Monday, December 8, 2008


Off the coast of Baja California, a Coast Guard cutter seized 137
bales of marijuana two weeks ago as they were being dumped by the
crew of a speed boat.

In San Francisco there are more registered pot clubs than middle
schools, police stations or Taco Bells, according to the federal government.

And in Sacramento, state and federal officials recently announced the
eradication of 2.9 million marijuana plants being grown around
California. They said it was a record haul.

So, against that backdrop, how sharply does law enforcement focus on
arresting marijuana users? "We don't," said Sacramento County Sheriff
John McGinness.

For years, personal marijuana use hasn't been a priority for local
law enforcement. Authorities say someone caught with a joint may face
a penalty equal to a traffic citation.

But battles over marijuana have never seemed hotter, and proponents
of legalizing the plant say they hope the incoming Barack Obama
administration will look more kindly on that notion, or at least stop
federal raids of medical marijuana providers.

"I think we're entering a new era now, and I think we're going to see
the culture is going to be changing," said Dale Gieringer, California
director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws. "Since the 1980s there's been a very retro social
climate like the '50s, but I suspect that things are going to open up.

"If people take a good, serious look at what the war on pot is
costing, they're going to figure out it's a losing proposition for
the taxpayers," Gieringer added. "It makes more sense to tax and
regulate marijuana legally than it does to pay taxes to criminalize
people and put them in jail." This is not a new argument, and
Gieringer realizes politicians in Washington are focused more on
issues such as the economy and war than on marijuana legislation.

Yet there is no denying marijuana use remains a national issue. In
November, voters decriminalized it in Massachusetts. And Michigan
voters overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana, the 13th state to do so.

Those votes, however, do not mean smooth sailing for proponents of
decriminalized marijuana use.

California has approved medical marijuana and a reduction in
penalties for personal use of small amounts.

But despite Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in
1996, the federal government still considers such use illegal.
Federal agents have cracked down on growers who say they are simply
providing the drug for people with a certified medical need.

Modesto in the Spotlight

Last month U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott announced the sentencing of
two Modesto men convicted of using medical marijuana laws to conceal
a major pot-selling business.

Luke Scarmazzo was sentenced to 21 years and eight months in prison,
and Ricardo Ruiz Montes was given 20 years for what authorities said
was a business that generated more than $9 million.

Last month, the California Supreme Court also restricted elements of
the state's medical marijuana law with a ruling limiting who can
supply marijuana to patients.

That decision resulted from the case of a Santa Cruz County man
charged with cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale. He
came to authorities' attention after a bank teller noticed cash he
was depositing smelled heavily of marijuana.

According to court records, Roger Mentch told sheriff's detectives
the marijuana plants they found in his house were for medical
purposes, that he used the drug, and that he provided it to five
other medical marijuana users.

The court ruled Mentch had no right to use a defense that he was a
"primary caregiver" to the five patients because his care "consisted
principally of supplying marijuana and instructing on its use."

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has worked to
ridicule the growth of medical marijuana in California, noting in a
recent press release that there are 24 registered pot clubs in San
Francisco but only 14 middle schools, 14 police stations and 18 Taco
Bell franchises.

Authorities say medical marijuana often is the excuse from those
caught using the drug. Last month at California State University,
Sacramento, a student smoking pot in his dorm room was cited, despite
his claim it was medicinal.

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