by state voters in 1996. However, federal law does not acknowledge that cannabis can be used for medical purposes.

The district attorney's office was pursuing legal action against one of the dispensaries last year, but ultimately made the decision to bring in federal authorities, officials said. The prospect of a lengthy and costly court battle influenced the decision to involve the DEA, Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe acknowledged last week.

While local law enforcement insist that the dispensaries operated outside of the state's medical marijuana laws, operators from each of the three raided dispensaries denied on Tuesday they had violated state law.

The district attorney's decision to involve the DEA was unfair, said Kris Hermes of ASA. That's because the operators — if prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice — will not be able to properly defend themselves in federal court, where the legality of medical marijuana is not acknowledged, he said.

At Tuesday's meeting, medical marijuana advocates reminded city officials of the broad support for controlled use of cannabis in the county, pointing out that 66 percent of county voters helped pass Proposition 215, the "Compassionate Use Act" that legalized medical marijuana in the state more than a decade ago.

In all, about a dozen advocates for medical marijuana spoke during the meeting. When they said their piece, City Manager Arne Croce reaffirmed what he said last week about the dispensaries — "that these businesses were all operating in a way that ... by no stretch of the imagination were operating within the law."

San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer said outside the meeting that state law, which allows for medical marijuana patients and providers to open cooperatives, does not permit "storefront, entrepreneurial, drug trafficking enterprises."

Both Croce and Manheimer affirmed that the county must develop an ordinance, which could better regulate medical marijuana. In fact, Croce said, Supervisor Jerry Hill had met with the district attorney's office on Tuesday to discuss the prospect of countywide regulation.

However, District Attorney James Fox said Tuesday that local regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries is not feasible. The state regulates medical marijuana and any attempts to regulate cannabis must be made on the state level, he explained.

That opinion was echoed by San Mateo City Attorney Shawn Mason, who urged the advocates at the meeting that "if (they) feel strongly about medical marijuana, they need to talk to their state legislators."

However, one needn't change state law necessary to regulate medical marijuana, said Kris Hermes of ASA.

"You don't need to go to Sacramento," he said. "There are plenty of examples of cities and counties around the state that have grappled with this issue and resolved it in a very effective way."

Twenty-six cities and eight counties across the state have adopted such ordinances, including Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley, according to the ASA.

"Medical marijuana dispensaries can be a positive part of our community," Brent Saupe, of ASA, told city officials. "The Council ought to be supporting efforts to develop regulations that provide safe and legal access to medical cannabis so patients aren't forced to access medicine in illegitimate places — rather than restricting it further."

Staff writer Michael Manekin can be reached at 650-348-4331 or by e-mail at