Merced County lacks medical pot guidelines

September 17, 2004

David Chircop , Merced Sun-Star

never smoked pot in his life.

Until a few years ago.

Igou suffers chronic pain from service-related injuries, and, the Merced County resident says, he uses marijuana to relieve his discomfort.

He's had three surgeries on his left foot and has tried several different types of medication. None works as well, with as few side effects, as marijuana, he says.

Even though state law allows him to use marijuana for medical purposes, the county has no policies outlining how much he can carry or how many plants he can cultivate.

Monday, he will join a group of medical marijuana advocates who will address the Merced City Council with their concerns with local law enforcement agencies.

In 1996, 56 percent of voters in California voted for Proposition 215, which legalized the use of pot as a prescribed medicine.

But inconsistent application of the law has resulted in a patchwork of policies in counties and cities across the state.

While places like Merced have no guidelines for local law enforcement agencies to follow, places like Sonoma County allow people to possess three pounds of marijuana, and cultivate up to 99 plants.

That inconsistency can be frustrating, medical marijuana advocates say.

Igou has a local doctor's recommendation, which he uses to buy pot at a dispensary in the Bay Area, but there are no local places where he can purchase it.

'There should be a place locally,' he said. 'We've got people here who need to have access to it and can't necessarily drive to Oakland or San Francisco.'

A group does want to open a cannabis club in Merced County, but its members say a lack of local guidelines are blocking their efforts.

They say a local club will help spare poor or elderly medical marijuana users the time and expense of driving to distant counties.

Law enforcement and health officials in Merced County say they are working on guidelines, and should have something ready for the Board of Supervisors to consider by the end of the year.

John Volanti, public health director for Merced County, said under SB 420, signed into law last year, the state is required to come up with uniform standards for implementing the medical marijuana law.

But those standards won't be ready until April 2005.

In the meantime, he said, the county is gearing up to issue identification cards so that if somebody with a valid prescription is stopped, they can present the card to police.

Information on the cards would be similar to a driver's license, with a photograph, identification number, an expiration date. They will also include a 24-hour telephone number for the local health department.

Merced Police Chief Tony Dossetti said part of the problem of enforcement now is checking the legitimacy of medical marijuana prescriptions.

He said officers have found people carrying pot who present dubious prescriptions.

With no uniform statewide identification to distinguish forged documents from legitimate prescriptions, he said, police often confiscate marijuana and detain suspects.

If prescriptions are legitimate, he said, that puts the Police Department in a bind.

If they give back the seized marijuana, they could be violating federal drug trafficking laws, he said.

'The state has passed this law without regard to the federal law,' he said. 'Now, local law enforcement agencies are kind of stuck in the middle of this thing.'

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin agreed.

'Proposition 215 was an ill-conceived plan that was passed by the voters, and now the chickens have come home to roost, because it's so convoluted,' he said.

Pazin said city and county officials are doing their best to honor state law.

'People are just going to have to be patient,' he said.

But people like Dustin Costa say local agencies have had eight years since Proposition 215 passed, and they are tired of waiting.

Costa faces charges stemming from a February drug raid that netted close to 1,000 plants at his Winton home.

He claims the plants were for medicinal use and that he was supplying marijuana to people with doctors' recommendations.

The outspoken advocate for medical marijuana has recently been lobbying local elected officials to shape policy on the issue.

He is also taking aim at the sheriff with complaints he's filing with the Merced Civil Grand Jury.

He accuses Pazin of violating his oath of office, the California Constitution and medical marijuana statutes.

Pazin says the allegations are 'totally unnecessary and outlandish.'

Meanwhile, even if Costa and his fledgling group do get their wish and they open a medical marijuana dispensary in Merced County, it could still fall under the hammer of the federal government.

Since the California medical marijuana laws contradict federal drug law, the Drug Enforcement Administration has continued to seize property from medical marijuana clubs.

Earlier this month, a dispensary in Roseville was raided and cleared out by DEA agents.

The agency claims large-scale drug traffickers hide behind medical marijuana claims, taking advantage of confusion surrounding the state law.

In a Sacramento Bee story about the raid, an unnamed federal prosecutor said the high-profile proprietor was 'tugging on Superman's cape.'

To that, Costa said he's willing to face the scrutiny.

'I'm tugging on your cape,' he said. 'I'm tugging. I'm right here.'

Reporter David Chircop can be reached at 385-2453 or dchircop@mercedsun-star

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