Medical marijuana law still confuses California authorities

January 30, 2004

Marjie Lundstrom, Sacramento Bee

Ron Brownlow of Roseville, Calif. didn't make any secret of his medical marijuana use when he flew from Sacramento, Calif. to San Diego this month, but his candor at the airports proved costly. He got busted.

Brownlow's legal predicament highlights the confusion - make that the mess - that remains in California about medical marijuana and how much legitimacy its patients really have.

This was supposed to be clarified this year, with the signing of a new law by outgoing Gov. Gray Davis. The measure followed Proposition 215, the groundbreaking initiative passed by voters in 1996 that allowed medical use of marijuana. But upholding the law proved tricky as jurisdictions enacted their own guidelines, and it ran afoul of federal authorities.

The new law, which took effect in January, includes the creation of state-issued identification cards for medical marijuana patients and caregivers.

Those cards aren't out yet, but Brownlow, a 48-year-old former welder with debilitating back problems, figured he was good to go. He packed carefully for his post-holiday trip to San Diego to visit his daughter and grandson, bringing along his doctor's paperwork authorizing his use of the drug, which he says he smokes three to four times daily.

As he tells the story, he volunteered all this Jan. 16 to a Transportation Security Administration screener at Sacramento International Airport. The worker summoned a supervisor and, after some consultation, Brownlow was allowed to check his bag and board the plane.

The return trip on Jan. 21 began similarly. At the San Diego airport, he again identified himself as a medical marijuana patient to a TSA security worker, who also summoned a supervisor. But this time, the supervisor notified local authorities.

After being detained for about an hour by Harbor Police, whose jurisdiction includes the airport, he was issued a citation for misdemeanor possession. His medicine was confiscated.

'They told me, 'We don't recognize the medical marijuana law in San Diego,' ' he said. 'I started laughing. I couldn't believe it.

'How can a county not recognize a state law?'

Harbor Police Lt. Ken Franke confirmed the citation but said he was not allowed to discuss any 'legal interpretation' of the incident. He referred all questions to the city attorney.

'It sounds like what the guy did with the best of conscience was to try to be upfront,' Franke said.

Maria Velasquez of the San Diego city attorney's office referred me right back to the Harbor Police 'regarding their policies.' The case has been filed with the court, she said.

'We'll handle it like any other case,' she said. 'We'll review the case and give consideration to all of the circumstances, and that would, of course, include the defendant's medical documentation.'

Advocates of medical marijuana say Brownlow's troubles are typical of what happened in the years following passage of Proposition 215. But the new law, they say, should have set everyone straight.

'This is B.S.,' said Dale Gieringer of California's National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and an original sponsor of Prop. 215.

But other issues remain murky. Jeff Jones of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Collective said members are warned against taking medical marijuana aboard planes or out of state, as they risk falling under federal jurisdiction.

But whose?

TSA spokesman Brian Doyle said Friday that he's no lawyer, but 'to the best of our knowledge, if it's legal in California, you can travel with it.

'Our job is to keep prohibited items off (airplanes), not illegal items,' he said, suggesting I check with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite was curt: 'Marijuana is illegal in the United States.'

But what about airplanes flying within California?

'It's in the United States, isn't it?' she snapped, saying to check with the TSA - which, of course, had already said the legality of medical marijuana was not its concern.

All Brownlow knows is that he's got a March 3 court date in San Diego.

'I'm not a drug dealer or nothing,' he said. 'I'm just an average Joe who has a medical problem.'

And now, it appears, a legal one, too.

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