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California: What a long, strange trip 
 for state’s medical marijuana law


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    Ten years after California voters approved 
    Proposition 215, a landmark medical marijuana 
    law, many qualified patients still run a gantlet of
    federal drug agents and hostile police and



                     By Patrick McCartney 
                        Special to the Bee

                   Published November 5, 2006

    Ten years after California voters approved Proposition 215, a landmark  medical marijuana law, many qualified patients still run a gantlet of  federal drug agents and hostile police and prosecutors.    This year, DEA agents, assisted by local law enforcement agencies,  have busted dozens of storefront cannabis  dispensaries, while city councils across the state have voted to  prohibit the facilities.    Proposition 215 meant to exempt patients from prosecution for  possession of medical marijuana with a doctor's approval. But elected  officials have been reluctant to implement a measure that conflicts  with federal law and is still largely opposed by the state's law  enforcement community.    Earlier this year, San Diego County supervisors sued to overturn the  voter initiative, as well as a 2003 statute that required counties to  make voluntary ID cards available to patients and caregivers, and  established minimum plant and possession guidelines. San Bernardino  and Merced county supervisors have voted to join the suit in San Diego  Superior Court. Attorneys with the ACLU and drug-policy groups will  represent the patients when the case is heard Nov. 16.    Even if many of its goals remain unrealized, the Compassionate Use Act  of 1996 spawned a grassroots political movement that is gaining  momentum despite opposition from local, state and federal authorities.    As many as a quarter-million Californians have obtained physician  approval to use medical marijuana. As Dr. Stephen Ellis, a San  Francisco cannabis consultant, put it, cannabis is not a miracle drug  pushed by pharmaceutical companies but a traditional folk medicine  rediscovered by patients who use it.    Scientific interest has grown, too. In the decade since 56 percent of  California voters passed Proposition 215, thousands of medical studies  have been published about cannabinoids, the compounds unique to  marijuana, and the role they play in human health.    Public acceptance also has increased. A 2004 Field Poll showed that  nearly three out of four Californians support a patient's ability to  choose marijuana as their medicine. Eleven other states and the  District of Columbia followed California's lead and have approved  medical marijuana laws. All of the states limit use to a shorter list  of medical conditions than California's activist-written measure, and  none has created a public distribution system.    Since Senate Bill 420, carried by former Sen. John Vasconcellos,  D-Santa Clara, allowed patients to form cooperatives, more than 200  storefront dispensaries and delivery services have opened across the  state, many in previously unthinkable jurisdictions. With a  physician's recommendation, patients outside of the Bay Area for the  first time now can exercise choice in how they obtain medical  marijuana.    Few of the gains came easily after the passage of Proposition 215.    Unfortunately, implementation of the controversial law would fall to  the same California police and prosecutors who campaigned against the  measure.    Days after the initiative passed, a delegation of California law  enforcement officials huddled with federal anti-drug officials in  Washington, D.C., to coordinate a response. Two weeks later in  Sacramento, then-Attorney General Dan Lungren met with 300 California  law enforcement officials, including district attorneys, police  chiefs, sheriffs and narcotics officers, in Sacramento. Lungren  declared that the law should be applied "as narrowly as possible" and  gave the green light to arrest marijuana growers and prosecute them  for cultivation.    Lungren's office maintained that the new law provided only an  "affirmative defense" for marijuana suspects to invoke at trial, an  interpretation the state Supreme Court declined to review.    Enforcement varied dramatically across the state's 58 counties. Where  ballot support was strongest, patients could purchase medical  marijuana from storefront dispensaries that sprang up before  Proposition 215 passed. But an hour or so from San Francisco, police  continued to arrest patients and caregivers. Some of the sick,  impoverished by chronic illnesses, were hauled into court, where they  pleaded guilty to felony charges in exchange for light sentences.    The fortunes of the patients, caregivers and doctors waxed and waned  with court decisions and turnover of state and federal officeholders.  The Clinton administration launched anti-marijuana advertising with an  annual budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, threatened  physicians who approved medical marijuana and filed suits against  cannabis dispensaries. The Bush administration followed with more  raids against dispensaries and more criminal prosecutions.    Veteran state lawmaker Bill Lockyer succeeded Lungren as California's  attorney general in 1998, and defended the Compassionate Use Act with  an amicus brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case brought by two California  patients.    More sympathetic to medical marijuana, Lockyer appointed a  stakeholders group of advocates and law enforcement opponents to hash  out an implementation bill, something the polarized factions could not  manage before the passage of SB 420 five years later. Until an  embattled Gov. Gray Davis signed SB 420 in 2003, Lockyer declined to  issue new guidelines on possession and cultivation.    As the number of arrests by state and federal authorities grew,  patients networked, protested and planned emergency responses. In  early 2003, Americans for Safe Access gave the federal government a  public-relations black eye, convincing Bay Area jurors to denounce  their own guilty verdict in the trial of pot cultivation expert Ed  Rosenthal. The Oakland-based advocacy group has since used persuasion  and the threat of litigation to win concessions from recalcitrant  state agencies and local jurisdictions.    With SB 420, locally elected officials have been drawn into the  conflict. City and county governments are confronting Proposition  215's call for "safe and affordable distribution of marijuana" in  weighing whether to regulate or prohibit cannabis dispensaries. Nearly  a hundred jurisdictions have prohibited marijuana outlets, but three  dozen cities and counties have adopted ordinances to regulate their  operation.    California law enforcement associations have lobbied against the  facilities, citing federal law. Some in the state's law enforcement  community have grudgingly accepted the reality, if not the  desirability, of medical marijuana. Others remain opposed to the very  notion, preferring to view dispensaries and caregivers as traffickers.    "There is no justification for using marijuana as a medicine,"  declares a position paper on the Web site of the 7,000-member  California Narcotics Officers Association.    As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in its 2005 ruling in the California  case, only Congress can amend the Controlled Substances Act to declare  a cease-fire in the nation's war on medical marijuana.    A decision in San Diego's lawsuit may settle whether state agencies --  including police and prosecutors -- must comply with a state law that  conflicts with federal law. Appeals will likely delay the outcome for  years. But after a decade, it's time California law enforcement  officers stop siding with the feds and defend the state law.    And lawmakers should adopt sensible regulations for dispensing medical  marijuana so local and state officials can honor the intent of voters:  Protect patients and provide them safe and affordable access to their  medicine.    http://www.sacbee.com/110/story/71364.html