No more medical pot arrests in Long Beach

July 01, 2004

Jason Gewirtz, Long Beach Press-Telegram

LONG BEACH — Long Beach police will stop arresting medical marijuana patients for legitimate possession or cultivation, a policy shift that patients' rights advocates called 'a step in the right direction.'

The new directive issued by Chief Anthony Batts requires officers to file a report when they come across marijuana users or growers who thatappear to have medical permission for the drug. To determine that, officers will call their superiors, request a doctor's order or attempt to locate a patient's doctor, and ask a series of questions of someone who claims a medical marijuana defense.

The previous policy, assailed by medical marijuana supporters, called for officers to arrest anyone who claimed their marijuana was medical, seize the drug and let the courts determine if the medical use was legitimate.

'My hope is (the new policy) provides direction for police officers so we don't arrest people who legally have the right to use medical marijuana,' Batts said.

Officers were given the directive last week. Batts said a formal policy outlining the rules will be written within three weeks. The City Council, which requested a policy shift, will likely receive an update in early August.

Patients' advocates applauded the move.

'I wonder what woke them up,' said David Zink, a medical marijuana patient who was arrested in 2000 and charged with cultivation, possession for sale and manufacturing before his case was later dismissed. 'I think it's a step in the right direction.'

William Britt, whose Long Beach-based Association of Patient Advocates supports medical marijuana patients, said the move was appreciated.

'Part of the goal of my organization is to have citizens and patients involved in the policy-making process,' he said.

Batts said his department has been working for six months to change its policy. But the issue took the fast track after council members asked the department last month to make a change within 90 days. Medical marijuana patients complained that the city's previous policy to arrest first and ask questions later caused legitimate marijuana patients unnecessary court costs and hardship.

Marijuana prescribed for medical purposes is legal under Proposition 215, passed by state voters in 1996. Five Long Beach residents have been arrested since then for possession or cultivation, with four of those cases later being dismissed. A fifth case remains undecided.

A state measure that took effect Jan. 1 calls for the creation of statewide identification cards for medical marijuana patients. But state officials have yet to set guidelines for those cards, stalling their implementation.

While the change in arrest policy represents a significant shift, other aspects of the new policy have been an evolving process in recent days.

Last week, officers were provided a list of questions to ask those who claim medical approval to use or grow marijuana. Those questions were refined Friday to take out inquiries into a person's medical condition or other medications they are taking, Cmdr. J.J. Craig said.

Officers will, however, ask those they come across to provide the name and telephone number of their prescribing doctor, as well as details on the duration of their prescription.

The initial directive also required officers to seize whatever marijuana they found, whether the person appeared to be a legitimate patient or not. On Friday, after meeting with patients' rights advocates the day before, that direction was changed as well. If someone is determined to be a legitimate patient, nothing will be seized, Craig said.

'It was always (the chief's) direction not to seize the marijuana when we had a legitimate issue,' he said.

City prosecutors had suggested the seizure provision so they could have physical evidence in case someone's medical excuse didn't hold up and a case was later filed.

'From a prosecutor's perspective, without having the contraband to be able to have a lab test done, it would be virtually impossible to (prosecute) anybody,' Assistant City Prosecutor Dan Murphy said.

The new city policy brings Long Beach in line with Los Angeles County, which has had a similar procedure on the books since 1997. Sheriff's deputies who determine that someone with marijuana has medical approval do not arrest the person or seize the marijuana, said Lt. James Whitten with the sheriff's Narcotics Division.

A determination is typically made by seeing a prescription or contacting the patient's doctor, he said.

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