Medical pot industry closely watches California attorney general ballot count
November 17, 2010
Peter Hecht, Sacramento BeeAs Steve Cooley and Kamala Harris sweat out the ballot counting to determine California's next attorney general, perhaps no one is more anxious than advocates for medical marijuana shops. Within the state medical marijuana industry, Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney, is widely perceived as pot persona non grata.
It isn't just Cooley's aggressive prosecutions of alleged abuses in Los Angeles dispensaries that stir medical marijuana activists. There are also his persistent declarations that he considers medical pot dispensaries to be illegal retail sales outlets.
Harris, San Francisco's district attorney, held a slim lead Wednesday in an ongoing ballot count that has been flip-flopping since election night.
The outcome – due by Dec. 3 – could determine how the state prosecutes medical marijuana cases and how the next attorney general will interpret guidelines for medical marijuana transactions approved by the Legislature in 2003.
"It certainly does make a difference," said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen.
Should Cooley win, Uelman said, "I think (marijuana) prosecutions are likely to be mounted by the attorney general's office rather than local prosecutors, especially in counties that are friendly to medical marijuana."
Though pot prosecution wasn't a major issue for either campaign, Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for people using medical marijuana, set up an anti-Cooley website. It declared: "The attorney general's race is, without a doubt, the most important ... for medical marijuana patients in California."
Both candidates opposed Proposition 19, the initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
But Harris said she personally knew people "who have benefited" from medical marijuana – while Cooley praised a proposed ban on dispensaries in Los Angeles County and efforts by the city of Los Angeles to rein in its medical pot trade.
"Communities throughout the nation are waiting to see how we handle storefronts illegally pushing pot," he said.
Cooley argues that pot shops violate state medical marijuana laws, which define dispensaries as members-only nonprofits run by medical marijuana patients.
Harris' campaign manager, Brian Brokaw, said Wednesday that Harris "supports the legal use of medicinal marijuana but thinks California needs to bring consistent standards about ownership and operations of dispensaries."
Dale Gieringer, California director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said "it could be a nasty couple of years" for medical marijuana purveyors if Cooley is elected.
Gieringer said Cooley's tough-on-pot profile may have been a reaction to Los Angeles City Council demands for an answer to the city's pot shop boom.
Cooley jumped on the issue. Last year, he charged the operator of the Organica dispensary in Culver City with illegal marijuana sales, transportation and money laundering, alleging the pot shop was pocketing $400,000 a month.
This year, he successfully prosecuted marijuana grow houses for dispensaries and won a no-contest plea from operators of a Granada Hills pot store charged with illegal cultivation and stealing electricity.
"If Steve Cooley gets in, marijuana is illegal, period," said Omar Figueroa, a Sebastopol attorney specializing in marijuana law.
Yet Figueroa isn't convinced the pot industry should celebrate if Harris is elected. He said she increased the rate of pot prosecutions over her predecessor as district attorney, Terrence Hallinan.
"I don't think she is the golden child," he said.