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December 16, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

Pot plan dies in tight vote Pot plan dies in tight vote (December 16, 2005)

Federal agents anger crowd at emotional meeting

By Jon Wiener

City council members voted pretty much as expected on the pot club proposal Tuesday afternoon, defeating it 4-3 along lines drawn months ago. What wasn't expected, however, was the emotional charge of the debate -- or the presence of federal agents in City Hall.

Discussion on the idea started last summer, when Mountain View native Jon Lustig stepped forward with his proposal to open a medical marijuana facility in Mountain View. Thus began a dilemma for council members, who were torn between state law and federal law. On Tuesday, in a front of a packed house, that dilemma came to a head, when sick patients testified to marijuana's beneficial qualities, while federal agents issued a stern warning to city officials not to get involved. Ana Matheson, chief counsel for the San Francisco field office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, set the crowd off as she read a statement calling marijuana "a dangerous drug that has a high likelihood of abuse and no proven medicinal value." Assistant special agent in charge Larry Mendosa referred to a recent Supreme Court decision in Raich v. Gonzales as he told the council, "We are not here to discuss our enforcement policy, but it does give us the right to do some things."

In the end, Vice Mayor Nick Galiotto and council members Laura Macias, Tom Means and Matt Pear, who had all spoken out against the plan before, voted to halt city staff from spending any more time on the project. Mayor Matt Neely and Council members Greg Perry and Mike Kasperzak maintained their support of the idea. Neely also spoke publicly for the first time about the death of his older sister, who overdosed on the painkiller Oxycontin in April of 2003.

Visibly moved by the testimony of audience members who choked back tears as they talked about how marijuana helped them overcome everything from migraine headaches to panic attacks to thoughts of suicide, Neely attacked the hypocrisy of laws that put harsher controls on marijuana than drugs like Oxycontin.

"A federally-sanctioned drug is killing our families every day," he said. "I just can't get through that."

Assistant city manager Linda Forsberg presented the council with a brief description of policies that other Bay Area cities have taken with regard to marijuana dispensaries, focusing on San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Hayward. Forsberg also put to rest any remaining questions about the possibility of using pharmacies to sell the drug, which some had hoped would prove to be a workable solution.

Despite two state laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana for a range of conditions, residents of Santa Clara County will soon no longer be able to purchase the drug legally. A state law that takes effect next year requires clubs to sell only to patients from within the county where they are located, and none are located here.

If the city council wanted to accommodate the patients it has been hearing from for months, it would risk the ire of the federal government. As a result, city staff says it would only allow such a facility to operate as a pharmacy, yet no pharmacy can sell marijuana and keep its license.
No compromise

Council member Greg Perry's attempt to work out a compromise went nowhere, and even some who voted against the proposal expressed their frustration.

"We really don't have any good structure here," said Means, who voted against the proposal at a council meeting in October but agreed to support a study session in hopes that the pharmacy option would pan out. Means said he was very impressed with Lustig as well as another applicant who had come forward. But he voted the proposal down again because, he said, "it does expose us to certain types of things that I don't want to put up with."

Macias was absent from the October meeting when the council deadlocked 3-3. As soon it became clear that no one had changed their mind, her colleagues all turned to her to break the impasse.

After a long pause, Macias voiced her sympathy for patients who are facing increasing difficulty obtaining the drug, but cited a "greater responsibility" to local residents.

"We're in the most awkward of positions because the federal government has taken a very firm position here," said Macias.

The council did agree to send a letter to congressional representatives pushing for legislation that allows states more freedom in regulating medical marijuana. Council member Mike Kasperzak, who called the federal government's stringent classification of marijuana "stupid," proposed the letter.

But that was small consolation for Lustig and his supporters.

"That will take a decade," he said of attempts to work out a solution at the federal level. "And there are a lot of individuals who can't wait another decade."
A bitter taste

Many in the audience were already grumbling when the meeting started, having waited nearly two hours for the council to wrap up a discussion on campaign finance reform.

Seventeen speakers and one hour later, tempers were hot.

"The pain and the agony of many go neglected," said Lustig in the foyer outside the conference room after the meeting ended. He was yelling loud enough for the three representatives from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to hear him. "The pain and the agony ... 'No medicinal value'? ... I hope you can sleep at night!"

Besides the federal agents, not everyone in the audience was supportive of the idea. A local nurse named Jane Chu talked about the destructive effects of the drug. Ken Gammons, minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Mountain View, reminded council members that they were about to accept an award for prevention of tobacco sales to teens, imploring the council not to send children a mixed message.

"If we can't have a dispensary in Mountain View, we'll go to another city," said Marnie Regan, a member of the South Bay chapter of Americans for Safe Access as well as the Silicon Valley Patients Union. "If every city says no and the county says no, it's very simple, we'll provide for each other or we'll go to the streets."

That is exactly what Lustig has been saying he wants to avoid. Normally a picture of optimism, he was clearly shaken after the meeting. But he vowed to continue fighting.

"They'll see me here every Tuesday until something's done," he said.


E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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