Medical pot takes center stage in Riverside

September 25, 2006

Jose Carvajal, The Californian

Though it has the blessing of medicinal marijuana advocates, a proposed ordinance that would allow medical pot dispensaries in certain county areas could face an uphill battle today when the matter comes before the Board of Supervisors.

The District Attorney's office issued a 10-page "white paper" on the issue last week, stating that allowing dispensaries would fly in the face of federal and state law and would expose the county to potential legal problems for aiding and abetting criminal activity.

There is also a concern for public safety, the report states, as there have been violent crimes linked to the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries throughout the state over the last several years.

Medicinal marijuana advocates say they aren't buying the District Attorney's argument.

At issue is the Compassionate Use Act ---- Proposition 215 ---- which was approved by 55 percent of California voters in 1996 and allows the "seriously ill" to obtain and use marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Federal law holds that there are no legal uses of the drug and the District Attorney's office contends the county would be flouting that if it were to allow marijuana dispensaries to set up shop.

"This very problem is why some counties are rethinking the presence of medical marijuana facilities in their communities," the report states, referring to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by San Diego and San Bernardino counties challenging the state's medicinal marijuana law. "There is a valid fear of being prosecuted for aiding and abetting federal drug crimes."

What's more, Chief Deputy District Attorney Kevin Ruddy said Monday, he believes the dispensaries themselves would violate state law. The state code holds that only a qualified patient, a primary caregiver or the member of a cooperative can use or possess marijuana. Nowhere in the state code does it say that dispensaries are exempt from laws banning marijuana, Ruddy said.

"It doesn't provide for these storefront operations," he said. "That's the big distinction. We're not questioning the initiative that was passed by the voters. What we are taking issue with is individuals going beyond (the law) and setting up a business."

Lanny Swerdlow, director of the Palm Springs-based Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, disputed Ruddy's interpretation.

Swerdlow contends the state code allows for the dispensaries when it states that "any individual who provides assistance to a qualified patient" can cultivate and possess marijuana.

Swerdlow says he doesn't believe the contention that the county would be flouting federal laws holds much water, citing Article 3 of the California Constitution.

It states that government agencies aren't allowed to "declare a statute unenforceable, or to refuse to enforce a statute on the basis that federal law or federal regulations prohibit the enforcement of such statute unless an appellate court has made a determination that the enforcement of such statute is prohibited by federal law or federal regulations."

In issuing its white paper just days before supervisors take up the medicinal marijuana ordinance, Swerdlow contends, the district attorney's office is trying to force the board into denying the measure without enough time for an in-depth discussion.

"We feel the white paper is way off base," he said.

It's taken the county a while to get to the point of finally considering a proposed ordinance.

Last year, the board adopted an interim ordinance banning dispensaries until a permanent one could be drawn up. Several times since then, the self-imposed deadline has been extended.

If an ordinance isn't on the books by Oct. 4 when the interim ordinance expires, the county can do little to restrict or regulate dispensaries.

A couple of weeks ago, the county Planning Commission voted to recommend the ordinance now before the board. The measure was a revised version of an ordinance passed in July that had drawn complaints from medicinal marijuana advocates.

The new ordinance included several provisions largely proposed by patients and advocates.

Key changes in the law would allow some on-site use of medicinal marijuana for patients and employees at dispensaries. A ban on the sale of marijuana-laced food products at dispensaries was lifted, as was a provision barring people with a misdemeanor on their records from owning or working at dispensaries. Felons would be prohibited.

The dispensaries could be placed only in office and manufacturing zones in the areas under the county's jurisdiction outside of cities.

-- Contact staff writer Jose Carvajal at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2624, or

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