Medicinal pot supplier turns to court to stay in business

January 08, 2008

Cathy Locke, Sacramento Bee (CA)

A medical marijuana advocate told El Dorado County officials that he will seek a court's permission to continue operating a dispensary for medical marijuana patients.

The county Board of Supervisors, on a 4-1 vote Tuesday, upheld the county treasurer-tax collector's decision not to renew a business license for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers Association of El Dorado County, which operates a medical marijuana dispensary on Alhambra Drive in Cameron Park. Matt Vaughn, the association's founder and chief executive officer, said he would sue the county, arguing that the county's action violates the Compassionate Use Act approved by California voters in 1996.

Cherie Raffety, county treasurer-tax collector, said the county ordinance allows refusal of a business license if a business violates state or federal laws. The refusal to renew Vaughn's license, she said, was based on a violation of federal drug law as well as a violation of the county zoning ordinance, which makes no provision for medical marijuana dispensaries.

But Vaughn said, "State law is quite clear with regard to the conflict between state and federal law." He cited a November opinion by California's 4th District Court of Appeal in a case involving the city of Garden Grove. The court declared that it is the responsibility of cities and counties to uphold state law and to leave it to federal authorities to enforce federal drug laws.

Deputy county counsel Michael Ciccozzi, said, "We are not here to dispute the validity of the Compassionate Use Act."

But Ciccozzi said the state law provides limited immunity against criminal prosecution for individuals who use marijuana for medical purposes and those who provide it. He said it allows cities and counties to regulate businesses that dispense it.

"No one is imposing criminal sanctions," Ciccozzi said, arguing that the treasurer-tax collector was upholding county ordinances in denying the business license. In addition to violating federal drug laws, he said the dispensary's location in a general commercial zone raises the issue of zoning code violations.

The Medical Marijuana Caregivers Association obtained its first business license in August 2004, and shortly afterward, the Board of Supervisors imposed a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries. In September 2005, the board voted to strike all references to dispensaries in the zoning ordinance, arguing that doing so would effectively prohibit such operations in unincorporated areas.

Supervisor Norma Santiago, who voted against refusing the business license, said she wanted to understand how federal drug laws figured in the issue. "When it comes to healthcare issues, is it the responsibility of the state or federal government?" she asked.

With regard to laws such as the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, the state is required to enforce the federal law, Ciccozzi said. But when it comes to the bigger issue of health care, he said, "That's for the politicians. I don't know that it's a legal issue."

Santiago also asked whether striking references to dispensaries from the zoning ordinance prohibited all types of businesses that dispense medicines.

County Counsel Louis Green said pharmacies are allowed. "It was intended to preclude medical marijuana dispensaries," he said.

Don Kearney, describing himself as a former embassy guard in the Middle East and a 17-year resident of El Dorado County, urged the board to grant Vaughn's appeal and renew the dispensary's business license.

"Some people want this to be a fight. Not me," he said.

Kearney said he just wants to be able to obtain his medicine and to be left alone by law enforcement officers.

"If the federal government wants us," he said. "They know where we're at."

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