Illustration by Louise Leong

Laws and attitudes toward marijuana are changing throughout the state, and Santa Cruz is no exception.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors formally expressed a policy Sept. 26, which addresses medical marijuana dispensaries that have sprung up in past years. The policy allows and regulates the facilities, as well as places a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries until the board finalizes the new policies.

Supervisor John Leopold said the board plans to have a rough draft of the new policies by Nov. 9.

“There were no land use rules [for the dispensaries] in unincorporated areas,” said Leopold, who spearheaded the legislative effort with supervisor Neal Coonerty. “We wanted to create an orderly process with reasonable rules which ensure access.”

Santa Cruz’s policy changes are a microcosm of the policy and attitude changes taking place throughout the state. On Oct. 1, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that decriminalizes possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, changing the penalty from a misdemeanor to an infraction similar to a traffic violation. What’s more, Proposition 19 on the ballot in November seeks to regulate, tax and legalize marijuana altogether. Polls show the measure has a good chance of passing.

There are already eight counties and 37 cities in California with regulations in effect for medical marijuana and the dispensaries that provide it.

“We don’t really have to reinvent the wheel,” Leopold said. “We can pull out the best features already present in those policies. The one area which is different is the priority we are placing on ensuring access to low-income individuals.”

One of many individuals who use medical marijuana in Santa Cruz County is Harold “Hal” Margolin, 78, who has used marijuana since 2000 to treat his painful symptoms of leukemia, pneumonia and neuropathy. Margolin’s luck took a turn for the worse last week when he suffered a heart attack and a broken hip. He is now in the hospital, where he expects to stay for another three weeks.

“I can’t smoke in here,” Margolin said. “So I do have to take painkillers instead, which I prefer not to use.”

He described why he favors marijuana and its beneficial effects for him.

“It’s the one medicine without any side effects like dizziness,” Margolin said. “That’s really important. I will not categorically say it is a painkiller. But even if I do have the pain, the consciousness is diverted, and I don’t think about the pain.”

Marijuana helps Margolin not only with the constant presence of pain in his life but with the other symptoms of his condition.

“It helps me sleep,” he said.

Contrary to what opponents of medical marijuana say about people who use the drug, Margolin doesn’t often get high from the amount he smokes to alleviate his symptoms, he said.

Margolin obtains medical marijuana from the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) in Santa Cruz. WAMM, founded in 1993, was the first medical marijuana collective in the nation, and though it indeed dispenses marijuana, director and co-founder Valerie Corral goes to great lengths to distinguish WAMM from dispensaries and buyers’ clubs.

“The difference between us and dispensaries is that even if you don’t have money, you can access us,” Corral said.

WAMM does not seek to make a profit, and its website contains a reference to Marxist principle: “Each member receives according to need and returns to WAMM according to ability.”

Corral weighed in on the as-yet-unknown policies being formed regarding medical marijuana dispensaries.

“We hope the new county policies will call out so-called ‘compassion clubs’ to employ compassion, not just enrich their financial bottom line,” Corral said.

Corral herself uses medical marijuana to treat her epilepsy and prevent seizures, and helped author Proposition 215 in 1996, which legalized medical marijuana in California.

Corral named pain relief, sleep aid, increased appetite and the alleviation of behavioral disorders like oppositional defiant disorder, among the beneficial effects of medical marijuana. She also emphasized the psychological benefits for people dealing with serious illness.

“It changes the way people look at sickness and reduces anxiety people have when looking at the end of life,” Corral said.

Corral has an ally in Supervisor Leopold, who first became interested in medical marijuana when he served as executive director for the Santa Cruz AIDS Project 14 years ago. Leopold first began doing AIDS work as a student at UCSC. He graduated from Merrill College in 1988 with a politics degree.

“I saw first-hand the nature of this medicine for people, especially in the late stages of terminal illness to maintain a better quality of life,” he said.

Leopold said that past voter action bodes well for Proposition 19 in November.

“When Prop 215 passed with 74 percent of the vote,” Leopold said, “I interpreted that as the voters understanding the value of compassionate use to alleviate pain.”