The Sacramento Surge

Medical cannabis supporters lower their freak flags, don suits and ties for lobbying blitz.

Sacramento lawmakers got an earful from California medical cannabis patients Monday afternoon when about three hundred pissed-off voters flooded the halls of the legislature for a historic day of lobbying to support bills ensuring safe access to the drug.

This week the legislature may vote on San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s AB 2312, which would set statewide rules on dispensaries in an attempt to end a seven-month federal crackdown on the billion-dollar California medical cannabis industry.

US Attorneys have closed hundreds of state-legal dispensaries by threatening swift property forfeiture. The crackdown’s growing toll includes many of the best-regulated model dispensaries in the state, including Berkeley Patients Group, Coffeeshop Blue Sky in Oakland, and the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax.

Ammiano’s bill would create a new state regulatory body to license dispensaries in an attempt to emulate the more tightly controlled medical cannabis system of Colorado. Colorado has seen fewer federal raids and forfeiture threats than California.

The lobbying blitz caps a three-day Unity Conference in Sacramento, organized by Americans for Safe Access, NORML, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, and many other groups. At least five busloads of patients arrived in Sacramento from San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, Riverside, and West Hollywood. Hundreds of patients networked, received training on lobbying messages, and listened to videotaped messages from Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (D-Huntington Beach) and Sam Farr (D-Carmel).

Monday at noon, state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Ammiano spoke before a crowd of several hundred on the lawn in front of the Capitol. The freak flag was not flying at the event, though: male attendees wore suits and ties or polo shirts, while women wore dresses. Organizers and Capitol police had agreed to a strict no-smoking rule.

Americans for Safe Access spokesperson Jonathan Bair said registered attendees received specific lobbying assignments that corresponded to their localities. Working in pairs or groups of three or four patients, “we will be at every legislative office,” Bair said.

“It’s a diverse group, too. We have people whose only experience with politics is they need their medication and they’ve been thrown into the political system, all the way up to sophisticated labor organizers,” Bair said.

Lynnette Shaw drove up from the North Bay to speak on behalf of the 3,500 patients of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana. The dispensary, which Shaw co-founded, had operated with a city permit in Fairfax for fifteen years until US Attorney Melinda Haag closed it down and seized the property this winter. “My patients are suffering greatly in Marin County,” she said. “They took away my job, my livelihood, everybody I’ve been caring for.”

AB 2312 will help end the raids, she believes. The lobbying day reminds her of the early Nineties, during the battles to legalize medical marijuana in California. Voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, but only after years of coalition-building and tearful lobbying. “Dennis Peron called it the ‘unfortunate dog and pony’ show where, unfortunately, you go and make the senators and assemblypeople cry,” Shaw said. “Tear by tear, step by step, we could get their vote. As soon as they started to cry, we would get their vote.” Fifteen years later, “we’ve got a whole other generation of legislators. And a whole other generation of patients who are in danger.”

From Prop 215’s passage in 1996 through 2011, the medical marijuana movement has been fragmented, Shaw said. But now the crackdown is galvanizing the industry. Many dispensaries were deliberately apolitical before it began, noted Matthew Witemyre, who organizes dispensaries and workers in Northern California for the UFCW Local 5.

“A lot of attorneys, frankly, were telling dispensaries not to be engaged in the political process as it might draw attention to them,” Witemyre said. “We’re really starting to see why that’s not the way to do this.” Today, even the most uninformed operators realize federal officials won’t stop after putting the competition out of business. “A lot of us frogs were expecting to be sitting in a jacuzzi. All of a sudden, the water’s boiling.”

Longtime advocate Harborside Health Center threw its weight behind the lobbying day, and BPG has become much more vocal since being shut down. Once-mum SF clubs like The Green Door and Vapor Room urged their members to rally in Sacramento on Monday, too. “They’re going to continue to pick us apart one by one if we don’t come together in solidarity,” Witemyre said.

Seeds and Stems

Dhar Mann, owner of Oakland’s gardening supply franchise WeGrow — the “Wal-Mart of Weed” — faces thirteen felony charges this summer for allegedly pocketing $44,000 in fraudulently obtained city funds.

On Thursday, May 17, the Alameda County District Attorney’s office filed a complaint accusing Mann of pocketing redevelopment money the city had given him to pay contractors that fixed up his Oakland properties. The Express first reported in March 2011 on alleged problems Mann had paying contractors.

In December, we also reported that a group affiliated with Mann called “G8 Medical Alliance” became a finalist for a city permit to open an Oakland dispensary. G8 won the permit in March, pending the acquisition of a new lease.

On Monday, May 21, dispensary consultant Mickey Martin published a May 18 letter from the City of Oakland to G8, rescinding G8 Medical Alliance’s dispensary permit. G8 had failed to distance itself from Mann, the city stated.

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