Saturday, April 25, 2009

Medical marijuana sales are not expected to sprout quickly

Justice Department's decision not to go after legal California
dispensaries is not seen as a broad endorsement, especially when
local communities ban or limit them.
By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
8:41 PM PDT, April 24, 2009,0,6883780,full.story

If Jeff Clark has his way, medical marijuana patients will soon be
able to buy pot from his collective in law-and-order Kern County,
known more for growing almonds than cannabis.

Clark, 55, a disabled veteran, thinks the time is right.

After eight years of raids on storefront dispensaries under the Bush
administration, Eric H. Holder Jr., the new U.S. attorney general,
has made it clear that the Justice Department won't go after
organizations operating under California's laws.

Kern County's Board of Supervisors and sheriff have agreed to lay off
too, as long as pot sellers adhere to the state's guidelines. Last
month, supervisors rescinded a de facto ban on pot dispensaries in
place since 2007.

"I'm very optimistic," said Clark, who plans to open facilities near
his home in Lake Isabella and in Bakersfield within the next few
months. "This could be the turning point we've all been waiting for."

But local government and law enforcement officials say that a more
lenient Drug Enforcement Administration is not likely to mean new
medical marijuana dispensaries will sprout like weeds. Kern County
authorities say that, even with their more relaxed approach, they
won't allow just anyone to open up shop.

"People think the DEA has opened the door to opening dispensaries
anywhere and any time, and that's just not true," said Kern County
Sheriff Donny Youngblood. "I will do my job irrespective of what the
DEA does or does not do."

Even medical marijuana advocates say cities and counties that view
medical marijuana with suspicion aren't likely to suddenly welcome
dispensaries. And they have plenty of tools to make life difficult
for potential distributors.

More than 100 cities and seven counties have laws banning
dispensaries, said Joe Elford, chief counsel with Oakland-based
Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. The
validity of such bans is being litigated in appellate courts, he
said. Still other cities and counties have limited the number of
operators or put temporary bans on new dispensaries. Elford doesn't
expect that to change soon.

"The DEA's new stance certainly sends a clear message to localities
that they should not be policing federal law," Elford said. "But that
remains to be seen."

Kent Johnston, 56, a retired Ventura County sheriff's deputy, got the
cold shoulder last week from the Westlake Village City Council when
he announced his intentions to open a medical marijuana dispensary. A
city attorney informed him that the city adheres to the federal view
that selling cannabis is illegal, Johnston said.

"I was not there to fight them. I was there to say this is going to
happen because it's legal," said Johnston, who worked 20 years in law
enforcement. "Wouldn't you rather have me, a retired deputy, running
one legitimately than someone doing it under the wire and causing
problems? But they treated me like I was foolish and trying to break
the law."

Much of the tension has stemmed from the conflict between state and
federal laws. Growing, selling and using medical marijuana is allowed
under California law. But federal law makes cannabis illegal.

Court battles and follow-up legislation in the 13 years since voters
approved Proposition 215 have reduced some of the confusion. Last
fall, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown issued guidelines to help
patients, sellers and local law enforcement agencies determine what
it takes to operate within the law.

The guidelines say that sellers must organize as not-for-profit
"collectives" or "cooperatives" to cultivate and distribute pot only
to members. Groups are required to keep detailed records, including
copies of each member's state-issued ID card and a doctor's
recommendation that marijuana will help relieve their medical

They also are not allowed to sign up members on the spot after a
quick medical interview, a guideline that has been widely ignored in
more liberal areas, including Los Angeles and Oakland.

The state guidelines make it easier for police to enforce the law and
make it less likely that collectives will be used as fronts for
illegal drug sales, said John Irby, former deputy county counsel in
Kern County.

"It's hard to be legal, and you do not make any money if you are
legal," he said.

California's cities and counties fall into three categories: those
that accept and even embrace medical marijuana, including Los Angeles
and San Francisco; those that adamantly oppose it; and those in

Ventura County is in the middle. The county doesn't encourage
storefront dispensaries, but it hasn't banned them either. Although
no storefronts exist in the county, marijuana patients can turn to
discreet delivery services advertised in a local weekly.

Undersheriff Craig Husband said his deputies follow the state
guidelines, but he acknowledged that the department suspects many
operations are fronts for illegal sales.

"The attorney general provided clarity, but I don't think it was the
answer law enforcement wanted to hear," Husband said. "There tends to
be criminal activity involved around these facilities. You have
others trying to burglarize or rob the facilities. There is a lot of
diversion of product for profit."

At least 111 cities, including Anaheim, Pasadena and Torrance, ban
medical pot sales altogether. Counties that ban sales are Amador,
Contra Costa, El Dorado, Merced, Riverside, Stanislaus and Sutter,
according to Americans for Safe Access.

Bigger cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have plenty
of storefronts, some with smoking lounges and arrays of baked
marijuana edibles. Los Angeles County has more than 100 dispensaries
and delivery services. The city of Los Angeles has so many that in
2007 the council put a moratorium on new shops while it drafted an
ordinance, expected later this year, to regulate them. Applications
spiked last month after Holder's announcement of the new DEA policy,
city officials said.

San Diego County has been among the regions most hostile to dispensaries.

When the state passed a bill in 2004 requiring counties to issue
identification cards to qualified patients, San Diego County
responded by filing a lawsuit. Its court battle arguing that the ID
card program is preempted by federal drug laws has gone to the U.S.
Supreme Court, where it awaits review, Elford said.

In the meantime, the district attorney's office aggressively
prosecutes suspected violations, said Steve Walker, a spokesman for
the county's district attorney's office. "We have prosecuted cases
where essentially drug dealers have hidden behind these laws and run
these storefronts," he said.

In August, a task force made up of DEA and local drug agents raided
four San Diego marijuana dispensaries and arrested three people,
seizing 20 pounds of pot and marijuana-laced edibles. Those cases are
working their way through federal court.

Elford predicted that there will be far fewer federal criminal
defendants as the DEA's new stance is implemented. So-called DEA
landlord letters, which threatened landlords with forfeiture of
property if they rented to dispensaries, are also expected to stop,
he said.

But the bigger question will be whether localities follow suit by
prosecuting only violators of state law, advocates say.

"It's a little soon to tell whether there has been a significant
change of heart by locals," said Kris Hermes, an Americans for Safe
Access spokesman.

Johnston, the retired deputy, said he will continuing pushing
Westlake Village to allow medical pot sales. But it will be a
campaign of letters and public comments, he said, because he can't
afford attorneys to make his case in court.

Clark, the marijuana advocate in Kern County, said he is ready to
test the waters despite the risks. He was among advocates who
regularly approached the Board of Supervisors in the last year to
change its approach.

Patients who are legally entitled to use medical marijuana shouldn't
have to travel to other counties to get it, he said.

"I'm going to follow the law as written," Clark said. "If I go to
jail, then I guess our laws really don't hold up."

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