California Patrol Won't Seize Marijuana Used as Medicine
August 29, 2005
Dean E. Murphy, New York TimesIn a turnaround, one of the state's biggest law enforcement agencies says it is taking a hands-off approach to the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes.
The new policy, by the California Highway Patrol, states that an "individual is to be released and the marijuana is not to be seized" if the person qualifies under state law to possess marijuana for medicinal purposes.It also says that officers "shall not conduct traffic enforcement stops for the primary purpose of drug interdiction" involving the authorized use of medical marijuana.
Though data on arrests is incomplete, medical marijuana advocates say the highway patrol had been responsible for more arrests of patients and caregivers than any other agency in the state.
A spokesman for the highway patrol said on Monday that the new rules were issued last week in response to a ruling by the United States Supreme Court in June and legal action by Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group based here in Oakland that sought a court order against the highway patrol's previous policy of arresting patients and confiscating their marijuana.
"There were numerous field inquiries in response to the Supreme Court ruling," said the spokesman, Lt. Joe Whiteford. "They wanted clarification of the law, and we wanted to make sure all of our officers are on the same page."
At a news conference here called by Americans for Safe Access, patients and their advocates described the policy change as a breakthrough and predicted other law enforcement agencies would follow suit.
"It gives us renewed confidence that it is appropriate to bring these cases to court and that good things can come from doing so," said Joe Elford, a lawyer for Americans for Safe Access, adding that the group would file more lawsuits if the highway patrol "model is not replicated" across the state.
The Supreme Court, in Gonzales v. Raich, declared in June that medical marijuana patients are subject to federal prosecution even if they live in a state that allows medicinal uses of marijuana. The decision dealt a blow to medical marijuana users around the country, but it did not overturn laws in 12 states, including California, that allow some uses of marijuana.
Though voters approved California's medical marijuana law in 1996, it was only after the Supreme Court ruling that the highway patrol got sufficient legal guidance from the state to relax its enforcement, Lieutenant Whiteford said.
"There was a lot of ambiguity in the law," he said, "so basically it made it a little tough for law enforcement to come up with a solid policy to enforce it."
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer said Mr. Lockyer sent memorandums to law enforcement agencies throughout the state reminding them "that California law still stands."
Under the California law, people can possess up to eight ounces of marijuana for medicinal purposes on the recommendation of a doctor. So-called caregivers are also permitted to possess and cultivate the marijuana for sick people.
"It was Lockyer's intention to help guide local agencies in looking at their internal policies," said the spokeswoman, Teresa Schilling.
The highway patrol's 7,100 sworn officers are responsible for enforcing traffic laws on state and county roads.
Lieutenant Whiteford said officers would still stop people if there was a "reasonable suspicion" of illegal drug activity, including driving under the influence of marijuana.