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The Right Medicine

Local entrepreneurs make the case for more medical marijuana dispensaries

By Joy Lanzendorfer

Whatever you think about James Blair's proposal to bring a medical marijuana dispensary to Sebastopol, don't dare call it a pot store. It's not a pot store, Blair will insist. "Repeat after me: med-i-cal mar-i-juan-a dis-pen-sar-y."

It's safe to say that Blair is a little defensive about his pot sto--er, medical marijuana dispensary. His reaction is somewhat surprising, considering how little opposition the proposal has generated so far. Currently in the process of looking for the right location and applying for a use permit, Blair has met with Sebastopol officials, who seem cautiously optimistic about the proposed dispensary.

"I would have to look at the plan before I could say whether I support this project," says Sebastopol City Council member Craig Litwin. "But I do support the rights of patients to have access to medical marijuana."

In 1994 Blair broke his neck in an accident and began to smoke marijuana for medical purposes. Two years later, he founded the nonprofit Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative of Berkeley. He decided to locate the new dispensary in Sebastopol because he wants to serve the county's estimated 450 medical-marijuana patients. The only other medical-marijuana dispensaries in Sonoma County are both located in Guerneville. Blair also wants to send a statement to the federal government.

"A few years ago, a medical cannabis dispensary in Sonoma County closed down because of the federal government," he says. "This is a way to show the federal government it is not effective in eradicating medical cannabis in California."

Despite his message, Blair believes the media is making too much out of medical marijuana. "Next year you're going to be reading about how they are selling it at Walgreens and Rite Aid," he says.

In 1996 California voters approved Proposition 215, which allowed the use of medicinal marijuana. The law contradicts federal legislation, leading to some sticky legal questions. Shortly before leaving office, Gray Davis signed SB 420 into law, which among other things established the creation of identification cards for medical marijuana users.

But though California's laws are more favorable toward medical marijuana these days, plenty of people still oppose it. Take the medical marijuana dispensary Aaron James Mitchell and his mother Karen van Kayne are proposing for the town of Sonoma. Mitchell is the son of Artie Mitchell, San Francisco's "king of porn," who along with his brother Jim opened the O'Farrell Theater in San Francisco and produced the influential porn flick Behind the Green Door. In 1991 Jim drove to Artie's Corte Madera home and shot him dead. He was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served three years in San Quentin. He now lives in Petaluma.

Aaron Mitchell got the idea for the Sonoma Cannabis Co-op when he was arrested for possession of crystallized hash oil in Contra Costa County, which he says he was carrying to treat an unspecified medical condition relating to his father's death. "The police refused to recognize that I was a medical patient when they arrested me, and they charged me with one-third of a million dollars bail," he says. "After I paid the bail, they let me go and dropped the charges."

Angry at his treatment, Mitchell decided to make medical marijuana more available to patients. He approached his mother, a mortgage broker, with the proposal for the co-op. They signed a lease with a landlord for a space south of the Sonoma Plaza and met with city officials to discuss the idea.

"We presented them with a long document that answered all their legal questions," says van Kayne. "They had very few questions for us. At this time in California, we are very well protected by the law."

But in late March the co-op hit a setback when the landlord, John Powers, backed out of the deal. Mitchell and van Kayne believe Police Chief John Gurney intimidated and threatened Powers so that he grew afraid to rent to them.

"Powers told me that he was too old to be harassed like this," says van Kayne. "He's old and scared. Gurney has also said that even if our proposal does pass the hearings, everyone at the co-op will be arrested the day it opens." Powers has denied that Gurney ever harassed or intimidated him. Gurney did not return the Bohemian's phone calls.

Regardless, the Sonoma Cannabis Co-op is looking for another location. "No one else has opposed the co-op except for Gurney," Mitchell says. "We're looking for a new location. We're hoping to have one by June or July."

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From the April 14-20, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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