Court refuses to rule on medical marijuana

May 18, 2009

K. Kaufmann, The Desert Sun

The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to rule on a lawsuit seeking to invalidate California's medical marijuana law could open a new phase in battles over implementation of the law, statewide and in the Inland Empire, advocates said Monday.


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The court refused to hear a case filed by San Bernardino and San Diego counties, two of nine counties statewide that have refused to issue identification cards to qualified patients, as required by state law. The two counties argued in their suit that state law and the card program were pre-empted by the federal ban on marijuana.

“This is a red-letter day. It just kind of pulls the rug out from underneath all of them,” said Lanny Swerdlow, president of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, a patients advocacy group with branches in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Patients are planning to go to the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors meeting today to lobby the county to set up a card program, Swerdlow said.

“To me and to other patients, it provides us with a level of protection,” said Scott Bledsoe of Crestline, who has also sued the county over its refusal to issue the ID card. “They're saying there can't be any legal patients. Now if we get some cards, we'll be afforded these protections.”

But county spokesman David Wert said no action would be taken on the issue until the county counsel briefs the board in closed session, which is not likely to happen until early June.

In San Diego, Tom Bunton, senior deputy county counsel, said he will recommend that the county start issuing ID cards. But, he added, the court's action does not settle the state-federal conflict.

“There is clearly a disagreement on federal and state law on the use of medical marijuana,” Bunton said. “In my mind it's still there.”

The case has been watched closely by the seven other counties that have not set up card programs: Colusa, Madera, Mariposa, Modoc, Mono, Stanislaus and Sutter.

Americans for Safe Access, the Oakland-based advocacy group that took part in the suit against San Diego and San Bernardino, is ready to sue the seven other counties if they do not comply, said spokesman Kris Hermes.

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“It's about time we achieved full implementation (of state law) that at a basic level includes implementation of the ID card program and goes beyond that,” Hermes said.

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Dispensaries are part of the “beyond that” Hermes referred to, even though, he said, they are not covered by the court's action.

In the Coachella Valley, the state-federal conflict has been a key point in arguments for the dispensary bans and moratoriums cities across the valley have adopted.

Coachella and Desert Hot Springs have moratoriums, while Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta and Palm Desert have passed dispensary bans.

In Cathedral City, the City Council is also moving toward a ban with its 3-2 vote on Wednesday approving the first reading of an ordinance that defines dispensaries as unlawful and a public nuisance.

But, after the court action, Swerdlow said, “They have less ground to stand on.”

David Nick, who represents Bledsoe in the San Bernardino case, said the city could face a lawsuit if the ban passes and goes into effect after a second vote.

“I think their attorneys are putting their moral beliefs ahead of their legal judgement,” said Nick.

But Mayor Kathy DeRosa said no change in direction is expected.

“Unless a council member wants to bring it up, there will be no discussion till it's brought back to council again,” De Rosa said.

“It's about time we achieved full implementation (of state law) that at a basic level includes implementation of the ID card program and goes beyond that,” Hermes said.

Dispensaries are part of the “beyond that” Hermes referred to, even though, he said, they are not covered by the court's action.

In the Coachella Valley, the state-federal conflict has been a key point in arguments for the dispensary bans and moratoriums cities across the valley have adopted.

Coachella and Desert Hot Springs have moratoriums, while Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta and Palm Desert have passed dispensary bans.

In Cathedral City, the City Council is also moving toward a ban with its 3-2 vote on Wednesday approving the first reading of an ordinance that defines dispensaries as unlawful and a public nuisance.

But, after the court action, Swerdlow said, “They have less ground to stand on.”

David Nick, who represents Bledsoe in the San Bernardino case, said the city could face a lawsuit if the ban passes and goes into effect after a second vote.

“I think their attorneys are putting their moral beliefs ahead of their legal judgement,” said Nick.

But Mayor Kathy DeRosa said no change in direction is expected.

“Unless a council member wants to bring it up, there will be no discussion till it's brought back to council again,” De Rosa said.




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