County law enforcement works at addressing state marijuana rules

March 04, 2005

Denise Ellen Rizzo , Lodi News-Sentinel

Medical marijuana production is a growing business in California that has created a clash between law enforcement and drug advocates.

Stuck in the middle are people such as Tracy's Sevren Mangskau, who uses pot for its medicinal powers. The 23-year-old man was growing marijuana inside his house until police confiscated and destroyed his pot last month.

'I suffer from insomnia, and I got into a car accident about five years ago and banged up my knees,' Mangskau said. 'It helps with the pain.'

Like thousands of California residents, Mangskau thought getting a doctor-recommended medical marijuana card in October would keep him safe from law enforcement. He was wrong.

On Jan. 21, Tracy officers seized 15 plants and 11 ounces of dry marijuana from Mangskau's house.

The marijuana was found after a neighbor called police to report Mangskau's garage door was open but no one was home. During a check of the house, officers found the marijuana growing in a room. Police told him they felt he possessed more than the law allowed.

'It's a gray area,' Mangskau said. 'I thought I was in every compliance of the law. They decided I wasn't.'

A similar incident happened in Lodi nearly four years ago and is still the subject of court battles.

Brian Bader, now 47, was arrested in May 2001 after Lodi Police found 147 marijuana plants at his home. A jury found Bader guilty of cultivation and possession with intent to sell, but an appeals court, citing a jury instruction, overturned the conviction in November 2003.

Bader returns to court Monday, and a trial will be set March 28.

Marijuana possession is illegal under federal law, but in 1996 Californians handily passed Proposition 215, decriminalizing pot for medical uses. The entire law simply reads as follows: 'Proposition 215 removes state-level criminal penalties for medical marijuana use, possession and cultivation for those with medical marijuana identification cards.'

Since the law's passage, a secretive subculture seems to have enveloped medical marijuana. Some doctors who OK its use for patients are reluctant to discuss it. Mangskau shies away from revealing details about how he acquired his medical marijuana card, or for how long he's smoked. And retail outlets that sell pot are nearly invisible in plain sight.

Few businesses post signs that reveal they sell pot, and it's common in the Bay Area for bouncer-like doormen to stand guard outside. No identification card, no admittance.

Buying pot 'legally'

At one time, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative was the state's largest medical marijuana dispensary, but a federal judge barred the co-op from selling pot in 1998. Now its primary focus is providing ID cards.

'We verify doctors' recommendations and issue dispensary cards,' said one club employee who didn't want to give his name. For a $25 fee, someone can get a medical marijuana card at the club once they provide their doctor's paperwork and proof of residency.

Once inside a dispensary, the variety and grade of marijuana vary from place to place, Mangskau said. Some clubs also sell mini marijuana plants for about $10 each for homegrown purposes.

In addition to selling marijuana, some clubs also have designated smoking areas for their customers. The majority of marijuana stores operate beneath the radar of state or county officials, Department of Health Services spokeswoman Norma Arceo said. There are a few exceptions, however, such as four city-permitted Oakland clubs and a Modesto club with a city-issued business license.

Police believe law too vague

Local police say Proposition 215 places them in a catch-22 when trying to enforce the law.

'It passed with the best intentions, but it's very vague,' Tracy police narcotics Sgt. Tim Windsor said. 'That's the issue we're facing: How to differentiate those with legitimate use and those selling it for profit.'

In 2003, a modified bill was passed by the legislature to try and provide clarification for law enforcement. Possession is now limited to 8 ounces of marijuana, or six mature or 12 immature plants per patient.

But authorities believe money has motivated some cardholders to illegally sell pot. Windsor said he knows of a case in Calaveras County where officers arrested three medical marijuana card holders for growing 138 plants.

In Lodi's much-publicized case, police said they found 147 plants. At the time, they said the plants could have produced enough marijuana to smoke 12 joints a day for 125 years -- something Bader contests.

Since each full-grown plant can create a pound of usable marijuana, Windsor said authorities believed it would take the defendants several years to use that much pot.

'It's clear people are out there growing marijuana for profit, but there is no clear way to clearly differentiate it,' he added.

Police say marijuana production is a big business that continues to expand in California. The motivation to grow and sell the drug is money, authorities believe, but state officials are unable to say exactly how big an industry medical marijuana has become.

An ounce of the drug can range from $400 to $600 an ounce, or $4,000 to $6,500 for a pound, depending upon the quality, Windsor said.

In a case similar to Mangskau's, Windsor said officers once investigated a Tracy woman whose neighbors saw her growing marijuana in her back yard. He said neighbors didn't realize -- nor did the police -- that she had a medical marijuana card to back it up.

'If she has a legitimate need for it, she should have it,' Windsor said. 'The frustration is where to draw the line?'

There is no gray area in the mind of San Joaquin County prosecutor Phil Urie. He feels marijuana possession is illegal -- period.

'At this point nobody has cards that are legal,' Urie said. 'Cards issued by cannabis clubs have no legal status.'

He said although the law has some guidelines on possession, the amount has yet to be challenged in court.

'We see people growing for the cannabis clubs and also selling it on the street,' Urie said. 'We're going after those people who are commercial growers.'

Proposition 215, Urie said, is being used as a wedge by drug advocates to progress toward legalizing the drug statewide.

'Nobody knows how to handle it,' he added. 'Those people who are legitimately using marijuana for health purposes have to accept a certain amount of risk that they will run up against an officer that will take it away or arrest them.'

State regulation

The California Department of Health Services is creating a pilot program to regulate medical marijuana cards across California. Health officials in each county were given a survey last year to see if they would be interested in voluntarily participating.

Eight counties agreed to join the pilot program starting in July -- Sacramento, Amador, Del Norte, Trinity, Mendocino, Marin, Shasta and Sonoma. San Joaquin County opted out.

Once the program is in place, perhaps by the end of the year, a patient will go to their county health office to obtain an ID card, Arceo said. County officials will verify the doctor's recommendation and key the information into a statewide database.

This database will assign that individual an identification number and issue them a card for $13. Current card designers say it will resemble a driver's license in size, feature a photo of the patient, their identification number and an annual expiration date.

The card will also have logos for the state and health services, and phone numbers and web sites for authorization.

'This would make it legal for those individuals that medically need it,' Arceo said.

The pot doctor

One of the most visible legalization proponents is a Berkeley doctor who said he helped write the 1996 proposition. Tod Mikuriya says he has been personally responsible for recommending more than 9,000 people for medical marijuana cards, including some in San Joaquin County. All a patient has to do is convince him they need medical marijuana, he said. He performs no physical examination of any kind.

'I interview the candidate,' he said. 'As a physician in California, I'm licensed and empowered to make a diagnosis.'

A justified need, the doctor said, can be ailments including mental illness, arthritis or alcoholism.

'It should be chronic pain. They get a significantly better result using cannabis than mainstream pharmaceuticals. It's a unique drug -- unlike all the others.'

Mikuriya declined to state how much he charges a patient for an interview.

Proponents say there are more than 150,000 medical marijuana cardholders in California, and the number continues to grow each day.

'I feel medical marijuana has its place in society and is beneficial to people,' Mangskau said.

'I believe many conservative types look at it in the wrong light.'



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