City pays $15,000 to cover lost pot

April 13, 2006

Susan McDonough, Oakland Tribune

The city of Emeryville paid $15,000 this week to a medical marijuana patient whose marijuana and growing equipment went up in smoke while in police possession.

James Blair was arrested in December 2003 on charges of growing 30 pot plants in his Emeryville loft. Police confiscated the plants and an assortment of growing equipment, including two high-voltage lights, fans, pumps and timers.

Charges against Blair, who was partially paralyzed 11 years ago in a diving accident, eventually were dropped, and in April 2004 a judge ordered police to return Blair's possessions, including the pot.

But when Blair, 46, appeared at police headquarters to reclaim his belongings, he was turned away and disappointed. It seems most of Blair's things were stolen when a police storage unit was burglarized in February 2004.

Police returned what was left of Blair's pot plants, but his high-intensity growing lights and other belongings, including the buds from his 30 pot plants, were gone.

Police say the items were taken from a locked cage inside the city's public works building.

No arrests have been made in the burglary, Sgt. Lajuan Collier said Thursday.

Lawyers for Blair and police settled on the $15,000 compensation for the loss in January. Blair received the money this week.

He said Wednesday that the money will help him start cultivating again. He has been buying marijuana from local cannabis clubs since his arrest, he said.

Medical marijuana advocates say they are pleased with the settlement, among the largest to date, and they hope having to pay punitive damages will encourage police departments to show more leniency with medical marijuana patients.

"That's really all we wanted is for people to cultivate their medicine in peace," Americans for Safe Access advocate Hillary McQuie said.

The California Highway Patrol relaxed its policy regarding medical marijuana in September because of litigation and recent opinions from the state attorney general's office.

Where CHP officers once seized marijuana from motorists without eligibility cards from the state Department of Health Services, officers now accept identification cards from cities and counties or a signed recommendation from a doctor, as long as they possess no more than the legal limit, typically 8 ounces.

Emeryville police Chief Ken James said his department will continue deciding how to handle medical marijuana users on a case-by-case basis.

"Within our 1.2 square miles, it's not a priority to go out enforcing marijuana laws," hesaid.

James said his department has always followed the law, which says arrest first and let the courts decide whether the use is medicinal or not, although he acknowledged it makes no sense to arrest users if officers have knowledge of a doctor's recommendation or ID card, in which case the district attorney probably will not press charges.

If medical marijuana users have the state-issued card, they cannot be arrested, James said.



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