Board votes to keep pot law as is

August 20, 2007

James Burger, Bakersfield Californian

Kern County supervisors on Tuesday struggled to find a clear path for themselves out of the legal morass that is medical marijuana in California.

The problem is there is no path.

So all five supervisors voted to stay put -- leaving county ordinances exactly as they are.

And that means a de-facto ban on medical marijuana dispensaries remains in place.

Federal law says growing, selling and using marijuana is illegal.

State law allows people to use it as medicine.

Kern County has an ordinance that allows six dispensaries in the county. But all of those shops closed voluntarily in the wake of federal drugs raids.

Patients without access to their marijuana flooded Tuesday's meeting, calling for a safe place to buy their medicine.

"Get dispensaries back online in compliance with state law," said Tom Beavers. "You may have closed six dispensaries but you've opened up a thousand dispensaries on the street."

But supervisors struggled with how they could reopen dispensaries without exposing county residents to drug raids and arrests.

"I think it's important that we retain some sort of ordinance," said Supervisor Mike Maggard. "There are folks who have come to rely on this for their therapeutic care. We're going to come up with an imperfect solution and disappoint some people, maybe almost everybody."

Doug McAfee, president of the Bakersfield NORML, pro-legalization group, called for the board to move control of county ordinances to the Department of Public Health.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who currently regulates medical marijuana dispensaries in Kern County, feels federal law should trump state law.

"Until Congress changes the law, or the Supreme Court changes the law, I think we're obligated to follow the law," Youngblood said. "I just think we need to say 'no' to dispensaries in Kern County, because it is the law of the land."

The comment raised a wave of jeers from patients in the audience.

But the core of Tuesday's discussion centered around what the county should do to regulate medical marijuana.

Supervisor Ray Watson laid out the situation clearly.

He asked County Counsel Bernard Barmann if moving control of county dispensary ordinances to the health department would prevent federal drug raids.

"Absolutely not," Barmann said.

Could the county prevent raids by putting more regulations on dispensaries, Watson asked.

"Not necessarily," Barmann said. "The feds are controlling this and local government and even state government is at the mercy of the feds."

Supervisor Michael Rubio said anything the county does will provide medical marijuana patients with a "false veil of security" that they are safe from federal raids.

And he was not willing to offer that false sense of security.

"The debate, I argue, does not belong in this chamber," Rubio said. "The debate belongs at the federal level."

His fellow supervisors agreed, and voted to leave the ordinance as it stands.

Medical marijuana supporters said that while the decision wasn't good, it could have been worse.

Dispensary licenses expire in December, McAfee said, and that may be a better time for patients to approach supervisors on the issue again.

"We have three months now to work with local government," he said.



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