Sorting out the latest medical marijuana news

October 24, 2012

Frank Stoltze, KPCC

Federal agents bust a bunch of L.A. and Orange County pot shops.

A San Diego judge says its OK to purchase pot.

Medical marijuana news can leave you in a haze. Let’s sort out the latest:

First, federal prosecutors Thursday said agents arrested a dozen people associated with a chain of nine marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles and Orange Counties on drug trafficking charges.

“Most of the stores previously were the subject of search warrants executed in 2010 and 2011,” read a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s office. “Most of the nine stores are now closed, but several are believed to still be in operation.”

Prosecutors allege one dispensary - Safe Harbor Collective in Dana Point - made $2.5 million in 2009. Shop owner John Melvin Walker allegedly told his bookkeeper “to destroy all records pertaining to income.” He also allegedly possessed an AK-47, and nearly $400,000 in cash. Walker’s attorney did not return a phone call for comment.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department targets only dispensaries that violate California law, which requires they be non-profit and serve only qualified medical marijuana patients. But prosecutors believe almost all operate in violation of state law.

That’s why the feds last month launched a crackdown on the 800-plus pot shops in Los Angeles, ordering 70 to close in Eagle Rock and downtown L.A.

“The federal government should let California police its own,” said Joe Elford, an attorney with Americans for Safe Access. “Let this experiment play out, and then see what happens.”

Like most experiments, there’s been a lot of trial and error since California voters approved the Compassionate Use Act in 1996. For example, courts have issued conflicting rulings on whether qualified patients can purchase pot without actively participating in cultivating it. That brings us to the second piece of news this week.

In San Diego Wednesday, a state appellate judge ruled patients are allowed purchase their medical marijuana, without toiling the soil as part of a collective.

“I think it’s pretty definitive on the issue of sales,” Elford said. “It's very important for Los Angeles because the city attorney’s office has taken this position that you can’t sell marijuana at all.”

Elford argues this reasoning helped motivate the L.A. City Council to ban dispensaries in August. Faced with a petition with enough signatures to force them to place the ban on the ballot, councilmembers decided to repeal it.

The state attorney general’s office said it is reviewing the San Diego case, and may appeal it.  

In the next six months, the California Supreme Court is expected to consider whether cities and counties are allowed to ban marijuana dispensaries. Some argue that simple zoning laws permit prohibition, as with liquor stores.  

Elford argues local government can regulate but not outlaw dispensaries because voters have “ensured the right of patients to have their medicine.”

All sides in the hotly contested debate anxiously await the state Supreme Court’s decision on the issue, but not federal prosecutors. They promise more raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, many of which they say are glorified fronts for drug dealing.

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