E-Mail Forum
  Ganga Surreality
July 25, 2010

There is something surreal about the push to make Richmond a wide open city for marijuana dispensaries. As I have watched this play out over the last several months, it occurs to me that there has been no real debate about the pros and cons of the issue, just emotional pleas from a few patients and a plethora of drug dealers, one of whom was even reduced to tears last week by his overwhelming level of compassion.

The primary source of information offered at public hearings has basically been from drug dealers and their surrogates who are operating in violation of federal, state and Richmond law. This also seems to be the primary source of information on which my City Council colleagues depend while citing their pleasant and uneventful visits to the various dispensaries operating illegally in Richmond.

I got an invitation from Rebecca Vasquez for a tour of her facility and lunch on Monday, July 26. How nice of her! She is affiliated with Holistic Healing Collective, 221 Tewksbury Avenue, a dispensary in Point Richmond. Should I drop by for a healthy salad and maybe brownies for dessert? Or should I worry about a Brown Act violation because I might run into more than two of my colleagues? It’s tough being a City Council member and having to make decisions like this.

The Ganja Gang of Four, McLaughlin, Ritterman, Bates and Rogers, continue to insist that marijuana is harmless while providing valuable health benefits. It’s not their advocacy that bothers me; it’s the way they play fast and loose with reality. They cite medical literature and abundant anecdotal information supporting the therapeutic benefits while ignoring equally compelling facts about the downside of marijuana use and wide open marijuana sales.

We are simply not getting the whole picture here.

For example, these same councilmembers who passed the most restrictive tobacco smoking laws in California and (some) have railed incessantly against industrial air pollution seem untroubled by scientific evidence that marijuana has more carcinogens than tobacco, and its use can result in many serious adverse health impacts. The fact is that smoking anything is simply not good for you. Dr. Ritterman counters this by citing a study showing that people who smoke both tobacco and marijuana die from lung cancer at a lower rate that people who only smoke tobacco. I’m not sure what comfort that provides or what it proves other than if you are a tobacco smoker, you might prolong your life by toking up on marijuana too.

Another study, however, shows that people who smoke marijuana frequently but do not smoke tobacco have more health problems and miss more days of work than nonsmokers do. Many of the extra sick days used by the marijuana smokers in the study were for respiratory illnesses (Polen, M.R; Sidney, S.; Tekawa, I.S.; Sadler. M.; and Friedman, G.D. Health care use by frequent marijuana smokers who do not smoke tobacco. West J Med 158:596-601, 1993).

Marijuana has the potential to promote cancer of the lungs and other parts of the respiratory tract because it contains irritants and carcinogens.(Sridhar, K.S.; Raub, W.A.; Weatherby, N.L., Jr.; Metsch, L.R.; Surratt, H.L.; Inciardi, J.A.; Duncan, R.C.; Anwyl, R.S.; and McCoy, C.B. Possible role of marijuana smoking as a carcinogen in the development of lung cancer at a young age. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 26(3):285-288, 1994).

 In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50 percent to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke.(Hoffman, D.; Brunnemann, K.D.; Gori, G.B.; and Wynder, E.E.L. On the carcinogenicity of marijuana smoke. In: V.C. Runeckles, ed., Recent Advances in Phytochemistry. New York: Plenum, 1975). It also produces high levels of an enzyme that converts certain hydrocarbons into their carcinogenic form, levels that may accelerate the changes that ultimately produce malignant cells (Cohen, S. Adverse effects of marijuana: Selected issues. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 362:119-124, 1981). Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which increases the lungs' exposure to carcinogenic smoke. These facts suggest that, puff for puff, smoking marijuana may increase the risk of cancer more than smoking tobacco does.

If you are terminally ill or feel like it, the relief marijuana provides is probably welcome, and few dispute that. On the other hand, there is evidence that 98% of marijuana users are not suffering from maladies for which marijuana is the best treatment.

According to the Institute of Medicine, there is no future in smoked marijuana as medicine. However, the prescription drug Marinol—a legal and safe version of medical marijuana which isolates the active ingredient of THC—has been studied and approved by the Food & Drug Administration as safe medicine. The difference is that you have to get a prescription for Marinol from a licensed physician. You can’t buy it from your local dispensary, and you don’t smoke it.

Why should we be concerned about the adverse health impacts of marijuana smoking? Because we all ultimately pay for it.

I could go on and discuss the pros and cons of endless topics that include crime, driving while intoxicated, marijuana versus alcohol, effects on teenagers, tax revenue potential, and so on. I don’t have enough memory in my computer to try and recite all the arguments pro and con allowing marijuana dispensaries in Richmond. But I would like to see a real discussion that includes expert testimony, not just drug dealers looking to make a fast million bucks.

The vast majority of California cities and counties do not allow dispensaries at all, so there must be some compelling reason to allow an unlimited number in Richmond. It must be Richmond’s uniqueness. We are periodically the homicide capital of California, and maybe cannabis can cure that. One thing for sure is that there is a yawning gulf between even credible believers and detractors. For just a snapshot, see http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000141

For anyone who wants to get educated, there is endless information on the Internet. On the pro side, check out the following:

On the con side, see:

  • http://www.californiapolicechiefs.org/nav_files/medical_marijuana.html. Cal Chiefs, in conjunction with the California State Sheriff's, Califormia Peace Officer's Association, Narcotics Officers and District Attorneys' Associations and the California Highway Patrol, has formed a Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force.
  • http://www.nida.nih.gov/researchreports/marijuana/. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) , a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2002, an estimated 2.6 million Americans used marijuana for the first time. Roughly two-thirds of them were under age 18. Furthermore, the marijuana that is available today can be 5 times more potent than the marijuana of the 1970s. The use of marijuana can produce adverse physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral changes, and - contrary to popular belief - it can be addictive. Marijuana smoke, like cigarette smoke, can harm the lungs. The use of marijuana can impair short-term memory, verbal skills, and judgmentand distort perception. It also may weaken the immune system and possibly increase a user's likelihood of developing cancer. Finally, the increasing use of marijuana by very young teens may have a profoundly negative effect upon their development.

Come on down on Tuesday, July 27, and enjoy the show. There is some evidence that at least some of the Ganga Gang of Four are having buyer’s remorse and may back off on the unlimited dispensary permits.
Our own chief of police who is highly regarded both by City Council members and by the community has not said much in public about this, but he wrote to one councilmember after last week’s first reading of the proposed ordinance:
Dear Council Member:

Thank you for the e-mail and for your voicemail message.  I appreciate your ongoing willingness to work together on this and many other issues.  I also respect your civility and consideration during Council meetings, even when the issues are complex and controversial.

We do have some fundamental disagreements about the regulatory process associated with medical marijuana dispensaries.  I should make it clear, I am not opposed to medical marijuana or medical marijuana dispensaries.  My primary concerns related to these establishments include the following:

  • Depending on the establishment, its location, it ownership, and other factors, there can be a significant percentage of patrons who are not seeking marijuana for legitimate purposes.  We have done surveillance on eight Richmond dispensaries and observed marijuana and alcohol use on and around the premises that was clearly recreational.  We had undercover officers on several occasions go into various dispensaries and have no difficulty obtaining marijuana without being collective members, who presented defective medical marijuana cards, and who actually acknowledged to the on-site staff that they intended on using the marijuana and sharing it for non-medical purposes.  We have also received some complaints about this type of activity associated with several of the dispensaries from surrounding businesses and other neighbors.  I am not suggesting in any way that the majority of individuals who patronize these establishments are scammers.  What I am saying is that sufficient regulation is needed to deal with the minority of patrons who can create problems that jeopardize the successful operation of dispensaries for the majority of responsible patients.
  • Individuals come and go from many of these dispensaries with large amounts of marijuana and cash.  We had a series of consensual encounters with individuals going to and coming from the two dispensaries around the Pacific East Mall.  In one of these encounters, for example, we spoke with an individual who had two pounds of marijuana in his possession.  He started he had gotten the marijuana from an individual who owed him money.  He had no idea where the marijuana was grown or what quality it might be.  He was at the Mall to sell the marijuana to the dispensaries.  Despite no preexisting relationship with either dispensary, he told the officers he got one name from the Internet and the person he sold a pound to at the first dispensary referred him to the second dispensary to sell the second pound.  He admitted to being afraid he would be robbed while he was carrying the marijuana around.  The point is, these dispensaries have the potential to become locations that will be attractive targets for criminals who seek to prey upon both marijuana purchasers and sellers.  Let’s be forthright about this:  medical marijuana is a multi-million dollar business.  Much of this business is conducted in cash—which presents some serious risks, especially in our city.
  • Our undercover officers have observed individuals (mostly young and apparently in good physical health) coming from several of these dispensaries and then engaging in dealings with other persons on the properties directly adjacent to the dispensaries.  Although you take issue with comparing marijuana dispensaries to liquor stores, I have to tell you, we have observed the kind of sales and transactions I just described around dispensaries in the same manner that we have observed adults purchasing liquor and then providing it to minors adjacent to liquor stores.   Does this happen around every dispensary?  No.  Does it happen around some of them?  Absolutely. 
  • There are many people who “self medicate” with marijuana, just as there are many people who “self medicate” with alcohol.  While the comparative risks and benefits of doing both these things can be debated, what is difficult to dispute is that when someone is under the influence of marijuana, just as when they are under the influence of alcohol, their judgment, decision-making, awareness of surroundings, multitasking abilities, and inhibitions are all affected.  This means their consideration of others around them (neighbors, surrounding businesses, etc.), ability to drive safely, and perception of risk factors (crime, etc.) are also impacted.  I believe our regulations should acknowledge these realities and be properly responsive to them.
  • As part of our regulatory processes associated with bars and liquor stores, we are expected to assure these businesses have their required licenses, certificates, and other paperwork that allows us to clearly understand who has ownership and/or responsibility for business operations.  It is very clear that many marijuana dispensaries have very little documentation that clearly shows who the owners are, who the management and staff are, what their credentials are (if any) for providing “primary patient care,” where the marijuana is coming from (and what degree of quality or even safety there is associated with the products being provided to patients).  I believe responsible regulation should assure this information is accurate, consistently maintained, verifiable, and readily accessible to regulatory personnel.  In one recent crime involving the theft of marijuana and cash from a dispensary owner, several of his key employees and individuals associated with his growing operation were active parolees (including a registered sex offender) with lengthy criminal histories.  How is this safe for other clients and customers?


You and many members of the audience at last Tuesday night’s City Council meeting clearly opposed having the Police Department play a primary role in regulating and doing regulatory enforcement associated with Richmond’s marijuana dispensaries.  Although I am not enthusiastic about taking on any additional responsibilities, given the many services we already provide to the community, I do question what other City department has the staff, the expertise, and the authority to conduct meaningful monitoring and regulatory enforcement besides the Police Department. 

I’m disappointed there is an assumption held by some individuals that the Department would seek to “criminalize”, harass, or ostracize dispensary patients, or that we would be anything less than fair and professional in our dealings with dispensary staff.  We routinely visit liquor stores, bars, and smoke shops where I believe we have a very good reputation for being consistent, fair, and helpful in conducting our regulatory and educational roles.

Finally, I believe that as a general governing principle, it is better to start with more stringent regulations of a new business model that has the potential to be problematic--and then determine over time if those regulations should be relaxed or otherwise modified.  It is almost impossible to strengthen lax ordinances and laws or reform already established business practices after problems are identified.  We’ve seen this time and time again, both in our city and statewide.

In the case of marijuana dispensaries, the stakes are high.  I hear reports from my peers throughout the state about the many problems their cities and police departments have encountered based on poor regulation of these establishments and complaints from residents or business owners. 

To simply suggest that limiting the placement of these dispensaries to commercial areas will minimize any detrimental effect such businesses might have on neighborhoods is nonsensical.  Richmond’s commercial C-1 and C-2 areas are directly adjacent to highly populated neighborhoods, schools, churches, and community centers.

In my neighborhood (North and East), for example, my house is only a few short blocks away from San Pablo Ave.—a commercial corridor that already struggles with multiple liquor stores, massage parlors, tattoo shops, prostitution, drug activity, graffiti and other blight, loitering, and various types of crime.  It seems very unrealistic to believe the presence of one or more marijuana dispensaries along San Pablo Ave. will not have an impact on an already fragile area.  While none of us can say for certain whether this impact will be good or bad, I believe the stakes are high for everyone, including the existing business owners and surrounding residents.

I sincerely hope the ordinance that was narrowly approved this past Tuesday can be modified at a future Council Meeting.  I also believe it would be advisable to have input from multiple interests into this ordinance.  I heard several Council members describe how the dispensaries and their advocates should have greater input.  That’s fine, but what about other Richmond residents?  Isn’t this why ordinances like this one typically go before the Public Safety Committee, the Planning Commission, and groups such as the RNCC, the West County Alcohol Advisory Committee, or various neighborhood organizations?  Even City agencies, such as the Planning Department and the Police Department had very limited opportunity for meaningful feedback or input over the less than one week time period during which this ordinance was put together.    That simply does not seem like good governing to me.

Please be assured we will work with you and others to implement whatever the final ordinance looks like and to assure we create the safest environment for medical marijuana dispensaries in our community.  Thank you for considering my concerns related to this issue.


Chief Chris Magnus  

It seems this would be a good opportunity for the City Council to heed Benjamin Franklin’s advice and practice a little moderation.