Patients cheer, deputies criticize county medical marijuana limits not without its critics

August 21, 2005

Brian Seals, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Roughly one year after the county established possession limits for medical marijuana users, the policy is getting mixed reviews.

Medical pot advocates say the policy is working and they feel more at ease when their medicine is on them.

Deputies say the policy has put a "black mark" on the medical marijuana movement.

Fewer calls of concern are coming from patients, said Valerie Corral, co-founder of the Santa Cruz-based Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana.

"I think it’s going quite well," she said. "I believe patients are being treated respectfully."

Last summer, then-Sheriff Mark Tracy asked the county Board of Supervisors to convene a team of physicians to craft guidelines on how much pot a medical user can possess.

The doctors’ recommendation resulted in the Board of Supervisors setting a 3-pound limit of processed pot and a garden with a 100-square-foot canopy, or leaf coverage.

The county guidelines exceed those of statewide limits set under SB 420, which was signed into law in 2003, that allows a patient to keep a half-pound of dried pot on hand as well as six mature plants or 12 immature ones.

But that larger allowable amount in Santa Cruz County has sheriff’s deputies suspecting that some commercial growers and sellers are abusing medical policy as a ruse for their commerce.

"It kind of empowered people who are not medical users to bump up the quantity," said Sgt. Steve Carney of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team. "It has kind of put a black mark on the whole medicinal thing."

Deputies have encountered situations where they find pot growing, sometimes inside or sometimes in a backyard, and a person or a few people living there have a doctor’s recommendation.

But deputies are often finding other tell-tale signs as well — baggies, scales, large amounts of cash and reports of heavy foot traffic.

"We’re finding more and more that about 75 to 80 percent of the people we contact are commercial growers and sellers," Carney said. "They’re using medical marijuana to disguise themselves."

However, Carney said the department is generally erring on the side of caution and often leaving plants intact even when there may be evidence of commercial operations so long as their is medical documentation.

He pointed to just last week when deputies found plants growing in a backyard near Soquel Elementary. The resident had a recommendation, but also scales, which officers see as a sign of illicit growing, Carney said. The officers left.

So far this year, deputies have discovered 14,000 marijuana plants growing. Of those, they have left about 1,200 plants behind, Carney said. He estimated of those plants left behind, probably 200 to 300 are what the Sheriff’s Office believes to be those of legitimate medical users.

The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t go out looking for pot in people’s home; the information usually comes by tips from neighbors, Carney said.

Tweaking the amounts in the county to reflect the state law would be helpful for law enforcement, he said, and it would be helpful if doctors were more specific in recommending amounts their patients should use.

However, Santa Cruz defense attorney Ben Rice said the plan is having its intended effect.

"Largely, I think it has been a success," Rice said.

During the three years before the county set its policy, Rice went to court to obtain the return of 14 pounds of medical pot. He said he hasn’t had such a case since the new rules have been in place.

"I think it’s important people know what the guidelines are so they don’t run into problems," Rice said.

For the very sick growing their own, Carney said the department rarely gets calls about them.

"We very rarely run across people who are true medical patients because they don’t rise above the radar," Carney said.

The guidelines were unveiled and given preliminary approval last August. The ordinance was formally adopted in October.


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