Thursday, April 9, 2009

Federal ruling on marijuana may have local implications

By Stephanie Bertholdo and Sylvie Belmond Acorn staff writers

Now that the discrepancy between federal and state medical marijuana laws has been resolved, cities throughout California are reexamining their stance on whether to allow local cannabis clubs.

United States Attorney General Eric Holder announced March 18 that medical marijuana dispensaries permitted under state law would no longer be prosecuted, but according to a recent survey of mayors and other city officials, cannabis clubs in Moorpark, Camarillo and the Conejo and Simi valleys are still not welcome.

Following the 1996 California law that decriminalized the use of medical marijuana, many local cities passed moratoriums outlawing the cannabis clubs in support of the federal government's antidrug stance.

Officials said the local prohibitions would likely remain in effect. Under California law, cities retain the right to prohibit certain businesses if they choose.

Agoura Hills Mayor Denis Weber said he was disappointed in Washington's decision to soften its stance on medical marijuana.

Thousand Oaks Mayor Tom Glancy said the use of medical marijuana may be beneficial, but that it was "far too easy to misuse."

Despite the recent federal ruling, Calabasas Mayor Jon Wolfson said his city is proposing a new ban on medical marijuana facilities.

"This is based on past public testimony at both the (Calabasas) Public Safety Commission and the Planning Commission concerning crime and safety concerns associated with such facilities," Wolfson said. "Not speaking on behalf of the council but speaking personally, I would not support legalizing marijuana for the purposes of additional tax revenue to the city."

Moorpark Mayor Janice Parvin said her city's moratorium on pot dispensaries will likely continue.

"Studies show that they attract more crimes," Parvin said.

Camarillo's moratorium on dispensaries is coming to an end July 8, but attorney Brian Pierik said the City Council may extend the moratorium for another year. The temporary ban on Camarillo pot clubs was passed because the city's municipal code didn't address the matter, he said.

Pierik pointed out that the federal government's promise not to raid California dispensaries doesn't make pot entirely legal.

"It's still against federal law," he said. "The fact that the federal government may not enforce the law doesn't mean it's not still a law."

Only Westlake Village has taken a less punitive stance.

Mayor Robert Slavin said a marijuana dispensary could "potentially move in" as long as it complied with Westlake ordinances.

"I am a firm believer in state rights," Slavin said. "Any time the federal government relinquishes power to the state, it's a good thing."

While Slavin sees the benefits of medical marijuana for people with cancer and other serious illnesses, he said he has "misgivings" about legalizing pot for all Californians. He fears it would usher in a "whole host of issues."

Tax issue remains cloudy

The debate over marijuana is about to widen.

If the California Legislature passes Assembly Bill 390, the possession, sale and cultivation of marijuana will become legal in California. The bill would open the door for pot to be taxed, which could produce windfall revenues at a time when governments are struggling to keep finances in tact.

"Certainly the legislature is trying to be creative, but there's got to be other ways than that," Parvin said.

Glancy agreed.

"That's not the way I want to fill our coffers," Glancy said.

Simi Valley Mayor Paul Miller, the city's former chief of police, thinks the proposal to legalize and tax cannabis is "absurd." He said state leaders appear to be doing things "backwards."

"If the state had been doing its job all along, we wouldn't be in this fix," Miller said regarding the budget crisis.

Simi has a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries, and Miller doesn't envision a change, regardless of the federal ruling prohibiting raids on legal outlets.

"Legalizing marijuana won't fix the budget problems," said Assemblymember Audra Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks). "We also need to consider the consequences that legalizing this drug would have on our children," she said.

But Moorpark City Council member Roseann Mikos thinks it's time that a marijuana tax be considered. She compared the pot issue to prohibition in the 1920s, when alcohol was outlawed.

"The prohibition was a complete failure," Mikos said. "All it did was increase organized crime."

License to carry

Police officers in Moorpark often meet people—mostly college students—who are carrying medical marijuana cards, said Moorpark Police Capt. Ron Nelson.

When someone possesses a card and they have a small amount of marijuana, officers "pretty much send them on their way," Nelson said. "It just depends on the amount they have. If it's more than obvious personal use, they're subject to arrest," he said.

Nelson was critical of the ease in which people who aren't sick can obtain a medical marijuana card.

"(It is) frustrating for officers because they can see through the whole thing. The vast majority of card holders are people who just want to use marijuana for purposes other than medicinal."

As for the legalization and taxing of cannabis, Nelson doesn't endorse the idea.

"Overall the use of marijuana is dangerous," he said. "It's addictive and leads to the use of other drugs." But if marijuana eventually becomes legal in California, Moorpark police officers will follow the law, he said.

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