Marijuana Dispensary Tax Considered

June 11, 2004

Elizabeth Larson, Record-Bee (Lake County, California)

Lake County -- Proposition 215, passed in 1996, legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in California.

Since that time, controversy has arisen as officials have wrestled with the fundamental difficulties in managing the use of a substance that has been outlawed for many years. At the same time, patient groups have lobbied for understanding and freedom to use marijuana.

Upper Lake resident Eddy Lepp has been a lightning rod in the medical marijuana movement. He has lobbied tirelessly for the rights of people with severe illnesses and disabilities to use marijuana medicinally. Lepp has also been arrested, tried and acquitted in his pursuit of establishing patients' rights.

On Tuesday, Lepp appeared before the county's board of supervisors to take part in a discussion that was at times heated and illustrative of the issue's polarizing effect on the public and government officials alike.

Supervisor Rob Brown initiated the discussion by asking the board to consider proposing state legislation to allow taxation of medical marijuana at the dispensary level.

Although they may be viewed as unlikely allies, Brown told the Record-Bee on Friday that he and Lepp had been discussing the issue informally for some time.

'It's been something I've been looking into since January,' Brown said.

The dispensary tax, as envisioned by Brown and Lepp, would be used to fund the medical marijuana identification cards, which would be issued through the county's health department. The tax could also be used to fund any other agencies affected by the issue, added Brown.

Throughout Tuesday's board discussion, Lepp emphasized the need to protect patients, create standards for growing medical marijuana safely and promote understanding.

Lepp said that taxation of medical marijuana use at the individual level is 'unheard of, and cannot be done,' citing the fact that many medical marijuana users are on disability and fixed incomes.

'If it's to be taxed, it's to be taxed at the retail level,' suggested Lepp.

'Marijuana, without a doubt, will become legal within the next few years,' Lepp said. He also referred to the importance of legalizing the growing of hemp, which he said can be used to make thousands of products.

Marijuana has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, said Lepp. Growing medical marijuana commercially could produce both jobs and substantial income for the county, he added.

Such an industry, he said, needs be governed by rules and regulations to help ensure that patients receive high-quality marijuana.

'The time has come for the medical marijuana community to be accepted for what we want to be, which is part of mainstream America,' said Lepp. 'Most of us are decent, hardworking people who were struck down by some disease or affliction ... that we had no control over.'

Board members voiced several concerns, one of them named by Supervisor Gary Lewis is the clash between the state and the federal government over medical marijuana.

Lepp maintained that his experience in court has proven that, unless the federal government can prove jurisdiction through ownership of land or property, it cannot exert direct authority.

This, he said, came into play when he was fighting the California Highway Patrol in court to have marijuana impounded from him returned.

The discussion veered off in a different direction when Finley resident Philip Murphy took the opportunity to criticize the board and the sheriff on drug-related issues.

'Over the years, I've seen this board spend a lot of time and mental energy and taxpayers' money dealing with marijuana,' said Murphy. 'I've seen very little time, energy and money devoted to dealing with the crank problem, which is 100 times of greater impact on the community than the marijuana problem, if there is one.'

Murphy also stated that he believed Sheriff Rod Mitchell wasn't enforcing Proposition 215.

In response to Murphy's comments, Lewis, Brown and Supervisor Ed Robey defended both Mitchell and the board's own record on drug law enforcement.

Robey reminded Murphy of a letter the board sent to the state asking that marijuana suppression money given to the county be used instead for cracking down on methamphetamine, 'because that's the biggest problem in our county,' he said.

Mitchell, who arrived shortly thereafter, defended his department's drug enforcement record. He explained that there has never been a legal provision directing the sheriff or the district attorney to issue medical marijuana identification cards, which is the responsibility of the state's health department. Since the effort hasn't been funded, said Mitchell, it hasn't happened, although some counties have managed to fund their own ID card efforts.

Lepp suggested that this local tax could fund those cards locally.

'The patients need to be put first, and quit being put last,' said Lepp.

He added, 'The biggest problem here is ignorance.'

The board tentatively agreed Tuesday to form a committee and begin discussing the issue more in depth.

'I'm going to pursue it,' Brown said Friday, noting that, 'I don't think it's anything the rest of the board wants to be involved with yet.'

Brown said the board will probably be more receptive if the idea returns with more definition. He plans to talk to County Counsel Cameron Reeves, Mitchell, Lepp and Health Department Director Ruth Lincoln in order to come up with a feasible plan, he added.

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