San Diego County is chided for ignoring law

June 08, 2005

Jeff McDonald, San Diego Union Tribune

San Diego County supervisors have ignored the will of California voters for too long and should take 'all possible action' to promote access to marijuana for seriously ill constituents who might benefit from it, the grand jury said yesterday.

html@x32'> In a rebuke announced two days after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal government's power to prosecute medical marijuana patients, the grand jury said county leaders shirked their duty to abide by California law.

'The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has been blinded by its prejudices against medical marijuana use and has failed to implement the will of California voters,' the report stated.

In 1996, 56 percent of California voters approved the use of marijuana for patients who have a doctor's recommendation, but the drug remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

In San Diego County, the 1996 initiative, known as the Compassionate Use Act, passed with just over 52 percent support.

The 16-page grand jury report included the disclaimer that it neither endorses nor condones the illegal use of drugs and takes no position on the medicinal value of marijuana. But it sharply criticized county supervisors for refusing to adopt uniform standards for the cultivation and use of medical marijuana for up to 5,000 patients who live in the county.

'California law is clear,' the grand jury said. 'The cultivation and/or possession of marijuana is legal when necessary for medical purposes and authorized by a physician.'

The timing of the report was coincidental to Monday's Supreme Court ruling.

In answering the report, county officials said they have no role in the ongoing dispute over medical marijuana.

'The county of San Diego is not in a position to issue rulings that would fly in the face of federal law,' board Chairwoman Pam Slater-Price said. 'We do not have that authority.'

In a response May 31 to a draft of the grand jury report, county Chief Administrative Officer Walter Ekard noted, 'The Board of Supervisors has no authority over the manner in which local and federal law enforcement agencies interpret or enforce laws.'

Nonetheless, eight California counties instituted identification card programs to assist police and sheriff's deputies in enforcing the law, and four others are participating in a state-sponsored pilot ID program, the grand jury stated.

Eighteen counties have adopted detailed guidelines, the report said. 'San Diego patients and caregivers are being deprived of the same rights and protections as citizens in other, less populous counties,' jurors wrote.

On Tuesday, the day after the Supreme Court ruling, Alameda County supervisors approved a plan to permit three new medical marijuana dispensaries in the unincorporated parts of that county, which would raise the total to 10 there.

Grand jury foreman William Westlake said jurors took up the subject after receiving complaints from residents about the uneven enforcement of medical marijuana laws in the county.

'We felt we could do a service to the county by investigating this matter in more detail and determining why the city of San Diego had definite plans and direction and why the county was reluctant or reticent in providing programs,' Westlake said.

The grand jury spent months researching medical marijuana and interviewing public officials and activists.

The report commended the cities of San Diego and Escondido for developing guidelines that police can use to evaluate the legitimacy of medical marijuana claims, and praised a San Diego municipal task force for its commitment to implementing the Compassionate Use Act.

The report also credited the San Diego County District Attorney's Office for 'its attempt to inject reasonableness and consistency at the prosecution stage' of medical marijuana cases.

County prosecutors evaluate every medical marijuana case independently and file charges only when they are convinced the claims are not valid under state law.

Kris Hermes, legal campaign director of the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said dozens of California cities and counties have steered clear of implementing the state's medical marijuana law.

'It's a pretty significant problem,' said Hermes, whose agency is suing the city of Fresno for its refusal to allow a dispensary. 'That means patients are unnecessarily harassed and arrested for what should be legal conduct.'

The 19-member grand jury investigates government programs of the county, cities and special districts.

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