borchert can't be blamed for feeling paranoid. In 1998 he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. "I didn't know what it meant or anything," Borchert explains haltingly in a backroom at Resource Green, struggling against the numbing effect of the antipsychotic medication Zyprexa, prescribed by his doctor in combination with the antidepressant Prozac to treat his mental illness. That same doctor gave Borchert the green light to seek a medical marijuana recommendation to augment the prescription medication, and after receiving his recommendation from a qualified physician, Borchert became one of the 2,500 registered patients who receive their medical marijuana from Resource Green.

Located near the corner of Santa Rosa and Sonoma avenues, Resource Green has become a safe haven for Jeffrey Borchert and hundreds of other local medical marijuana patients. Because he does not like to drive, Borchert can take the bus from home to the Santa Rosa Transit Mall, a few blocks away from the club. Once at the club, he says, "no one gives me problems, it's pretty much in and out."

On the day of Payne's first visit to Resource Green, Borchert's father gave him a ride to the club and witnessed the reporter (he had no way of knowing who it was at the time) approach his son and several other people parked outside. "I didn't hear what he said, but Jeffrey immediately ran over to the club's security guard," says the elder Borchert. Jeffrey Borchert alleges that Payne "asked me if I was going to the clinic and could I get him something."

"The pot-club customer [Borchert] is mistaken," Payne responds when told of the allegation. "I made absolutely no attempt to buy marijuana."

Reuben, the Resource Green security guard Borchert notified, is also a medical marijuana patient and, like several other patients interviewed for this story, refused to divulge his last name for fear of being hassled by law-enforcement officials.

"I went over to talk to the guy," Reuben says. "I said, 'Excuse me, you can't be asking patients to buy marijuana for you. You need to leave.' I didn't ask him. I told him."

Payne left and returned 10 minutes later, identified himself as a Press Democrat reporter and was admitted to the club, Reuben says. Payne avers that he identified himself properly immediately upon meeting Reuben.

Why isn't the incident mentioned in Payne's story? That's impossible to say for certain. However, its absence does fit the overall pattern of the Press Democrat's recent coverage of cannabis clubs, which has repeatedly relied on innuendo, unverified allegations, stereotyping and taking facts out of context.

For starters, consider how the Press Democrat describes the club's location. In his column, Smith describes the club as being "a stone's throw from Santa Rosa City Hall, a park and a grammar school." While the club is indeed in the vicinity of all three, it would take quite a heave to hit the school with a rock. Resource Green CEO Ken Haus says he personally measured the distance and found it to be well over 1,000 feet, the buffer zone required by SB 420, which along with Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, created the quasilegal framework in which medical cannabis clubs operate.

Moreover, neither Smith's column nor Golis' editorial mentions that the park in question is the notorious Juilliard Park, long a hangout for transients and runaways who spill over into the adjacent neighborhood. The park remains a trouble spot for the Santa Rosa Police Department to this day.

In the Press Democrat coverage, it is repeatedly stated that public officials have been blindsided by the sudden appearance of three medical pot clubs in the city, yet Haus says when the club first opened last May, mission statements were mailed to all local government officials who might have a concern with the club. Haus' former business partner says he even left a phone message with Santa Rosa mayor Jane Bender, telling her that the club had opened and to call if she had any concerns. Bender, who recently told the Press Democrat that "three clubs is too many," never called back. Despite receiving repeated messages, Bender had not returned calls to the Bohemian by press time.

"All of these dudes have known that we've been here from the very beginning," says Haus.

"This has never been a thing where they were flying below the radar," says Chris Andrian, the attorney who represents Resource Green. "They've been very up front with everything they've done."

The Press Democrat stories also report that the Santa Rosa Police Department has taken a "neutral" approach to the clubs, which came as a surprise to Haus, who says the club has been visited more than a half-dozen times by the police.

During one visit, he says, police attempted to gather information about the patients who grow marijuana for Resource Green. Andrian advised Haus not to give the police the information. "It's none of their business," he says.

"The notion that I'm running a wholesale drug ring is absurd," Haus fumes, adding that club security has so far caught some 20 members attempting to redistribute medical marijuana outside the club--a small percentage, considering Resource Green has 2,500 members--all of whom had their memberships permanently revoked. "We're going to catch them, and they're not going to be allowed back," says Haus.

When asked to name any incident of illegality associated with the three medical marijuana clubs in town, Lt. Jerry Briggs of the Santa Rosa Police Department could only note that North Bay Collective, located on Steele Lane, and Caregivers Compassion Center, located on Montgomery Drive, have each been burglarized. He admitted that neither Resource Green nor any of its patients have been cited for anything, marijuana-related or otherwise, and said local law enforcement's skepticism toward the clubs has been fostered by "overwhelming anecdotal evidence" coming from cities such as Oakland and San Francisco, currently experiencing their own problems with the issue.

"I don't mind the police presence," Haus says, adding that he has more of an interest than anyone in ensuring that his clients are safe and obey the club's rules. "What I do mind is people putting a negative spin on my business. It's quite apparent that the Press Democrat has an agenda: to shed a negative light on Resource Green."

 

A red cross painted above a black wrought-iron security door, locked from both sides, marks the entrance to Resource Green. A security guard stands outside. To gain entry, patients must present a valid ID card to another guard stationed behind the door.

Once inside the narrow quarters, it's fairly understandable why some people get the wrong idea about the medical marijuana dispensary. A steady flow of patients, young and old alike, funnel in and out of the club, eyeballing the various strains of high grade marijuana--Purple Urkle, Sweet Nightmare, Morning Star, Satory, Legend, Super Mix and Sweet Outdoor--that bristle with potency beneath a glass countertop. There's a mural based on Pink Floyd's The Wall opposite the case, rock music blares in the background, and although Haus technically doesn't allow patients to toke up in the club, he makes the occasional exception for those in dire need of medication, so there's a faint whiff of vaporized pot in the air. It feels like a combination between the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic and a head shop.

However, what becomes abundantly clear after interviewing numerous patients at the club is that most of them, if not all, are seriously ill. In fact, every patient interviewed by the Bohemian, including a number of so-called healthy looking 20-year-olds, presented valid reasons for his or her medical marijuana recommendation.

If there is a single common denominator uniting the patients, it is chronic pain.

Dr. Gene Schoenfeld of Sausalito is one of only two North Bay physicians on pro-marijuana organization CalNORML's list of doctors willing to grant medical marijuana recommendations. A psychiatrist, he occasionally makes a marijuana recommendation for mental illness, but most patients seek him out for pain issues.

"Most medical marijuana recommendations are for chronic pain--back pain, headaches, spastic diseases," he says. "Medical marijuana can relieve pain directly, or indirectly, by relieving the anxiety, the fear that comes with the onset of chronic pain."

For example, Resource Green patient Karl Nonamaker, 54, was struck by a drunk driver while riding his Harley on his 37th birthday. He lost an eye and his left leg above the knee, and suffered extensive nerve damage. He also suffers from arthritis and bipolar disorder.

"I've been smoking pot a long time," he says, adding that as soon as voters passed Proposition 215, he immediately sought and received a recommendation to treat chronic pain syndrome with marijuana. "It really helps me get through the day."

It would be difficult to find a healthier looking 20-year-old than Andrew, a handsome Latino dressed in jeans and red sweatshirt perusing the various strains of marijuana on display--until Andrew holds out his left hand, revealing a thick white scar that goes more than halfway through his wrist, the result of work accident that severed five tendons. He's currently awaiting his third surgery on the wrist. Chronic pain keeps him up at night, so his doctor originally prescribed the painkiller Vicodin. Andrew quickly got strung out on the drug, which also causes nasty stomachaches. Since obtaining his medical marijuana recommendation, he can sleep at night and he's been able to get off Vicodin.

The look on 44-year-old Brian Wims' face is so angry and intense, it seems reasonable to wonder why he's so pissed off. Then Wims relates that he was the third person diagnosed with AIDS in Sonoma County. At one point, the disease was full-blown and nearly took his life. Because of his depleted immune system, he's battled a variety of different cancers, and is currently struggling with lymphoma. The medication he takes makes him nauseous, and it's difficult to eat. He is in constant agony; his face is a veritable mask of pain, until he starts speaking.

"Chronic pain is something you can't understand until you've experienced it," Wims says. "I have tried different pharmaceuticals, and they haven't touched it. Marijuana allows you to take that pain, put it in a box and manage it." Eddie Garcia, 53, concurs. For the past year and a half, he's endured a pinched sciatic nerve that has left him wheelchair-bound. "Medical marijuana doesn't take all the pain away, but it makes it bearable," he says.

Surely Gary, 19, a healthy-looking dreadlocked junior college student who hopes to study physics at UC Berkeley in the fall, must be one of those "fakers" alluded to by columnist Chris Smith. Sorry. "I've had migraines all my life," Gary explains. His doctor at Kaiser advised him to keep a journal and take Advil. Later, a neurologist diagnosed him with cluster headaches and recommended stretching. Nothing worked--until he received a medical marijuana recommendation.

"It doesn't relieve the headaches completely, but instead of having to lie down for four hours, I can smoke a small amount. and I'm able to cope," he says. Resource Green operations manager Melissa Gordon, 25, also suffers from migraines and finds that marijuana "alleviates the pain and pressure inside my head." Likewise, CEO Ken Haus, 34, has chronic-pain issues, thanks to osteoarthritis in his spine. He was originally prescribed the powerful painkiller Oxycontin for the condition. "Coming off it was unlike anything I've ever experienced," he says. "I had cold sweats, the shakes and terrible stomachaches for weeks."

In the Spring issue of O'Shaughnessy's: The Journal of Cannabis in Clinical Practice, Dr. Jeff Hergenrather of Sebastopol--the other North Bay physician on CalNORML's list--writes that the reduced use of pharmaceuticals is a recurring theme he's finding among his medical marijuana patients.

"In many cases, conventional treatments are as problematic as the diseases themselves," he writes. "Patients who have chosen cannabis as an alternative treatment for these conditions often confide to cannabis specialists that they have been able to reduce their use of pharmaceutical drugs. It is a recurring theme, and a significant one."

Dr. Hergenrather says that there are now more than 200 conditions described in the ninth revision of the International Classification of Diseases that are considered treatable by medical marijuana. Many of these diseases do not practice age discrimination.

"How are you going to recognize a 20-year-old who has a seizure disorder?" he asks rhetorically. "On the other hand, I don't want to pretend that there isn't some use that's recreational."

Virtually no one involved in the controversy disputes the fact that the framework laid out by Proposition 215 and SB 420 is imperfect. The Compassionate Use Act opened the door for patients to legally use marijuana for medical purposes, but physicians are not allowed to prescribe it, which is why it's called a "recommendation." Senate Bill 420's language is even more vague, allowing patients to form collectives to grow and distribute medical marijuana to fellow patients, but stopping short of defining just what a collective might be--for instance, a cannabis club like Resource Green.

"It's like they legalized milk but didn't legalize cows," says Bill Panzer, an Oakland attorney who has handled many high-profile medical marijuana cases.

"It's not that the state doesn't need to be involved; it's that the state has refused to be involved."

Yet it is this imperfect framework in which medical marijuana dispensaries like Resource Green must operate, leading to constructs that challenge the conventional wisdom of what healthcare can be. For example, Resource Green CEO Ken Haus and operations manager Melissa Gordon are also patients--according to SB 420, they have to be in order to provide medical marijuana to fellow patients.

Haus says the club obtains its marijuana from approximately 250 local patient-growers who are also Resource Green members, again expanding on the idea of the "collective." Legally speaking, patients are not "customers" that "buy" medical marijuana from Resource Green, as reported by the Press Democrat. That's because the law does not permit anyone to profit from the sale of medical marijuana. Instead, a practice known as "cost recovery exchange" is employed.

Patient-growers are allowed to recover the costs of the money and labor spent cultivating their crops--but no more than that--by charging caregivers like Haus for their product. They are also required to complete a 1099 form for the IRS. In turn, Resource Green is allowed to recover its medical marijuana costs by passing it on to its patients. Sonoma County medical marijuana guidelines pioneered by SAMM allow patients to obtain up to four and a half ounces per month, or three pounds a year--a measure that the club meticulously tracks for each patient with a computer program, right down to the last gram. Currently, prices for an eighth of an ounce range from $30 to $50.

In order for a patient to receive medical marijuana from a dispensary, he or she must first receive a recommendation from a physician. Drs. Schoenfeld and Hergenrather both conduct an extensive interview process, reviewing the patient's medical records and contacting the referring physicians before making a recommendation. They also require follow-up visits. The patient takes the recommendation to a club like Resource Green to get the "prescription" filled. Resource Green validates every recommendation by checking the physician's status with the California Medical Association and by directly contacting the physician before the patient is granted a Resource Green ID card.

Ironing out the recommendation process is the key to California's medical marijuana controversy, and both Drs. Schoenfeld and Hergenrather are acutely aware that there are a few unscrupulous physicians throughout the state running what have become known as "recommendation mills," where patients are issued recommendations after a short cursory examination with no follow-up appointments.

"It's not the clubs' fault," says Panzer. "They can't second-guess doctors."

Such nuances in the law have received scant attention in the Press Democrat's coverage of the controversy so far. Instead, the reports have relied mainly on the complaints of a single neighbor, Rayburn Killion, an attorney who lives a few houses down from Resource Green's alleyway. Yet Killion himself seems slightly confused about the issue. One day, he's accusing Resource Green of "wholesale drug trafficking" in the daily newspaper, the next he's calling the club up and thanking them for doing such a swell job with their security.

"It comes and goes," he told the Bohemian. "I'm trying not to be obsessed about it."

Killion says he has observed people parked in his driveway breaking up bags of marijuana, passengers waiting in cars getting out and urinating behind the PG&E substation across the street from his house, and people exchanging money before entering Resource Green. He says that in the first case, he's only guessing that the people parked in his driveway came from the club. His major issue appears to be the increased traffic on the street thanks to the club's tiny parking area. "I'd like to make it clear that I'm not against medical marijuana," he says.

Last week, Melissa Gordon made the rounds of the neighborhood, handing out fliers to inform neighbors the club is doing everything it can to keep the area safe. She talked to 20 residents, Killion included, and no one had any complaints. Most had been unaware of the club until the Press Democrat's recent coverage.

"What happened is that an incident came to reflect the whole movement," says Doc Knapp, the SAMM spokesman. "That's just a distortion of the movement. By and large, we find that patients are discreet. Once you get in a situation where neighbors are complaining or going to the city council, it's news and should be reported, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not a good technique."

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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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