Officials to push medical pot fight

December 19, 2006

Duane W. Gang, Press-Enterprise

San Bernardino County supervisors Tuesday voted to appeal a San Diego County judge's decision this month rejecting their challenge to California's medical-marijuana laws.

The closed-session decision came a week after their counterparts in San Diego County also voted to appeal the decision by Superior Court Judge William R. Nevitt Jr.

Nevitt rejected the two counties' February challenge to the 1996 California law legalizing the use of marijuana to treat the symptoms of illnesses such as cancer, glaucoma and chronic pain.

The two counties argue that they cannot enforce a state law that is weaker than the federal ban on marijuana.

Until the matter is resolved, San Bernardino County has not handed out medical-marijuana identification cards, which help those with a valid physician's recommendation for the drug avoid arrest.

Handing out identification cards gives the false impression that people cannot be arrested for possessing the drug, because federal law makes no exceptions, the county argues.

San Bernardino County's top law enforcement officer praised the decision to appeal Tuesday, while at least a half-dozen supporters of medical marijuana urged supervisors to drop what they said was a costly legal battled doomed to failure.

Sheriff Gary Penrod said Tuesday that the medical-marijuana law poses serious ethical issues, puts deputies in an awkward position and raises difficulties about controlling the plant's sale.

"The abuse is going to be terrible," Penrod said in an interview. "I have deputies who are cross-deputized (to enforce federal law). What do they do?"

But Aaron Smith, the statewide coordinator for the advocacy group Safe Access Now, said the county is trying to flout the will of California voters who approved the use of medical marijuana.

He said continuing with the lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money and political grandstanding.

"The lawsuit is a sinking ship," he told supervisors.

Decisions made in a closed session of the Board of Supervisors are often announced publicly during a regular meeting. In this case, however, supervisors decided to make the announcement through the county's spokesman.

Supervisors did not indicate their position to medical-marijuana supporters who lined up to speak before the board.

California voters passed Prop. 215 in 1996, making medical marijuana legal. In 2003, lawmakers approved a mandatory state program requiring counties to help the state process applications for medical-marijuana ID cards. Riverside County has issued more than 350 ID cards.

Besides California, 11 other states have decriminalized medical marijuana.

Reach Duane W. Gang at 909-806-3062 or dgang@PE.com



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