California marijuana law leaves state dazed and confused

October 13, 2004

Robert Jablon, Associated Press

Enforcement of California's first-in-the nation medical marijuana law is all over the map - literally.

A patient in one place may be arrested next door. In Berkeley, for instance, a doctor's note lets you carry 2 1/2 pounds of marijuana. Drive to neighboring Emeryville, however, and you could be called a dealer.

Eight years after its passage, the law remains unevenly applied around the state. Recent changes designed to protect legitimate users from arrest also run up against federal law, which says pot is an illegal drug, not medicine.

Police in the inland town of Chowchilla will seize any medical marijuana and have arrested people carrying more an officer believes they can personally use.

Although state law was amended this year to specify that police can't bust a registered user who carries a half-pound of dried pot, the state registration system isn't running yet.

The state's own force, the California Highway Patrol, confiscates marijuana even from people who contend they are complying with state law.

While many coastal communities and the San Francisco Bay area allow up to 3 pounds and hundreds of plants, inland farming and desert communities hold a harsher line.

Chowchilla, for instance, enforces federal law and distrusts the whole idea of medical marijuana.

'That is a very bad word around here,' said Chowchilla Sgt. Kevin Weaver. 'These are guys that just like to smoke dope.'

California's bewildering maze of policies was built on the proposition voters passed in November 1996 that failed to spell out how much medical marijuana is legal, who qualifies to use it and how they can get a supply.

Most of the 10 other states that have since passed medical marijuana laws tried to avoid those mistakes.

California's law is 'the least restrictive and has created the most amount of legal confusion,' said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the pro-marijuana NORML Foundation. 'It was done by an amalgam of maybe 20 or 30 individuals and almost reads as much.'

The loose writing has kept courts busy. Medical marijuana users are involved in court cases involving everything from workers compensation to child custody, and the U.S. Supreme Court is looking into whether federal authorities can prosecute medical pot suppliers.

Medical marijuana advocates say it's impossible to count how many medical marijuana users are being arrested and authorities don't track the numbers. However, a recent report by the medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access cited a 'culture of resistance' within law enforcement that led to arrests or seizures in at least 36 of California's 58 counties this year.

One medical marijuana user whose own stash Long Beach police once confiscated now attends trials to support other users. He has carried his stash into court over 30 times and said he regularly cites state law to court security guards who question him.

'Usually they discover my pipe and ask 'What's this?' I say, 'That's my medicine and my medical delivery device,'' said Bill Britt, 45, an epileptic who uses marijuana to relieve pain from his arthritis and scoliosis. 'Every single time, they've given it back.'

To give police direction and prevent arrests, a law that went into force in January sets up a voluntary state-run medical marijuana identification program. Police are supposed to respect the ID cards as proof of legal possession, but California's estimated 75,000 medical marijuana users won't be able to get the cards until next year.

Under the old system, some counties and medical marijuana clubs have issued their own cards - which often are recognized only in the local community.

The legislative attempt to mend the patchwork of enforcement policies is having limited effect.

Prosecutors say the new law is still befuddling because it lets counties set higher guidelines than the half-pound lawmakers allowed for unspecified medical needs.

'It doesn't appear to us that we're getting clarity,' said David LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association. 'That's what folks look for from laws: Who is exempted, how much can they have and where can they have it.'

Richard Meyer, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in San Francisco, says local interpretations of the medical marijuana law sometimes hinder federal investigations of drug dealing.

'Some of our local police departments are not able to help us in marijuana investigations,' he said. 'It's a nuisance.'

That's not a problem in the far northern city of Eureka, where local police confiscate any marijuana and will aid in federal probes. This despite being located in Humboldt County, where patients can - on paper - possess 3 pounds of pot and grow 100 square feet of plants.

'We have an obligation to both federal and state law ... (but) if federal folks want to take the marijuana, then they trump,' Police Chief David Douglas said. 'Always.'

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