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New model for medical cannabis might beat the feds


Three nonprofit LGBT organizations have developed a medical cannabis dispensary model heralded by city officials as a possible workaround to the federal government's crackdown on medical marijuana clubs.

The dispensary was unanimously approved recently by the Planning Commission and received a preliminary okay from the Health Commission.

The nonprofit Morado Collective will dispense medical marijuana in the Mission district through its healing center, using revenue to provide "sustainable funding" for three nonprofit organizations. One of those is the Association of United Gays Impacting Latinos/Latinas Towards Self-Empowerment (AGUILAS), which has been tussling with fiscal stress since 2008 and has seen a declining annual budget since.

This new venture is what AGUILAS Executive Director Eduardo Morales, Ph.D., has conceptualized to provide sustainable funds to the 20-year-old organization, instead of relying on one-time grants and city funds that fluctuate annually.

AGUILAS' 2010 budget was $306,731 – nearly 10 percent higher than its revenue, which is comprised of city grants for HIV services alongside one-time Levi Strauss grants for leadership development and stigma reduction for Latinos with HIV.

The 550-square foot Morado Healing Center at 2522 Mission Street will also collaborate with Shanti and the LGBT Community Center.

Victor Marquez, an attorney for landlord Gus Murad, is the person filing as Morado Collective with the city. It is not yet known who will actually be running the dispensary, which is aiming for a November opening, pending final approval from the Health Commission.

Kaushik Roy, executive director of Shanti, said that his agency serves 2,400 debilitated HIV and cancer patients each year who are in need of medical cannabis. The dispensary, he said, would provide a symbiotic relationship to help some at their "end-of-life" and would be a financial benefit to the organization.

The LGBT center is also embracing the project.

"We think it's important to our community that we have sustainable income that comes through outside means and this would provide quite a bit of support for the services that have been cut due to funding cuts through the government," said Jennifer Valles, community programs manager at the LGBT center.

The collective is expected to employ between 15 and 20 people.

Morales wants to work with the federal government to create an observatory and laboratory for the use of medicinal marijuana to ease pain to those that suffer debilitation from cancer treatment or HIV/AIDS medication through case management that utilize the city's network of services.

"We know that if you don't smoke it, it's probably good for you," said Morales, referring to other ways cannabis can be ingested.

Medical cannabis has been used to ease pain associated with HIV/AIDS medications. Morales wants to provide research studies and ethical review boards through the retail sale of cannabis in the form of marijuana and edibles.

To deter a shutdown, Morales said that a congressional waiver must be forged with the federal government, starting with use of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' research into the medicinal benefits of marijuana.

At the healing center, this research can be applied and monitored scientifically, which Morales hopes will result in a waiver.

"It is irresponsible of them to produce evidence demonstrating medical benefits of cannabis and forbid a mechanism for the public to access those benefits in a proper manner. We want to partner with federal agencies and use this business as a model that will provide service data and best practices for medical dispensary of cannabis," he said.

So far, the U.S. Department of Justice doesn't seem interested in research. Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the northern district of California, joined her counterparts in the central and southern regions of the state and last year embarked on a crackdown of numerous cannabis dispensaries. Some, she has indicated, were too close to schools or playgrounds, others, she alleged, ran afoul of tax provisions. Clubs in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley are among those that have closed in the last year.

The Green Cross, a medical marijuana collective that was forced to shut down its Mission location due to the federal crackdown, was before San Francisco's Board of Appeals Wednesday fighting an attempt to revoke the permit it received to open a dispensary near the city's Excelsior and Outer Richmond districts.

"Regardless of the outcome, the Green Cross will continue to offer the delivery service to our members, and, I fully expect that many of our members will continue to utilize delivery as their primary means of access," wrote Kevin Reed, Green Cross' president, in a note on Facebook urging supporters to contact the appeals board. "Our vision has always included (re)opening a storefront location in order to extend the availability of our products and services to our members who prefer to visit a walk-in facility."

In San Jose three city councilmen, including Pierluigi Oliverio, who represents many LGBT neighborhoods, introduced an ordinance this week to go after what they deem to be "tax-skirting" medical marijuana dispensaries. If approved by the full council, it would make it easier for city officials to shut down the 80 of the city's 158 medical marijuana dispensaries that never, or only sporadically, pay San Jose's voter-passed medicinal marijuana tax.

The Morado center, Morales said, is not like the pool of dispensaries that have sprouted up in recent years in San Francisco, which is currently around two-dozen. Two have been shuttered in the past six months by the federal government.

The collective's location may be problematic, as it will be situated just a block away from Alioto Park at 20th and Capp streets. That echoes the closure of the Vapor Room dispensary in late July on the grounds of its proximity to Duboce Park just two blocks away.

Planning department staffer Diego Sanchez said it would be the only Mission district retail cannabis space, as the nearest open-door dispensaries are in the Castro and just below Bernal Heights.

Resource center

Morado Collective proponents said that patients with debilitating diseases need an accessible walk-in dispensary. Morales furthers this concept with potentially using the upstairs hostel for respite beds, and by creating a healing center that provides referrals to HIV prevention services like AGUILAS or the LGBT center.

"It's important that there is a supportive network for a better chance of survival," said Mesha Monge-Irizarry in a telephone interview. She is one of seven members of the Marijuana Offenses Overview Committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors, which monitors the implementation of an ordinance that makes medical marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority. She said that the center's network of resources would benefit the Mission community.

AGUILAS' involvement in HIV prevention, she said, is key to the success of the healing center.

Its placement in a predominantly Latino neighborhood will also work to reduce the stigma of HIV within the gay Latino community, said Morales, whose work with AGUILAS has largely aimed toward that goal.

Neighborhood concerns

Sanchez addressed complaints at the Planning Commission's July hearing regarding "antisocial behavior" near dispensaries and "criminal activities," assuring commissioners that Morado Collective would provide daily litter pick-up outside the building and would prevent "noxious odors" from escaping the dispensary through its own ventilation. The collective will prohibit smoking or vaporization of cannabis on site.

The Morado Healing Center is now determining who to reach within HHS to collaborate on case studies and pain management using medical cannabis by using their research, like what is done at UCSF Parnassus or San Francisco General Hospital.

"We will not be responsible for running the operations but are available to advise the Morado Collective in how to provide case management services," said Morales.

The retail space was endowed by Murad, who owns the building that will house the dispensary. Were the dispensary shuttered by the federal government, Murad would be held liable, firstly in the form of notice of closure and then seizure of property.


Copyright © 2012 -Bay Area Reporter, Publisher. All rights reserved to Bay Area Reporter. Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the Bay Area Reporter.

Information in this article was accurate in September 13, 2012. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.