It's been 16 years since California voters legalized medical marijuana. But the issue is far from settled. The federal government has been pushing back, forcing storefront pot shops to close their doors all across the state. Now, voters in four San Diego County cities will see measures to authorize medical marijuana dispensaries. From KPBS, Kenny Goldberg says even if the measures win, patients might ultimately lose. Reporter: Kenny Goldberg
Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996. But today in San Diego County, many patients are having trouble getting their hands on the drug.
That's because all of the openly operating storefronts that sell marijuana have been shut down. In response, activists in four local cities have placed measures to authorize medical marijuana dispensaries on the November ballot.
But even if the measures win, patients might ultimately lose.
Vey Linville has severe emphysema. He needs bottled oxygen to survive. When Linville was first diagnosed, doctors told him without a double lung transplant, he'd soon be dead. Linville got his affairs in order.
Then one day when he was searching on the Internet, he discovered a treatment for breathing problems that used to be widely prescribed in the 1800s, Tincture of cannabis. Linville found a recipe for it, and decided to make it himself.
"And I went out and joined one of the clubs, one of the dispensaries, and was able to buy approximately a quarter pound of concentrates, that I put in a small amount of alcohol, and consumed over about 10 weeks," Linville recalled. "And instead of dying as expected, here I am, six years later, doing better and better."
These days, Linville uses just a few drops of the tincture in his tea. But getting any amount of marijuana is difficult, because nearly all dispensaries in San Diego County have been closed.
Linville said that puts him in a tough spot.
"It's immoral to make me choose between suffocating and doing business with a drug dealer," Linville argued.
Linville is with the group Americans for Safe Access. With the help of some local activists, they've placed a measure on the November ballot in Imperial Beach. It's a town of 26,000 people that's the most southern beach city in California.
Prop. S would repeal Imperial Beach's ban on medical marijuana dispensaries. It would allow dispensaries to open for business under specific zoning and operational requirements.
Imperial Beach business owner Marcus Boyd is one of the driving forces behind Prop. S.
Boyd became an advocate back in 2008, when his sister was dying in a local convalescent home. Boyd says marijuana helped relieve her pain.
One night she asked staff for a joint. She wanted them to call Boyd to get one for her.
"They laughed, and a couple of hours later, she passed away," Boyd remembered. "When I found that out the next morning by going there, I made a commitment to myself and to her that I would make sure that people in need are able to find medicine when they need it."
Boyd says Prop. S limits dispensary operating hours and has more than a dozen other restrictions to protect patients and the community.
Nonetheless, Imperial Beach Mayor Jim Janney and the majority of the City Council are against it.
Janney's not opposed to medical marijuana per se. He thinks patients should be able to get it. But Janney said the authors of Prop. S went overboard.
"If it was as simple as saying I want to allow for three storefronts in Imperial Beach, they would have said that. But they didn't do that," Janney pointed out. "We could have up to 19 or 20 of them, or more, depending on how you locate them. I think that's way too far. I don't think that that was good law. I don't think that's really the way it should work."
Imperial Beach voters won't be the only ones in November to decide whether to allow dispensaries in their town.
Voters in the San Diego County communities of Solana Beach, Del Mar and Lemon Grove will also weigh in.
But even if these measures pass, there are no guarantees that any medical marijuana dispensaries will be allowed to operate.
That's because the U.S. attorneys throughout the state have been aggressive in enforcing the federal ban on marijuana. Over the past year, they've shut down dispensaries in a number of cities, including Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego.
In July, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy sent a letter to the city attorney in Del Mar. The letter said city employees who conducted activities mandated by their dispensary ordinance would not be immune from federal prosecution.
Duffy wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this story.
Despite the fed's position, Vey Linville said there are tens of thousands of sick people in San Diego County who could benefit from medical marijuana.
"People with AIDS, people with cancer, that really are entitled to safe access to this medicine, as they would be to any other," Linville said.
After pressure from activists, the Los Angeles City Council has decided to overturn a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries it had approved just months ago.
That means an estimated 1,000 storefronts in the city are operating totally unregulated.