Farr seeks additional protection for medical marijuana users

October 26, 2009

Kurtis Alexander, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Rep. Sam Farr wants to make sure President Barack Obama's decision to keep federal drug agents from harassing medical marijuana users is a lasting one. Legislation the Carmel Democrat plans to introduce this week, the Truth in Trials Act, seeks to commit the president's directive to law by making it tougher to prosecute people who smoke or sell pot for medical reasons in states where it is legal. In California and 13 other states, local laws permit the drug, though federal law bans it.

"This (directive of the president) isn't an executive order. It's not law, and it could change with a new attorney general or a new president," said Farr, who represents most of Santa Cruz County. "Our bill would codify this (directive)."

The Obama administration's policy on medical marijuana came last week when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder advised federal prosecutors not to crack down in states where the drug is legal, citing a drain on government time and resources.

While the move was widely praised by medical marijuana advocates, policy observers questioned how much effect the policy change would really have. Not only is the policy limited to the current administration, observers noted, but it offered few new standards for prosecution, leaving discretion over marijuana crimes with U.S. attorneys.

"As long as there is some ambiguity in the (administration's) guidelines, there's going to be a way to prosecute," said Caren Woodson, director of government affairs with Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Safe Access. "We think (Farr's) legislation is a necessary complement to the recently issued Department of Justice guidelines."

Farr's bill, while stopping short of offering immunity to those who are following state law, allows local laws to come to the defense of users or providers prosecuted under federal statute. Individuals charged with federal marijuana crimes currently are barred from arguing that their actions are legal in their home state, and jurors are prohibited from weighing that argument.

Allowing courts to admit this information, supporters of the bill say, would likely vindicate those charged with medical pot offenses. It would also discourage prosecutors from pursuing charges in the first place, they say.

"If you can't address the medical application of marijuana, you're just a felon," said Valerie Corral, head of the Santa Cruz marijuana collective Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana. "If state law is considered, the cases aren't going to be taken up."

In addition to boosting the defense of medical pot, Farr's legislation would bar seizure of the drug among medical marijuana users in states where such use is permitted. The bill would not affect prosecution of marijuana crimes that are against state law.

Farr has introduced similar legislation before. His first effort to give greater standing to state marijuana laws followed the high-profile prosecution of medical marijuana advocate Ed Rosenthal.

The Oakland resident was one of the first well-known pot activists brought to trial by federal attorneys after California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996. The voter-approved law was not admissible in court and Rosenthal was found guilty - though the judge ultimately handed Rosenthal a particularly light sentence of one day in jail.

Farr said a growing acceptance of medical marijuana nationwide and new political winds in Washington bode well for his latest version of the bill. "You've got a lot of groups that are supporting this now," he said.

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