DA says he won't go after the sick

September 30, 2006

Kimberly Trone, Press-Enterprise

Riverside County's district attorney won't prosecute sick people who use marijuana in accordance with state law, despite his recent report urging a ban on marijuana dispensaries and condemning its use as a federal crime.

"I have never said that we intend to prosecute patients. We have never done that," District Attorney Grover Trask said last week, following a decision by county supervisors to prohibit dispensaries and growing-cooperatives in unincorporated areas.

Supervisor Roy Wilson voted against a ban, saying the county should regulate dispensaries to provide safe access for patients. The board is scheduled to adopt the ban Tuesday.

County Supervisor Jeff Stone -- who used Trask's 10-page report to support a ban -- said he interpreted the document to mean the DA would "continue to file charges against anyone alleged to utilize marijuana for any purpose."

Temecula resident LaVonne Victor, who uses the drug for multiple sclerosis, said Stone's comments frightened some patients and advocates.

"This is something that helps us," said Victor, who wept at the board's decision. "We are tired of being afraid."

Trask said he believes the federal government is not interested in prosecuting patients, either. But Trask said proponents of dispensaries "are attempting to drive a Mack truck through a keyhole."

"All we are saying is that patients and primary care givers are specifically defined by statute and they have to meet the strict requirements of California law," Trask said, calling dispensaries "illegal."

Trask is retiring this year. His successor, Deputy District Attorney Rod Pacheco, has given no indication of how he will deal with the issue.

In 1996, California voters decriminalized marijuana for patients who use it with a doctor's recommendation, though possession of the drug for any reason is a federal crime.

State lawmakers in 2003 told counties to issue voluntary ID cards to help patients avoid arrest and prosecution by local authorities. Riverside County has issued almost 350 cards since December.

Some city officials, who wanted Riverside County to lead the way in establishing regulations for the distribution of marijuana to patients, expressed "surprise" by the board's blanket ban.

"Shocked is even a better word for it," said Palm Springs Councilwoman Ginny Foat. "This is a medical issue, not a police issue. Now it has become a political issue. This (ban) pushes people into the illegal drug trade. It was a vote for the drug dealers on the street."

Foat said she is not sure how the county's decision will affect the city's efforts to regulate dispensaries and cooperatives. Two dispensaries are open in Palm Springs.

Palm Springs Councilman Mike McCulloch said it should not be a significant factor.

"We reviewed the California law voted in by the citizens," he said. "I believe we are going to move right along."

In Palm Desert, where one dispensary operates among the city's swanky boutiques and galleries on El Paseo Drive, officials also are puzzled by the ban, Mayor Jim Ferguson said.

"It came as quite a shock. What happened to the year-and-a-half of effort, working with the county to come up with a model ordinance, to give critical-care patients a way to legally access what I truly believe state law allows them to access?" Ferguson said.

Ferguson, also an attorney, said the ordinance the county Planning Commission sent to the supervisors for approval was a "good one." He disagreed with Trask's assertion that dispensaries attract criminals and that when crimes occur they go unreported by operators.

The dispensary in Palm Desert is a "perfect neighbor," Ferguson said.

Leaders in other cities such as Temecula and Lake Elsinore have banned dispensaries. The city of Corona has waged an unsuccessful court fight to close a dispensary.

Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle said dispensary operators should be concerned about their future in Riverside County. Federal drug enforcement agents have closed several dispensaries in neighboring San Diego County.

"We are not going to be hunting down people who use for medical purposes," Doyle said.

At the same time, the sheriff said his department would enforce federal drug laws through deputies who have been cross-designated to act as federal officers.

Doyle said he hopes a lawsuit filed by San Bernardino and San Diego counties against the state will better define the state's marijuana laws.

Riverside County supervisors agreed to join the lawsuit, but have not formally done so. A hearing is scheduled for November.

Reach Kimberly Trone at 951-368-9456 or ktrone@PE.com

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