Medical marijuana and the feds: The California saga continues

March 12, 2007

EDITORIAL, Las Vegas Review Journal

A decade ago, California was the first of 12 states where voters approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

And -- probably because voters bypassed the Legislature and its special-interest lobbyists -- Californians declined to set up a strict regulatory regime. Who can open a clinic and who can grow and supply marijuana are thus open to broad interpretation.

 It took awhile -- continuing federal drug raids and prosecutions slowed the impetus -- but over time, about 400 known medical marijuana suppliers have surfaced, statewide. Los Angeles has about 100.

Under California law, clinics are supposed to dispense marijuana only to seriously ill people and clinic owners are to get only "reasonable compensation."

That's allowed the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to adopt an odd new stance on the California law. On the one hand, the DEA and Justice Department continue to insist in court that the state law has no validity at all -- routinely arguing not only that voters have no power to overrule the federal ban on marijuana, but that juries need not even be told that clinic operators have been operating legally under state law.

On the other hand, the DEA has now undertaken what appears to be selective enforcement of that very same California state law, arguing some clinic owners are taking home more than "reasonable compensation."

The DEA raided 11 Los Angeles-area dispensaries in a single day in January, the largest such enforcement effort to date based on the "reasonable compensation" clause. They returned to one of the clinics in West Hollywood on March 7, breaking down a door and seizing additional records, The Associated Press reports.

DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen said authorities chose clinics that were making big money, that had allegedly become hot spots for crime or were part of large franchises. The raided clinics on average raked in $20,000 in profits each day, Ms. Pullen said.

Many clinics have been buying pot wholesale from street dealers and reselling it for twice the roughly $100-an-ounce black-market rate, Ms. Pullen said. "It's become something we can't ignore."

Yet, for some reason, those busts have yet to produce any arrests or charges, to date. Some clinics have remained closed while others reopened.

Let's not be naive: While many doubtless continue to distribute the weed to the sick virtually for free, others of a more entrepreneurial bent do appear to have taken advantage of the loose structure of the California law to go into the business for profit.

And some who are buying the once-banned plant probably don't suffer from cancer or glaucoma.

But precisely what amount of compensation for operating such a clinic does the DEA considerable "reasonable," or allowable? And where, for that matter, do they find themselves delegated the authority to enforce that part of a state -- not a federal -- law?

They don't say.

If narcotics officers would stop breaking down doors, argues Joseph David Elford, a lawyer for medicinal marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, then free competition in a more open market would quickly drive down both prices and profits, just as it does for pizza.

Ms. Pullen replies that hasn't happened. But those few California doctors willing to provide patients with written marijuana authorizations say most of their colleagues are afraid of being driven out of practice by federal regulatory authorities -- a de facto artificial limit on competition.

Many folks in law enforcement have long fallen back on the mantra, "If you don't like the law, go to the polls and change it."

Californians did just that, by an overwhelming 56-44 majority. So when is the DEA going to say, "OK, OK. The people of California changed the law, just as we told them they'd have to do. What's more, the 10th Amendment makes it clear this is indeed a matter left to 'the states, or to the people.' So we're moving on. Have a nice day."?

We're all waiting.

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