Medical pot users seek help in theft

But they say claim denied by insurance

November 16, 2007 

A gunman stole 3 pounds of marijuana from the garden of several medical marijuana users at a southwest Modesto home last week.

The growers valued the prime buds, which they'd tended from seeds for nine months in a greenhouse full of bell peppers, tomatoes, corn and sunflowers, at $12,000 to $16,000.

No one has been arrested.

The four men each had medical clearance to use marijuana, which allowed them to grow cannabis for personal use, Modesto police reported.

The men reported the theft twice, first to police and then to their insurance company. Their renter's insurance, they hoped, would compensate them for the loss. It wouldn't have been the first payout on pot.

One insurer paid $12,375 to a Sacramento man who lost 3 pounds to an armed in- truder in 2000, according to news reports. A year earlier, another Sacramento man was the first person reportedly reimbursed for marijuana through household insurance. He received $6,500 from CGU California Insurance for 13 plants sheriffs' deputies seized from his garage. A handful of other reimbursements have been reported since then.

The Modesto men's insurance company declined. But the company, said Antonio, 50, who asked to be identified only by his first name, told him they would have considered his claim if the outdoor plants had been appraised or if his buds had been inside.

Farmers Insurance Group could not confirm Antonio's explanation Thursday or comment on the company's general policy, spokesman Jerry Davies said.

"Each claim like that is different," Davies said. "They are all investigated from the get-go."

But the company has compensated for pot losses before. In 2000, a Southern California couple received almost $7,000 from Farmers after police seized 14 pot plants from them, news reports show. Farmers concluded the plants fell within the "trees, shrubs, plants and lawns" section of its homeowner's policy.

California has more than 200,000 medical marijuana users, according to Dale Gieringer in the state office of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Twelve other states, according to NORML, have medical marijuana laws: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

"This isn't just something strange happening out in California," said Ryan Landers, senior adviser in Sacramento for the Compassionate Coalition, a nonprofit group that supports medical marijuana efforts.

California insurance companies that have covered marijuana losses cite Proposition 215, the 1996 California ballot measure that authorized medicinal marijuana. If it's legal to use the plant, and you have a doctor's note to prove it, then it's legal to own it, the reasoning goes. And if you own it and you're insured, the plants can be covered like any house plant or shrub.

One reason insuring marijuana poses a challenge, said Candysse Miller, the executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California, is that it's hard to determine its value.

"That's a challenging thing to do with a narcotic that's sold on the street in most cases," she said. "You have to determine street value. And what street? It's a pretty broad market. There aren't a lot of people writing receipts for marijuana."

Another complication is that states and the federal government have butted heads for years over medical marijuana, leaving insurance companies with different policies.

"Until that's clearly defined, you're going to find insurance companies on both sides," Miller said.

According to State Farm spokesman Greg Sherlock, the company does not cover marijuana-related losses.

Allstate "possibly" covers certain losses, spokeswoman Patty Kelly said. "If it was legal to have a plant, it could be covered by personal property under a homeowner's policy," she said.

In 2001, Allstate paid a Placer County man $4,900 for 17 plants, according to a news report.

The U.S. Supreme Court has dealt several blows to medical marijuana users since then. That year, justices ruled against the backyard cultivation of pot for personal use. And insurance payouts on marijuana have become increasingly rare since a 2005 ruling that the federal government can ban its possession, even in states that have approved it for medical use.

Because of the legal battles, insurance companies have become more cautious, said Landers, who suffers from full-blown AIDS, chronic pain and chronic headaches. In 1999, he received $10,000 when someone stole 1½ to 2 pounds of marijuana from his home. He was the second person to receive an insurance check for lost marijuana, but payouts such as his would be hard to come by these days, he said.

"You're going to have a fight on your hands."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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