Council takes up marijuana issue again

August 02, 2005

Matthew Bunk , Daily Republic

It's a confusing time for California's medical marijuana users.

A 1996 law passed by voters makes it legal for medical patients with a doctor's prescription to use marijuana in private and to grow it for personal use with a license.

The federal government insists that U.S. laws trump the state law - which would mean marijuana use of any kind is still illegal - and recent Supreme Court decisions left experts on both sides wondering what's next.

Will California and the nine other states that enacted medical marijuana laws buckle under the pressure from the federal government? Or will the feds take a step back and allow states to govern themselves?

Fairfield is wrestling with its own medical marijuana dilemma. So is Solano County, for that matter.

Fairfield is expected to extend a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries when the City Council meets tonight. The ban on marijuana clinics would last one year, which city officials say gives them time to sort out legal and land-use issues.

Banning marijuana clinics, however, still leaves many uncertainties for patients who grow their own pot.

And what about personal use? Is that still legal?

"The real issue is that sick people need their medicine, but that gets clouded in other issues," Fairfield resident and business owner Galen Lawton said.

"I believe Fairfield should have a moratorium so the city can approach this the correct way, but in the meantime they need to find a way to set it up so patients can get the medicine they need."

Lawton, 36, who owns Everything Green plant shop on Texas Street, was arrested earlier this year when police found more than 100 marijuana plants at his home. He maintains that police had no right to arrest him because state law protections for marijuana growers.

"If the state law says I can grow marijuana, then police shouldn't be able to knock down my door," he said.

Many proponents of medical marijuana are too scared to speak up in the political arena, Lawton said, because they fear officers will follow them home to make an easy bust. That's going to keep people from speaking up when the issue goes to the City Council, he said.

"I'd be scared too, but I've already been outed," he said.

Counties, as the local arms of state government, also face a difficult decision on the medical marijuana debate.

A state-sanctioned program that allowed counties to hand out medical marijuana identification cards to legitimate patients started this spring and was halted after the Supreme Court reversed a decision on patients' use of marijuana. It started up again last month after state Attorney General Bill Lockyer opined that federal law doesn't supersede the state law.

"The state Attorney General has reviewed this concern and said that California can issue ID cards to medical marijuana users without state employees facing prosecution for assisting in the commission of a federal crime," state Health Director Sandra Shewy said in a statement.

Still, the cards come with a warning that federal law officers have access to patients' applications, and could use them to identify patients for prosecution.

Solano County has never handed out a medical marijuana card, though county health department leaders are discussing whether to do so in the future.

Only Shasta, Trinity, Amador, Del Norte and Mendocino counties have computer systems to issue the cards. So far, 123 cards have been issued.

Many so-called marijuana clubs across the state have issued cards to identify members, but Solano County District Attorney David Paulson said any card not issued by government is illegitimate and should not be recognized by local law enforcement.

"We have some people in town who flash a card when law enforcement officers find them with marijuana, but we don't recognize that if it's been handed out by some Dr. Feelgood on the fringe of the medical community," Paulson said.

"If we investigate and find out that the person really has a condition such as cancer for which a doctor has prescribed marijuana to make them feel better, we probably let that go."

The decision to prosecute, for now, is up to Paulson and his judgment. It's going to be that way until the law is clarified, he said.

"The best thing a city can do is to pass a moratorium," he said, "because you can't regulate an illegal activity and you don't need to regulate a legal activity."

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