State awaits decision on medicinal marijuana

May 18, 2005

Vanessa Stumpf, The California Aggie

   A highly anticipated Supreme Court decision on the future of medicinal marijuana, expected any day, could provide definitive guidance on an issue that has been anything but straightforward.

   The decision in Ashcroft v. Raich could aid California, embroiled in conflicting opinion over whether federal or state law should dictate the use of medicinal marijuana.

   At the center of California’s controversy is state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Advocacy groups for medicinal marijuana like Oakland’s Americans for Safe Access allege that Lockyer has failed to protect citizens’ rights under the Compassionate Use Act. That initiative, passed in 1996, allowed Californians to obtain and use medicinal marijuana with the recommendation of a physician for ailments like cancer, AIDS, anorexia, glaucoma and arthritis.

   “We would like to see a legal opinion [from Lockyer] issued clarifying law enforcement’s obligation to follow state over federal law,” said Steph Sherer, Executive Director of ASA. “Elected officials [in California] have written Lockyer and asked him to clarify the issue of state’s obligation to follow state law and he has refused to do so.”

   While some pro-medicinal marijuana advocates would like to see individual county law enforcement following state law under Lockyer’s orders, his office says it is out of their hands.

   “Where we really need to go is to change federal law, that’s where the problem is,” said Teresa Schilling, spokesperson for Lockyer. “The conflict is with [former U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft, not Bill Lockyer.”

   Ashcroft’s opposition to California’s law, along with Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Karen Tandy, brought a lawsuit from Angel McClary Raich of Oakland in 2002, charging that Ashcroft and the federal government had “unconstitutionally exceeded their authority” by seizing her privately grown medicinal marijuana and then allegedly arresting, prosecuting, and harassing California medicinal marijuana patients and caregivers.

   Sherer called those actions scare tactics against people trying to utilize medicinal marijuana, and argued that even in the aftermath of a possible Supreme Court ruling in favor of Raich, a culture of resistance from law enforcement against medicinal marijuana could remain.

   According to Schilling, Lockyer wants to uphold California’s law to its fullest potential, but also wants to give local county law enforcement the discretion to enforce this law as they wish. Conflicting legal opinions coming from different levels of government have made this difficult.

   “As long as [medicinal marijuana] is fully illegal at a federal level it will be difficult for local law enforcement and puts pressure on them to interpret the law,” said Schilling.

   Schilling suggested that especially until there is a clarification of law, there should be a statewide identification system that will prove to law enforcement throughout the state when a citizen is a legitimate user of medicinal marijuana. This could help decrease complaints from patients who feel they are unjustly treated when they leave their home counties and show unfamiliar identification.

   Davis Police Department spokesperson Lt. Colleen Turay says if there is any doubt of the legitimacy of using marijuana for medicinal purposes, cases are deferred to the Yolo District Attorney’s office.

   “If the use seems reasonable we won’t do anything,” said Turay. “If there is no suspicion that this isn’t somebody selling or using it inappropriately and there’s a medical card, we won’t have any problems if it’s within the home.”

   Turay noted that if someone is found with marijuana for any usage in a vehicle, police will make an arrest and seize the drugs as a case of driving under the influence.

   “If you need to use marijuana, you need to do it at home,” Turay said.

   California continues to wait for a Supreme Court decision that could serve as the clarification needed for a highly controversial issue.

   “If we win, this changes everything,” said Sherer. “If not, it changes nothing.”


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