San Diego leading backlash against Calif. medical marijuana law

September 21, 2006

Allison Hoffman, Associated Press

This seaside city was a bystander as liberal strongholds like San Francisco and Santa Cruz created identification cards for sick patients who use marijuana and wrote regulations to permit storefront pot dispensaries.

Now, 10 years after Californians voted to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes, conservative San Diego County is leading a backlash against the groundbreaking law.

The county is challenging California's medical marijuana law in state court, saying it should not be required to comply with a state law directing counties to issue ID cards to users. At the same time, local police, working with federal agents, have shuttered all of the nearly 30 marijuana dispensaries in the county.

San Diego's legal showdown pits state laws that permit marijuana use for medical reasons against federal laws that prohibit the drug. At stake: California's decade-old law and the industry it spawned, with potentially far-reaching consequences for other states.

"This is the first time that a county has said that the state is forcing them to do something they don't want to do," said Anjuli Verma, director of advocacy for the Drug Law Reform Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If they prevail, it will set a precedent that basically means medical marijuana laws are over."

Since California's Compassionate Use Act was passed in 1996, 10 other states - Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington - have passed laws protecting qualified patients from prosecution. Voters in South Dakota decide a medical marijuana ballot measure in November.

California's law allows people suffering AIDS, cancer, anorexia, chronic pain, arthritis and migraine and "any other illness for which marijuana provides relief" to grow or possess small amounts of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

In 2003, the California Legislature amended the 1996 bill to direct county health departments to issue ID cards to medical marijuana users.

Counties, which did not receive money to fulfill the requirement, have been slow to issue ID cards, but San Diego was the first to refuse on legal grounds. Under threat of a lawsuit from the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the county struck first and sued the organization - and the state.

"We're trying to get the court to tell the state they've gone too far in telling the counties to do something that facilitates the ability of a person to break federal law," said John Sansone, San Diego's county counsel.

The state attorney general contends in court filings that California is entitled to pass its own state drug laws and legislate programs relating to the use of medical marijuana.

Two other California counties, San Bernardino and Merced, have joined as plaintiffs in the case, which is scheduled to be heard in November in San Diego Superior Court.

San Diego's board of supervisors entered the legal fray shortly after dispensaries with names like Legal Ease, Holistic Healers and Chronic Care Co-op began popping up in coastal enclaves, thanks to the 2003 law, which created a legal framework for the dispensaries.

California has an estimated 200 storefronts that serve about 200,000 people, according to Americans for Safe Access, a group that advocates medical marijuana laws. San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles have passed guidelines regulating the shops.

San Diego prosecutors say neighbors complained about one store in the summer of 2005, prompting an investigation that culminated in joint Drug Enforcement Administration and local police raids in July.

Fifteen operators were charged with illegally selling the drug for recreational use to people who are not ill - including one undercover agent who prosecutors say got a doctor to give him a medical marijuana recommendation for his dog.

A lawyer for one of the men, Stephen Harding, who ran Native Sun Dispensary, expressed dismay at the charges.

"These guys were complying with the regulations as they've been laid out," said Jan Ronis. "You have people relying on what seems to be guidance from the state and then the county shoots it down. It's really frustrating."

The remaining stores and delivery services in the county closed after receiving phone calls and visits from law enforcement agents warning that they and their landlords may be prosecuted.

San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said the state law does not require local authorities to permit marijuana storefronts.

"It's the tolerance level in the community that rules in the end," she said. "I think in Northern California they're much more tolerant than in this part of Southern California."



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