Law library weighs in on medical marijuana

August 17, 2006

Terri Morganat, Santa Cruz Sentinel

County residents who have a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana for medical purposes can legally possess up to 3 pounds of marijuana buds and have a 10-foot by 10-foot area of marijuana plants under cultivation.

That's according to attorney Ben Rice, who said Santa Cruz County has some of the most liberal medical marijuana regulations in the nation at an informational talk sponsored by the Santa Cruz County Law Library.

The session, which also featured Allen Hopper, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Drug Reform Project, was designed to clear up confusion about the ever-changing regulations on the herb.

"This area has so much gray area, and it is evolving all the time so there's some confusion," said Rice, who has defended dozens of medical marijuana patients who have been arrested.

Although marijuana use and cultivation is illegal under federal law, it has been permitted in California since 1996, when voters passed the Compassionate Use Act. The law calls for patients with a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana in medical treatment to be exempt from criminal penalties.

Santa Cruz County, like all counties in the state, is required to issue identification cards to residents who have obtained a medical marijuana recommendation.

Rice explained that patients don't have to have a county card to be protected. However, the card allows them to enjoy added protection from arrest or citations.

Each county can enact its own guidelines regarding how much medical marijuana patients can legally possess.

However, federal law supersedes local regulations, Rice said.

"No matter what kind of recommendation you have, or what kind of illness you have, you're not protected if the federal government comes after you," said Rice. "But we all know that the federal government does not have the resources, or the will, to bust people who are taking care of their recommendation."

Head librarian Dolores Wiemers said she asked a library intern to put a collection of marijuana legal resources together after receiving numerous requests from patrons for information on medical marijuana. Rice helped advise the intern, then volunteered to present the talk as a free public service to draw attention to the law library, which is located in the basement of the County Government Center.

County Sheriff Steve Robbins, who noted that his predecessor Sheriff Mark Tracy helped get the county's medical marijuana ordinance passed, said in an interview before the talk the issue is a medical one, not a law enforcement issue.

"People talk about the war on drugs, but we're not in a war," Robbins said. "People have a right to their medicine."

Deputies don't seize medical marijuana if they can verify people's medical status, he added. Deputies will, however, look into neighborhood complaints about pot growers, largely because growers have been the target of robberies.

"Our main focus is methamphetamine," Robbins said. "Marijuana hasn't been our focus, except in the large-scale commercial grows" guarded by armed gunmen.

Santa Cruz County residents have long had a liberal attitude toward medical marijuana. In 2002, after federal agents raided a medical marijuana garden of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana and arrested the organization's founders, city officials allowed WAMM to distribute medical marijuana to patients from the steps of City Hall.

Currently, there are two medical marijuana dispensaries operating in Santa Cruz. Voters in the city will also be asked to decide whether or not police should make enforcing marijuana laws a low priority when they go to the polls this fall.

Although there was no charge to attend, organizers had requested participants make a donation to benefit the Law Library, and WAMM. Rice offered Groucho Marx masks to people who contributed money. He said the give-away was a bit of black humor, because federal law trumps California's more liberal laws about medical marijuana.

"Nobody wants to be seen walking out of a medical marijuana talk by law enforcement," he said, referring to federal agents.

Contact Terri Morganat kalexander@santacruzsentinel.com



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