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McWilliams Disgusted with S.D. Medical Marijuana Task Force

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine Sunday, Sep. 23, 2001 at 10:54 AM
mgconlan@earthlink.net (619) 688-1886 P.O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

Steve McWilliams, co-founder of the Shelter from the Storm Cannabis Co-operative and member of the San Diego Medical Marijuana/Cannabis Task Force, is getting more and more impatient and disgusted with the slow pace of the city's bureaucracy and the lack of any direct control from the city government on how the police enforce the California medical marijuana law.

errorMcWilliams Disgusted with S.D. Medical Marijuana Task Force

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright 2001 by Zengers Newsmagazine Used by permission

The people this law was designed to help are not being helped, Steve McWilliams, co-founder of the Shelter from the Storm cannabis co-operative and member of San Diegos Medical Marijuana Task Force, told the Task Force at its September 21 meeting. People who need medical cannabis [marijuana] are not any better off because this Task Force exists. Theyre not any more protected from police enforcement or public harassment.

The Task Force was founded four months ago when the San Diego City Council, at the suggestion of Councilmember Toni Atkins, authorized it to study how the city could best comply with Proposition 215, the landmark California ballot initiative passed in November 1996 that sets aside the states laws against marijuana possession and cultivation for users with a medical need for the substance. Since its passage, Proposition 215 has been mired in controversy, with many local law enforcement agencies arresting medical users anyway, the federal government maintaining its prohibition on any use of marijuana and the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruling that no state has the authority to allow the above-ground distribution of marijuana for medical use.

The San Diego Task Force was founded after two high-profile busts, a June 1999 raid that shut down Shelter from the Storms co-operative cannabis garden and one in April 2000 that closed the California Alternative Medicinal Center (CAMC), which sold marijuana and cannabis products to people with doctors letters authorizing them to use the substance for specific disease conditions. Since then, however, the Task Force has become bogged down in bureaucratic limitations, particularly since its only authorized function is to recommend policy to the City Council which does not direct authority over the police department and therefore cannot make changes in police procedure.

McWilliams crossed swords with other Task Force members several times during the September 21 meeting. He wanted the Task Force to drop the word marijuana from its name and substitute the more technical, less inflammatory term cannabis for the substance, but a 6-4 Task Force majority insisted on keeping both words in the name for fear that the word cannabis is far less familiar and therefore people hearing about a medical cannabis task force might not know what was being discussed.

Perhaps even more important to McWilliams was a proposal he and fellow member Michael Bartelmo made that the Task Force recommend to the City Council that the police be required to wait 72 hours before pulling up growing cannabis plants after they raid a user who claims medical necessity as a defense. McWilliams came up with this idea after his own garden was invaded by gang members in his neighborhood August 30; when these people trespassed and tried to steal the plants, he called the police only to find, when they took the call, that they regarded McWilliams himself as the criminal for having the cannabis plants in the first place.

The 72-hour hold proposal, made as a motion by Bartelmo and seconded by McWilliams, provoked a sharp debate over whether the current police department policy on medical marijuana arrests is working. The policy is that when people are detained for possession or cultivation of marijuana and they claim a medical necessity for it, the police hold them until members of the departments Narcotics Task Force can come to the scene. Then officers of the Narcotics Task Force take responsibility for reviewing the documentation and calling the doctor who supposedly authorized the person to use cannabis. If the doctor verifies the authorization, the person is supposed to be let go with no charges filed.

Sergeant David Rohowits, the police department representative at the September 21 meeting, cited the fact that McWilliams was not arrested as evidence that their policy works. He also claimed that Narcotics Task Force members werent at McWilliams home for more than 20 minutes before they let him go. McWilliams said that they were there for over two hours and it was only after intervention from Councilmember Atkins office and the police chiefs office that McWilliams was finally released and his plants were left alone.

While the other eight Task Force members said the issue of a 72-hour hold needed more time for discussion and negotiation with the police, McWilliams pleaded for immediate action because September is the time of year when cannabis plants fully mature. This is the peak of the harvest and this is the high time that people go after plants because the plants are at their largest and most visible, he explained. Next month it wont matter so much. Right now is the time for Michaels motion to go forward. Michaels been through a raid. Ive been through a raid, and unless youve been through it you dont know what its like.

McWilliams was also disappointed that the Task Force did not reserve booth space at the Adams Avenue Street Fair, scheduled for September 29-30. McWilliams own organization has had a booth at that fair, at its own expense, for years, but he didnt book one this year on the assurance that the Task Force would do so. Ed Plank, who represented the city at the September 21 meeting, said the only reason they would have booked a booth would have been to distribute questionnaires to potential medical cannabis patients and when the city decided instead to distribute the questionnaires more selectively they let their booth application lapse.

Task Force members did agree unanimously to mobilize members, supporters and (especially) patients for the San Diego City Council meeting on September 24 at 2 p.m. This meeting will consider an endorsement of SB 187, a bill before the California legislature to establish a voluntary identification card system so individuals with medical authorization to use cannabis can have a document they can show police officers instantly. Such a card is already issued by the city/county government of San Francisco, and San Diego City Councilmembers Atkins and Ralph Inzunza have proposed that San Diego issue its own card as well if the state fails to act. The Task Force unanimously agreed that a local San Diego card, if issued, should be called the Medical Cannabis Voluntary Verification Card.
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