San Bernardino County pot law in limbo
May 01, 2010
Andrew Edwards, San Bernardino SunMedical marijuana advocates say they are frustrated with what they see as San Bernardino County's refusal to pass a law defining how cannabis providers should operate. "They're making up their own rules as they go," said Abel Chapa, a self-described volunteer for San Bernardino Patients Association, a Chino-area collective that sheriff's deputies raided in late March.
In the eyes of Chapa and Inland Empire cannabis advocate Lanny Swerdlow, county law enforcement is willfully ignoring California's medical marijuana laws and is presently using all means at its disposal to keep prevent patients from obtaining medical marijuana.
That's not correct, Assistant District Attorney Dennis Christy said. Christy said the prosecutor's office is working with other county departments to craft a law governing medical marijuana outlets. He said the office is simultaneously intent on bringing cases against those suspected of breaking
"No one wants to keep marijuana out of the hands of those people who are suffering from cancer or other maladies where the law says that's a remedy," Christy said.
Medical marijuana advocates say the otherwise illegal marijuana, or cannabis, can help patients suffering from cancer, chronic pain, glaucoma and other ailments deal with their afflictions.
Skeptics are just as likely to say that medical marijuana laws are just a legal loophole that allows stoners to get high on the basis of such acute medical problems as headaches or stress.
Chapa, 58, said he uses cannabis to alleviate osteoarthritis and knee pain. He and six others have been charged with multiple felonies for allegedly using the collective as a front for illegal marijuana sales. The prosecutor in charge of that case, James Hoffman, said he could not comment on the case's specifics, except to say that it was being operated illegally.
Chapa said he does not expect to be convicted of any wrongdoing. He and four other defendants are scheduled to appear May 13 for a preliminary hearing in San Bernardino Superior Court. Chapa said collective supporters will rally outside the courthouse on that day.
The San Bernardino Patients Association case is shaping up as but one example of the marijuana-related court proceedings that have taken place in the 13 years since California voters legalized medical marijuana use by passing Prop. 215.
The years since November 1996 has not been enough time for municipal officials, law enforcement or cannabis users to agree on how to balance medical needs with cops' desire to clamp down on drug dealers or the fact that some people just don't want to be around marijuana.
San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert said that for every person who wants medical marijuana dispensaries, there are 100 others who don't want dispensaries near their homes, schools or churches.
One of the stickier issues related to Prop. 215 is that although it allows some people with medical problems to use marijuana, it does not specifically lay out where marijuana can be obtained.
Prop. 215 does not, Wert said, create a right for medical marijuana to set up the kinds of storefront outlets that are commonly referred to as dispensaries.
Several cities, including San Bernardino and Redlands, have laws banning dispensaries. County government has a moratorium forbidding new dispensaries from opening up within its unincorporated territories.
That moratorium expires June 19, and the Board of Supervisors can then extend it or adopt an ordinance laying out the rules for regulating dispensaries.
There's a good chance, Wert said, that supervisors will decide to prolong the moratorium. Besides intra-county issues, Wert said litigation between Anaheim and a dispensary there could redefine what local governments can do when it comes to dispensaries.
Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group, reports the case could decide whether local governments actually have the power to ban dispensaries. The case is in the state's 4th Appellate District and an opinion is expected by July 19.
Swerdlow, director of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, said he thinks county officials have no intention of ever passing an ordinance to regulate dispensaries and are intent upon arresting medical marijuana users and providers.
"You have absolutely no concept or knowledge of what you have to do to be legal," Swerdlow said.
Swerdlow has spoken against local marijuana policies for a long time, and San Bernardino County has a record of resisting medical marijuana. Along with San Diego County, authorities here went to court to challenge S.B. 420, the state law requiring counties to issue ID cards to help medical marijuana
patients avoid arrest.
San Bernardino County supervisors did not approve an ID program until July 2009, weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the county's arguments.
Contrary to Swerdlow's fears, Christy said an ordinance actually is in the works. Putting one together is difficult, however, because county officials want to establish an inspection program to make sure marijuana collectives are actual nonprofits and do not acquire or deliver cannabis outside of the "closed-circuit" of their membership.
"When you have businesses that are essentially marijuana distribution enterprises, you cannot close your eyes to that," Christy said.
But how long marijuana will remain illegal in California is unknown. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, is backing a bill to legalize marijuana and the issue could go up for a public vote in November.
An initiative called the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act is scheduled to go on the Nov. 2 ballot. If passed, the law would allow Californians 21 and older to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana.