Council Supports Clear Medical Marijuana Use Rules

June 16, 2004

Steve Irsay, Gazette Newspapers - Long Beach

In response to pleas from users and patient advocates, the Long Beach Police Department will review and likely revise its zero tolerance policy regarding the use of medical marijuana.

Currently, officers treat potential medical marijuana cases the same as any other narcotics case: seize the drugs and arrest or cite the suspected offender.

Acting on complaints from medical users that this policy conflicts with state law, Councilmen Dan Baker (Second) and Val Lerch (Ninth) brought the issue to the council Tuesday.

“My concern is that we have had a state law on the books for eight years and it is my strong belief that we have not been following that law,” Baker said.

California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996 when they passed Proposition 215, also known as the “Compassionate Use Act of 1996.” However, the initiative provided little in the way of rules for enforcement.

This year a new bill, SB 420, took effect, establishing guidelines for Prop. 215. But patient advocates and law enforcement officials, often at odds over the medical marijuana issue, agree that guidelines remain murky for both sides.

Ultimately, the council asked the police department to return by Sept. 14 with a revised policy ready for implementation, but not before Baker and Deputy Chief Robert Luna clashed over the timetable, with Baker wanting more immediate action and Luna stressing the complexity of the issue.

“The Long Beach Police Department does not have an issue with anyone who needs to use medical marijuana,” Luna said. “But I could fill this room 10 times with victims of homicides and shootings because of narcotics, including marijuana. It’s a very serious issue.”

Luna and others also noted that, like patients, police officers would benefit from a clarified policy.

During about an hour of discussion, several members of the public made heartfelt pleas for the use of medical marijuana.

“I become very angry when innocent victims afflicted with a dreadful disease are denied anything that could ease their pain and suffering,” said Diana Lejins, whose mother died after battling liver cancer. “To incarcerate these patients is a cruel travesty of justice.”

Perhaps one of the most impassioned pleas came from Lerch, who recused himself from voting on the issue because his wife suffers from multiple sclerosis.

“Night after night I sit in my living room and watch my wife with extreme muscle spasms and nothing relieves those muscle spasms,” he said. “My wife will probably not use medical marijuana but, damn it, she should have the right to.”

The SB 420 bill includes guidelines regarding how much marijuana patients may grow and possess without being subject to drug arrests. The law allows for six mature plants or 12 immature plants and up to one-half pound of processed, dried marijuana.

Using these guidelines as minimums, counties and cities are allowed to set their own policies. Los Angeles County lacks guidelines altogether.

A frequent source of conflict between medical marijuana users and law enforcement is valid identification. Currently, the sole documentation for medical marijuana usage is a doctor’s note, which can only be used as a defense in court, not at the point of arrest.

“Medical marijuana patients are out there in a position where they can be arrested, taken out of their homes or the hospital and have to face court proceedings to show they are legitimate users,” said Bruce Margolin, a defense attorney and director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Luna argued that officers are often confronted with suspects who use deception to avoid arrest. Without a better medical marijuana identification system, those officers are hard-pressed to accept only a doctor’s note as legitimate proof of medical use.

“We have police officers making medical decisions,” said medical marijuana advocate Michael Barbee of San Diego. “In no other area do we ever ask police to make those kinds of medical decisions.”

Fourth District Councilman Dennis Carroll, a judge in LA, asked that in its revised policy, the department recommend a better identification system.

One possible solution to the problem contained in SB 420 and mentioned by some speakers at the council meeting is a state-coordinated medical marijuana identification card system. Medical users would pay a registration fee and voluntarily sign up for an identification number and card from the county health department. However, some patient advocates have questioned whether users will want to register because of privacy concerns.

William Britt, who said he suffers from post-polio syndrome and other ailments, stood at the podium with the help of crutches and applauded the drug for easing his pain and allowing him to live a fuller life.

“I equate cannabis to these crutches,” he said. “I can throw them away and live without them, but I would live with a lot more pain. Cannabis allows me to go out and do things.”



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