Medical pot law hazy on details

April 21, 2004

Michael Kolber, Sacramento Bee

In the 1994 Quentin Tarantino movie 'Pulp Fiction,' John Travolta's character describes Amsterdam's marijuana laws: 'It's legal to buy it, it's legal to own it, and if you're the proprietor of a hash bar, it's legal to sell it. It's legal to carry it, but that doesn't matter 'cause - get a load of this - if you get stopped by a cop in Amsterdam, it's illegal for them to search you.'

The law in California is slightly more confusing.

A 1996 voter initiative, Proposition 215, allowed the use and cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes with a doctor's recommendation. The initiative protects doctors from prosecution for recommending the drug.

But Proposition 215 provided little detail about how marijuana legalization would work. A 2003 law was intended to provide some of those details, but funding isn't available to implement it. The conflict with federal law, which prohibits the use and production of marijuana, is still unresolved.

As cities, including Elk Grove, begin to regulate the sale of medical marijuana, many legal and medical questions remain. Here are some of the answerable ones:

Q: Is marijuana legal in California?

A: Under federal law, the use, possession or sale of marijuana is never legal, although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has been ambivalent about prosecuting small marijuana producers and users.

Proposition 215 legalized the use and possession of marijuana for medical purposes but said nothing about how users and caregivers were supposed to obtain the marijuana - a decision that has been left largely up to cities and counties.

'The big problem that has caused difficulty is where caretakers and users get the marijuana,' said Michael Vitiello, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law. 'We're left with this magical solution of where this stuff comes from.'

Some cities, particularly Oakland, have embraced medical marijuana clubs that distribute pot and provide educational programs. Others, such as Elk Grove and Citrus Heights, have instituted regulatory programs intended to discourage the dispensaries.

Vitiello said he suspected that distributors who sell marijuana for near the cost of production to medical users would escape state prosecution.

A 2003 law, SB 420, was intended to standardize the issue by having the state Department of Health Services issue identification cards to authorized medical marijuana patients. But that hasn't been implemented because of the lack of funding.

In 2002, the state Supreme Court ruled that having a doctor's recommendation could be a defense against state drug charges, although it does not immunize a person against prosecution.

In December 2003, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that state drug law could override federal drug law in cases where interstate commerce was not involved. Vitiello said he expects that case to be overturned if the U.S. Supreme Court hears it.

Q: Does marijuana have health benefits?

A: Since the mid-1980s, THC, the principal active ingredient in marijuana, has been approved by the federal government to treat nausea and vomiting in cancer and other terminally ill patients, said Yali Hallock, a chemist and program manager at the National Cancer Institute. It can be taken orally, in pill form. It also can be used topically to treat glaucoma patients.

Hallock said at least two or three peer-reviewed studies to test the safety and efficacy of marijuana are being funded by her agency.

But she said the federal government does not condone smoking marijuana for medical reasons, because much is still unknown about its effects.

'Marijuana is not a single drug,' Hallock said. 'It's a mixture of hundreds of chemicals.'

And the levels of those drugs can vary from plant to plant.

Hallock said there is little doubt that marijuana has some medical benefits but that smoking the plant might not be the most effective method to administer the drug. It could have long-term effects on the respiratory or immune system, she said.

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