The Pot Cops

June 08, 2004

EDITORIAL, San Francisco Bay Guardian

Almost everyone in San Francisco politics supports medical marijuana. The mayor says he thinks sick people should be able to smoke pot; so does the district attorney. Assemblymember Mark Leno is one of the state's leading advocates for medical pot, the vast majority of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approves of it, and Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medical use in California, passed in this town by an overwhelming margin. In fact, in 2002, local voters approved a measure encouraging the city to support cannabis cultivation. There are 18 licensed pot clubs in town, dispensing this effective, natural medicine to people who are taking it on the written recommendation of a physician.

So why are the San Francisco cops busting the pot growers who supply these clubs?

As Ann Harrison reports on page 18, at least two local growers who were raided by the San Francisco Police Department are serving long sentences in federal prison. Another will join them soon. Even chief assistant district attorney Russ Giuntini agrees the situation is confusing – and is diverting law-enforcement resources that could be better used elsewhere.

Part of the problem, defense lawyer Tony Serra points out, is that Prop. 215 legalized medical marijuana use and cultivation – but didn't provide any guidelines for large-scale growers, who supply the relatively large-scale distribution operations in the city. Many, probably most, people who use pot for medical reasons aren't going to grow it themselves – that's a time-consuming process that requires a fair amount of skill. It's much easier, and makes much more sense, for a few farmers to grow high-quality weed under controlled conditions and sell it to the dispensaries, which can deal directly with patients who just want to buy enough pot for their needs. Yet legally those farmers are in a very gray area – as Serra puts it, Prop. 215 legalized milk but didn't legalize the cow.

The federal government has never been friendly to medical marijuana, and for years San Francisco pot clubs and growers worried about the feds busting down the door. But lately it's been the local cops who've been taking the lead – and that's inexcusable.

We've always supported marijuana legalization anyway, so the thought of pot farmers growing crops in the city doesn't bother us – even if not every single bud and leaf wind up in the hands of a legal dispensary. But if the cops want to make sure growers are sticking to the letter of Prop. 215 and supplying only legitimate, licensed medical marijuana facilities, it shouldn't be terribly hard. The growers seem more than happy to accept any reasonable, clear guidelines – how many plants they can cultivate, for example, and where the crop can be sold. District Attorney Kamala Harris seems to be on board with the notion of allowing growers to operate with what Giuntini calls 'rules of the road.'

But a small number of narcotics officers seem intent on continuing with the raids. That's where Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Police Commission need to step in. The commission should direct Chief Heather Fong to order a halt to all raids on marijuana growers until the district attorney, the growers, and the SFPD can reach a written agreement on rules for local cultivation. And Newsom needs to make public his opposition to the raids – and take the lead on bringing all parties to the table to get this agreement worked out.

Ultimately, there's a much better solution: the city ought to grow its own pot, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Health, and distribute it free to the medical marijuana providers. A private collective does that in Santa Cruz, and it seems to be working fine.

But the bottom line is that the San Francisco police have no business hassling the people who grow medical marijuana. That has to stop.

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