Complicated Cannabis

October 26, 2010

Adam Jensen, Tahoe Daily Tribune

In November 2009, South Lake Tahoe joined jurisdictions statewide in a bout of shared hand-wringing about what, exactly, should be done about marijuana. On the 17th of that month the City Council approved a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries following the opening of three collectives in South Lake Tahoe during the previous year, starting with Patient to Patient Collective in late 2008.

By all accounts, the use of marijuana goes back decades at the South Shore, but the opening of the collectives pushed the issue of medical marijuana to the forefront of city politics.

In July 2010, the City Council proposed a permanent ban on the dispensaries and was immediately met with impassioned opposition from advocates who contended the city was trying to illegally curtail access to a voter-approved substance users say is more effective than pharmaceutical remedies for a wide range of maladies.

Opponents of the dispensaries also spoke up. Almost all said they did not want to prevent legitimate medical users from accessing marijuana, but felt the state's marijuana laws are being abused, putting area youth and households in jeopardy.

The battles have repeated themselves throughout the state.

At the end of September, 45 jurisdictions had created dispensary regulations, 118 jurisdictions had moratoriums and 148 jurisdictions voted to ban dispensaries outright, according to Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. Several of the communities who have banned dispensaries have faced legal challenges.

The concern over marijuana has taken place with the background of a flagging economy and another, potentially seismic shift in how marijuana is regulated — Proposition 19.

If approved by voters, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 will allow the possession, transportation and sharing of marijuana of an ounce or less by recreational users 21 years old and older.

The proposition would also legalize cultivation on 25 square feet of private property, subject to the property owners approval.

But the proposition would not legalize sales, consumption in public places, consumption by the operator of any vehicle or consumption where minors are present.

And like Proposition 215, Proposition 19 would place key components of day-to-day medical marijuana regulation in the hands of local jurisdictions.

Seeds of contention
In 1996, 55.6 percent of California voters approved the Compassionate Use Act, ensuring qualified patients the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes under state law.

The act's goal was “to ensure seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes.” It lists several ailments where a patient could benefit from marijuana, as well as “any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”

What the proposition didn't say, including how medical marijuana should be distributed to qualified patients, has been haggled over ever since, with state legislators, California Attorney General Jerry Brown and numerous courts giving input to how the plant should be regulated.

In 2003, Senate Bill 420 established the state's Medical Marijuana Program and set guidelines for how much qualified patients could grow and possess without being subject to arrest, while establishing a voluntary patient identification card system.

In 2008, Brown issued a series of guidelines to help medical marijuana users and collectives stay within the law, while preventing the diversion of marijuana intended for qualified patients to illicit markets.

Each of the moves gave guidelines and recommendations to local jurisdictions about how to move forward, but few guarantees, especially given the federal governments ongoing prohibition on marijuana.

And after 13 years, the issue has landed in the lap of South Lake Tahoe officials.

Last week, after hours of previous discussions, the council voted to delay approval of any marijuana regulation until after Nov. 2, when three new city council candidates will be on board and Proposition 19 will be decided.

The proposition would leave it up to local lawmakers to determine whether they would allow sales or license premises to permit on-premises consumption.

Legal gray area
Potential shifts in marijuana policy have placed narcotics enforcement into a holding pattern, said Jeff Catchings, the South Lake El Dorado Narcotics Enforcement Team Task Force Commander.

Federal officials have said they will become more active in enforcing the Controlled Substances Act if Proposition 19 passes, while Los Angeles County District Attorney and California Attorney General candidate Steve Cooley has indicated his stance on medical marijuana dispensaries will be stricter than Brown's.

Prosecuting violations of California's medical marijuana laws has proven difficult, even though the break between illegal marijuana and medical marijuana has not been a clean one, Catchings said.

Catchings estimated 95 percent of marijuana grown at the South Shore is grown for profit, putting it at odds with state law.

“You still have criminal ties to this,” Catchings said. “There's always going to be criminal ties to this.”

The narcotics task force commander said the biggest problem has been shipping to states without medical marijuana allowances. If California steps further from federal laws, traffickers will be emboldened and trafficking to other states will continue to be a problem, Catchings said.

Tahoe Wellness Collective owner Cody Bass agreed that marijuana trafficking has long been an aspect of life at the South Shore, and said it will continue to be one, but said the collectives are not responsible.

Representatives from each of the collectives have said they are within the bounds of California's medical marijuana laws.

Gino DiMatteo, the owner of City of Angels 2 Collective has said several times that the real problems with marijuana exist outside the collectives, with underground growers.

Because the collectives are under such a spotlight, they are more likely to maintain compliance with California law than illicit growers, DiMatteo said.

“We are not criminals,” Bass said. “We are legitimate not-for-profit organizations benefiting the community.” 

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