Feds Consider Pot Illegal, Medical or Not

January 07, 2007

Josh Premako, The Signal (Santa Clarita)

The federal government still essentially looks at marijuana use in America the same way it has for some time - it's illegal.

But illegal doesn't necessarily mean illegal.

For the last 10 years, the drug has been legal for medical use in California, creating a quandary for communities when it comes to the issue of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Marijuana was legalized for therapeutic use in California in 1996 when voters passed Proposition 215.

In 2003, state legislation was approved allowing counties to issue identification cards to medical users to protect them from prosecution by local law enforcement.

Essentially, it takes a doctor's written recommendation to get a card.

To which law does a city hold? State or federal?

"I feel for public officials who feel caught by that, (but) the obligation is first and foremost to state law," said William Dolphin, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.

Based in Oakland, ASA is a self-described organization of "patients, medical professionals, scientists and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic uses and research," with more than 30,000 active members.

Public concern over medical marijuana is fueled by myths and misleading information, Dolphin said, and added that those who are "courageous" enough to open a dispensary often get categorized as drug dealers when they are actually helping those who most need help.

"What we're dealing with is a problem that is the creation of the federal government," he said.

Though medical cannabis dispensaries have not been a contributing factor in the revitalization of West Hollywood, former city manager Paul Brotzman said their presence hasn't necessarily been damaging either.

Santa Clarita's community development director, Brotzman was city manager of West Hollywood from 1985 to 1996.

There are "six or seven" dispensaries operating in West Hollywood, said city attorney Mike Jenkins of the firm Jenkins and Hogin.

"I think some people perceive that the dispensaries could have a negative effect ... (and) that's a concern," he said, and added that despite occasional "anecdotal evidence" that some might be abusing the system, he is not aware of any arrests or solid evidence of abuse.

While West Hollywood has an ordinance regulating the opening of dispensaries, and is set to adopt an ordinance with increased guidelines for where a dispensary can operate, Jenkins said "we don't play much of a role" in regulating how the shops are operating.

"We do not police who goes in and acquires the marijuana," he said. "We are assuming like any other merchant ... that they are complying with the law."

Where dispensaries get their marijuana supplies can vary, Dolphin said.

Though in the past dispensaries tended to grow their own supplies, "federal prosecutors have made that a dangerous business," he said, and added that now the shops tend to rely on "outside growers."

In addition, he said patients will often do cooperative plant growing, supplying those who use dispensaries.

Those "outside growers" can include "anyone and anybody," said Special Agent Sarah Pullen, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Los Angeles office.

"They get it from where they can," she said.

An abused system, she said the dispensaries have become less about providing the drug to the very ill, and "more of a marijuana legalization."

While marijuana dispensaries are a complicated issue within the state, she said it is fairly black and white, federally speaking.

"They're illegal under federal law," Pullen said. "They're operating under a cloak of (state) legality."

As a result, she said the DEA's responsibility is to investigate dispensaries as they would any other individual or group dealing in illegal drugs.

"We're targeting and identifying individuals we feel are the greatest threat," she said.

With a rift between state and federal laws, she said there are certainly issues that need to be addressed and "it's going to have to be handled by the legislature and Congress."

While the city of Santa Clarita has a two-year moratorium on dispensaries within city limits, there's nothing hindering someone from setting up shop in the unincorporated areas of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Sgt. Phil Morris of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station's Narcotics Bureau said Thursday that he has been contacted by an individual who told Morris he has received county approval and is opening a dispensary in Castaic.

The problem is not inherently with dispensaries, Morris said, but with those who are abusing the system to get high.

"I'll be the first person to say 'yeah, give it to that person (suffering a serious illness),'" he said.

At present there is one dispensary operating in the unincorporated county area near the San Gabriel Valley, said Ron Hoffman, administrator of the advanced planning division of the county Department of Regional Planning.

Approval of any dispensary set up in one of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County is the responsibility of those individual municipalities, he said.

However, until municipal language is written and the state and federal governments reach some sort of agreement, Santa Clarita will continue to just say no, Brotzman said.

"We have the position that we're not approving (dispensaries)," he said.

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