Medical Marijuana Legality Still Controversial in Berkeley

September 18, 2005

Sean Barry and Julie Strack, Daily Californian

When Ed Rosenthal was arrested in 2003 by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents on suspicion of growing marijuana in his Oakland home, he claimed California law allowed him to cultivate the plant for medicinal purposes.

Now, Rosenthal, author of the Marijuana Grower's Handbook, is appealing his 2003 conviction of marijuana possession, saying he was acting in accordance with the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which protects approved medical marijuana users and growers from prosecution.

Current national law gives federal officers the right to arrest citizens possessing marijuana for any reason, but at the time of Rosenthal's arrest, it was unclear whether federal law enforcement could trump state law.

Rosenthal's ongoing case is just one of several recent rulings fueling the ongoing debate about the role of medical marijuana in the Bay Area.

This month, Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based medical-marijuana advocacy group, won a lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol which will allow CHP officers to confiscate marijuana only when there is probable cause that an individual is using it illegally. Before the ruling, officers followed a policy of confiscating all marijuana, even from medical users.

Last November, Berkeley voters narrowly rejected a city measure that would have loosened marijuana restrictions for patients by establishing a peer board through which Berkeley residents could obtain a cannabis card. The measure also would have lifted the cap on the amount of marijuana allowed to be grown at dispensaries.

Opponents of the measure feared the changes would lead to marijuana misuse around the city, a problem that Berkeley City Councilmember Betty Olds said has waned in recent months.

Olds said the council's decision five years ago to limit the number of dispensaries in the city to three helped curb medical marijuana misuse.

"For a while it was rough," she said, citing two major break-ins into dispensaries when there were eight or nine dispensaries in the city. "But it seems to be running smoothly (now)."

Olds said people interested in running marijuana dispensaries are now focusing on San Francisco and Oakland rather than Berkeley.

Some UC Berkeley students said medical marijuana should be legalized because it would allow for safer, more regulated access to the drug.

"I know people with cannabis club cards for valid reasons, and they need safe access (to marijuana)," said UC Berkeley alumna Jennee LaLanne.

Others said legalizing medical marijuana would create more opportunities for the drug to be abused.

"It would backfire, and would be abused like a variety of other prescription drugs, such as Vicodin," said UC Berkeley freshman Justin Effref.

Contact Sean Barry and Julie Strack at

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