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Medical marijuana: ‘Safe medicine’ or crime magnet?

David Mirhadi
Staff Writer

Don’t use the term “pot” in front of Harry Bennett. At least not as it relates to the medical marijuana dispensary he’d like to open in Nevada City.

Bennett is still in the embryonic planning stages for his planned Organic Compassion medical marijuana dispensary. What he envisions is a tightly regulated medical facility where those who have legal prescriptions under California’s Proposition 215 can come and relieve their pain, under the full letter of the law.

“I’m interested in providing and making available a safe place for the people,” Bennett said. “I want our product to be organic – wholesome, safe medicine for compassionate reasons.”

A longtime Nevada City resident, the 53-year-old Bennett has had a medical marijuana prescription since California voters endorsed the Compassionate Care Act in 1996. He carries an identification card in his small wallet, and says he knows literally hundreds of people who would gladly, legally use the services of such a shop in Nevada City.

Should he be successful, Bennett’s shop would be the only such dispensary in Nevada County, though the Golden State Patient Care Collective is just a few miles away in Colfax.

The Placer County collective, Colfax City Manager Joan Phillipe said, has not presented the city with significant problems since opening several years ago.

The small city of about 1,000 residents will soon be addressing the same issue Nevada City faces – whether to extend an ordinance prohibiting additional medical marijuana facilities within the city for 10 more months, Phillipe said. “We really have not experienced problems with (the existing shop) at all,” she said.

Bennett said he knows of dozens of people who are ready to use his services – people he said who have to travel to San Francisco and Oakland to fill their prescriptions.

He doesn’t envision customers leaving the dispensary puffing on “joints,” or loitering outside his proposed business. In fact, he said he’s primarily going to prescribe medicinal marijuana in other forms, including lozenges, vaporizers and oils.

“I refer to it as medicinal cannabis,” he said. “I abhor the use of the name ‘pot.'”

Bennett plans to hire people with experience in medical offices, he said, and has retained a chemist and the occasional services of local defense attorney Stephen Munkelt to advise him.

The product, he said, will come from a select group of growers using “clones” who have the legal right to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes.

He has had conversations with Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell and Nevada City Manager Gene Albaugh about the legal ramifications of opening such a business. He’s currently looking at a few locations, including places on Uren, Railroad and Bost streets, depending on how Nevada City proceeds with an ordinance regulating such businesses.

“I’m here for honest reasons,” Bennett said. “I’ll do what they want me to do.”

That includes following the letter of state law, which has exceedingly strict guidelines on how such dispensaries can operate. Newell tried to discourage him, Bennett said.

“He indicated that he was a man of the law, and that he would follow the law,” Bennett said.

The problem arises, Newell said, when the product is dispensed by someone other than a primary caregiver. Anyone caught transporting or selling the marijuana is also subject to penalties.

“I can’t see how a storefront fits any of the exceptions to the law,” Newell said. “No animosity toward Harry, and I appreciate his earnestness, but I don’t know how he plans to comply with the law.”

Newell said he’d keep a close eye on whatever Bennett opens.

“If anyone opens a medical marijuana facility in Nevada County, I would presume they would be investigated,” he said.

Bennett said he has no plan to depart from state law.

“Breaking state laws is nowhere in our business plan,” he said.

Bennett, the former owner of a Nevada City seafood shop and a business consultant by trade, said he plans a well-run business that will employ as many as 20 people, including security personnel.

“We want to be totally legitimate,” he said. “We’re going to do more than what’s required, and more. This will be a community endeavor that will have a lot of people involved.”

Nevada City Council members considered what an ordinance allowing medical marijuana dispensaries in town would look like – then agreed to wait another two weeks before crafting one.

Their concerns voiced at Wednesday night’s meeting included whether paraphernalia would be sold and marijuana consumed at such a store, the hours of operation and being independent of what one council member called “scare tactics” regarding criminal activity at dispensaries.

Nevada County’s chief prosecutor warned crime could rise, while city residents argued passionately on both sides of the issue.

“People will go where the medicine is, where it works best for them. I think we can craft an ordinance that supports that,” Councilwoman Barbara Coffman said.

With a deadline Aug. 12 when their moratorium on dispensaries expires, the City Council will meet again July 22 to craft its own regulation after reviewing samples from Atascadero, which allows dispensaries, and Folsom, which rejected an ordinance to allow them.

Building consultant Harry Bennett has pulled a business license to operate a dispensary in Nevada City, and he has been working with city staff for months to develop a viable business plan.

Still unanswered are the parameters under which the shop would operate, said Councilwoman Sally Harris. She visited the dispensary in Colfax, where a security guard stands at the door. Before handing out marijuana, an employee contacts the recommending physician to verify the legitimacy of the recommendation.

No paraphernalia is sold, and no consumption of the substance is allowed inside or outside the premises, Harris said.

Zoning would be the biggest stumbling block, most council members agreed.

Several residents spoke against placing the dispensary on Uren Street, one of several locations Bennett has mentioned. Placing the shop near residences could lower property values, former mayor Glenda Zanone said.

“I want you to pay particular attention to your residential neighborhoods,” Zanone said.

“There is no crying need in this town for a dispensary,” said resident Laurie Oberholzer, adding she was setting aside her usual liberal tendencies. “I think you should prohibit them. We’re a small town.”

At one point, Coffman and Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell squared off, with Newell opposing any move to allow the shops.

“The general consensus is, in most cases, there is an increase in the incidence of crime,” said Newell, who added he respected Bennett’s desire to open a business.

However, an ordinance should not be crafted specifically for Bennett’s benefit, Newell argued.

“If you look at an ordinance, don’t just look at him. You should create an ordinance that anyone can use, that won’t be taken advantage of,” Newell said. “Look at the worst-case scenario.”

The council could consider allowing dispensaries with a conditional-use permit, which puts limits and requirements on how and where the business can operate, said Mayor Reinette Senum, who was sworn in at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting.


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