O.C. reacts to new medical marijuana rules

August 26, 2008

Cindy Carcamo and Eugene W. Fields, Orange County Register

ORANGE – A couple of days after the state attorney general issued a new directive on guidelines governing medical marijuana, the county's top law enforcement brass scrambled to figure out what it means to them.

After years of confusion, Attorney General Jerry Brown on Monday developed guidelines for the first time since the 1996 passing of Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act. The law allowed people to use medical marijuana in California.

The most notable guideline upholds the legality of medical marijuana dispensaries that operate as nonprofit cooperatives or collectives. Brown, however, was adamant that for-profit dispensaries are illegal operations.

In addition, the marijuana must be grown by the dispensary, collectives, caregivers or patients and not an outside middleman, Brown said.

He hopes the guidelines will help soothe tensions between state and federal authorities who have conflicting marijuana laws.

He also said the memo should clarify a law that has widely been seen as something of a nightmare for law enforcement agents who didn't have the tools or guidance before to differentiate between legitimate medical operations and illegal outfits.

"In some cases, it's just a front for drug dealers or people looking to get high every day," Brown said.

In Orange County, the murkiness of the law sparked skittish city officials to approve new ordinances or do away with older rulings that left them open to medical marijuana dispensaries within their cities.

"It's a step in the right direction," medical marijuana advocate William Paoli said about Brown's directive. "It shows that the state is willing to support the law in so far as the law itself is implemented in accordance with the will of the voters. And that is that patients have access ... to alternative remedies"

Paoli, a facilitator at the Orange County Chapter for Americans for Safe Access, has been outspoken about patients' rights to receive medical marijuana in the county.

It's unclear, however, whether the guidelines will make a real change on a day-to-day basis for medical marijuana users because there's still a clash between state and federal laws, which will continue to perplex some local law enforcement officials.

Americans for Safe Access, a national nonprofit medical marijuana support group, and the California Police Chiefs Association helped shape the guidelines.

On Tuesday, the association started sending out memos to all its members, including police chiefs in Orange County.

After the directive, some local law enforcement officials said the guidelines were too new and that they would need some time to figure out if they'll change their polices.

Others, such as Santa Ana Police Department and Orange County district attorney's officials, said nothing will change because they said they've already been following Brown's interpretation of the law.

"We had a chance to look at it and basically it states the law as it's written, and it doesn't come into conflict with anything that we've done in the past," district attorney spokeswoman Susan Schroeder said.

Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit group that advocates medical marijuana use, said he disagrees partly with Schroeder's statement.

Elford represented Felix Kha, a medical marijuana patient, who won the right to get his marijuana back from Garden Grove police when the state's 4th District Court of Appeal ruled officers illegally took away marijuana from him.

Elford said the District Attorney's Office was opposed to returning Kha's marijuana when the case first went to Orange County Superior Court.

"It's puzzling that they said they were following the law all along and that things won't change because since the earlier case, the court has established that … the district attorney has no good legal reason to oppose a request to return the property," Elford said.

He added that Brown's new directive essentially tells law enforcement officials that they cannot take marijuana from medical marijuana patients in the first place and are not allowed to charge them if they are carrying less than 8 ounces.

Other agencies have struggled with how to enforce the law.

Despite medical marijuana advocates' pleas to regulate dispensaries instead of banning them outright, Buena Park, Fullerton, Mission Viejo and Tustin have passed moratoriums prohibiting such operations.

Huntington Beach City Council members changed zoning, essentially outlawing marijuana dispensaries.

The city of Orange has come under fire for its hard line against dispensaries. A medical marijuana collective filed a lawsuit against the city because of an ordinance, which says businesses must be consistent with federal and state laws. Federal laws outlaw all marijuana use.

The Orange County sheriff, city of Orange and Huntington Beach city officials said they have yet to thoroughly review the directive.

Orange Mayor Carolyn Cavecche said the city attorney would study the guidelines further. She didn't know, however, whether the city would shift its position.

"At first glance, I don't think we'll change," Cavecche said.

Dave Lucas, who in April retrieved a little more than 30 grams of seized purple Urkel marijuana and smoking pipes from Huntington Beach police, said he disagrees with some of the guidelines.

Lucas, who uses marijuana for post traumatic stress disorder, said he believes dispensaries should be able to squeak out some profit.

"A lot of pharmaceutical companies do," Lucas said. "None of them are nonprofit."

Contact the writer: 714-445-6688 or ccarcamo@ocregister.com

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