County Supervisors Vote to Sue State Over Medical Marijuana Law

November 08, 2005

Will Carless, Voice of San Diego

In a move that has left medical marijuana advocates speechless and has surprised state attorneys, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted in a closed session yesterday to sue the state government over California's medical marijuana laws.

The action was the latest volley in the county's broadside against the state's medical marijuana laws, coming less than a week after the Board of Supervisors voted to refuse to implement a state ID card program for medical marijuana patients.

"At the open session board meeting last week, the board members publicly announced that they did not agree with the law, and decided that they didn't want to do it," said County Counsel John Sansone, "… I advised them on the strengths and the weaknesses of this type of legal challenge."

At the heart of the board's challenge is the contention that Proposition 215, which was passed by California voters in 1996, is directly at odds with federal laws against the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The supervisors are essentially arguing that, by making them enact the ID card system, the state is asking them to do something that violates federal law.

All of the supervisors said they could not comment on an issue that had been discussed in closed session.

Sansone said he advised the supervisors that to win they must show that the state law directly conflicts with federal law on this issue. The state Attorney General's office has previously said that no such conflict exists, and has issued opinions to that effect.

However, in a telephone interview Tuesday, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's office said there clearly is a conflict between California law and federal law. It's a conflict that's been pointed out before, said the spokesman, Nathan Barankin, and that San Diego County is welcome to challenge again.

Barankin said it's too early to tell what chances the county has of convincing a court that its claims are correct.

"I'd have to look at their specific arguments," he said, "to see what principles of federalism, anti-federalism, what other constitutional principles they're invoking or statutory infirmities they allege."

Some of San Diego's medical marijuana advocates said they don't need to look too deeply into the board of supervisors' actions to know that they are 100 percent opposed to it.

"I'm speechless," said Laurie Kallonakis, president of San Diego NORML, a nonprofit lobbying organization that works to legalize marijuana. "They work for the state, they work for California, they work for us. Local people voted them in, they're supposed to be helping us."

An attorney for San Diego NORML sent the board of supervisors a letter on Monday threatening legal action.

"The continued rejection of California state law regarding the legal issuance of the medical marijuana identification card, regrettably, would force us to bring a class action lawsuit to compel compliance," reads the letter, which is signed by attorney James T. Bentson.

However, hearing yesterday's news, Bentson said the move by the board changes everything. He said his clients will probably now just sit it out and leave the legal wrangling to the state and the county. Bentson said he is likely to intervene later in the process.

"It makes it even easier and more cost-effective for us," said Bentson. "We're going to let the county sue the state, let them spend hundreds of thousands of dollars beating each other up, then I'll come in with a complaint in intervention at the last minute."

Sansone said his team of attorneys should be filing the action within a month. He said he thinks the county is acting reasonably in this matter.

"The Board of Supervisors, in my view, is assuming a responsible role in that, instead of simply not complying with state law, and doing nothing else, what they're doing is taking the initiative and going to court and asking for a court to decide," he said. "It's really for a court to decide."

Medical marijuana advocates, on the other hand, think that's a stretch.

"Stop wasting our money on trying to bring lawsuits against them," said Kallonatis. "That's really not what we really want. But obviously they want to bring this case against the state, wasting our money again, and that's ridiculous."



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