California Politics Drive Cannabis Club Crackdown

August 28, 2008

Justin Scheck and Rhonda L. Rundle, The Wall Street Journal

California Attorney General Jerry Brown issued restrictive guidelines this week for medical-marijuana sellers, bolstering his tough-on-crime credentials as he looks ahead to a possible gubernatorial bid in 2010.

Mr. Brown said his guidelines are in response to state law enforcement.

Mr. Brown's guidelines say medical-marijuana dispensaries -- which operate in a legal gray area -- should operate as small nonprofits. The guidelines instruct state law-enforcement officials that "excessive amounts of marijuana" and "excessive amounts of cash" may indicate a dispensary is operating unlawfully. "There's no blank check to sell marijuana in California," Mr. Brown said in an interview, adding that he believes many marijuana sellers are "shadowy enterprises."

Medical marijuana has been a sticky law-enforcement issue in California since voters passed an initiative in 1996 saying doctors could recommend marijuana to patients. The state legislature passed measures in 2003 to clarify the law. But store-front marijuana clubs have sprung up that law-enforcement officials say serve a much broader clientele than the law intended. And marijuana remains illegal under federal law, so federal authorities in California continue to crack down on marijuana sales.

Mr. Brown's guidelines help solidify the legal status of smaller, nonprofit operations. They also align him with law-enforcement officials in counties like San Diego, which has shut down storefront operations over the past few years, accusing them of being illegal drug cartels. "It kind of validates what we've been saying, that these storefronts that are for profit, that really have no relationship with medical-marijuana users, are really not within the law," said Damon Mosler, the narcotics chief for the San Diego District Attorney's office.

The guidelines are part of a broader effort by Mr. Brown to focus attention on his opposition to illegal marijuana sales. Earlier this month, his office issued a press release, headlined "Attorney General Brown Shuts Down Illegal Marijuana Operation," announcing a raid on a dispensary in Los Angeles by the state's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. A California Justice Department spokeswoman said that when it comes to medical marijuana, Mr. Brown has taken a different approach than his predecessor, Bill Lockyer.

"I think it's part of an overall strategy to run for governor in 2010," said Jaime Regalado, director of California State University's Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs (which is named after Mr. Brown's father, a former California governor). Mr. Regalado said Mr. Brown has spent the past few years trying to shed the "Governor Moonbeam" moniker he earned as governor from 1975 to 1983. That included Mr. Brown's taking aggressive policing stances in Oakland, Calif., while he was mayor there through 2006.

Mr. Brown has said he is considering another gubernatorial run. But he said the new medical-marijuana guidelines are a response to pleas from state law-enforcement officials, not a bid to win support. "This has nothing to do with politics," he said. "I am just doing my job."

While medical-marijuana advocates don't like the prospect of tightened restrictions, some said the new guidelines should help them to comply with the law. "It reduces the subjectivity of law enforcement," said Joe Elford, who is chief counsel with the marijuana-advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. He said the majority of marijuana clubs in the state are small operations that already comply with the guidelines.

Kevin Reed, the owner of a medical-marijuana provider named Green Cross, said the guidelines are "a really positive thing" because they clarify state policy. Mr. Reed, who has a permit from the City of San Francisco, said income that's not used for expenses and staff salary goes into lowering the cost of marijuana for clients. But, he added, there are some dispensary owners in Northern California who "feel like they should operate like any other business."

Mr. Brown said that by eliminating larger, cartel-type operations, the guidelines should reduce the attention that federal authorities pay to legitimate distributors. San Francisco U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello said he supports that notion: "The people that the attorney general identifies as legitimate medical-marijuana operators are the people we view as flying below our radar."

Mr. Russoniello said the guidelines don't change the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. And he disagreed with suggestions that most sellers comply with California law. He estimated that 95% of medical-marijuana distributors are for-profit operations.

Allison Margolin, a criminal defense attorney who represents marijuana dispensaries, said the new guidelines don't explain the difference between for-profit and non-profit organizations. "Law enforcement will use this vagueness to continue to prosecute people," she said.

Write to Justin Scheck at and Rhonda L. Rundle at

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