New year brings new restriction on medical marijuana enforcement

Andrew Edwards, Long Beach Press-Telegram

A single paragraph on the 88th page of the 701-page spending bill passed by Congress last month contains language that may signal a de-escalation of the federal government’s war on medical marijuana.

The provision, tucked within a phonebook-size piece of legislation that authorizes roughly $1.1 trillion in federal expenditures, is no small detail: It forbids the U.S. Department of Justice from spending taxpayer money on operations that run counter to more than 30 states’ own medical marijuana laws.

If the law is enforced as one of its key proponents intends, a contradiction between state and federal marijuana laws would be resolved in the states’ favor, at least until Washington’s budget year comes to a close Sept. 30.

“In half of the country, the federal government will no longer be able to legally raid marijuana dispensaries,” U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, said in a telephone interview.

Rohrabacher, along with Northern California Democrat Sam Farr, pushed for the amendment’s inclusion in the new spending bill, which President Barack Obama signed. The Justice Department has not determined how it will adapt to the new legislation, which does not repeal the federal prohibition of marijuana. So it remains to be seen whether it will lead to major changes in the coming year in the way federal authorities maintain the prohibition against marijuana in the face of growing acceptance of the drug inside individual states.

“There’s going to continue to be debate on this,” said Kris Hermes with the pro-marijuana group Americans for Safe Access. “We’ll have to continue to hold the DOJ’s (Department of Justice) feet to the fire,” he continued.

The recent legislation is officially only on the books for the 2015 budget year and does nothing to alter Washington’s ban against marijuana. The law simply prevents the Department of Justice from spending taxpayer dollars in ways that interfere with individual states’ medical marijuana laws.

A Justice Department spokesman said the legislation is still under review. Officials there have previously outlined its policy of being willing to ignore small-time marijuana providers while reserving the authority to prosecute large-scale, medical marijuana operations, which in Washington’s eyes may be fronts for illegal drug trafficking or other crimes.

That said, key proponents Rohrabacher and Farr claimed the amendment was needed to assure medical marijuana patients that Uncle Sam won’t be throwing them in jail for their choice of medicine.

“People already made that decision, although the government is coming in and wasting all sorts of resources prosecuting people from running their own life, and that’s just ridiculous,” Rohrabacher said.

The issue has brought together representatives from both sides of the of the aisle: Rohrabacher is a Republican whose district includes Seal Beach and other coastal Orange County cities, and Farr is a Democrat from the Monterey Bay area.

For the past decade, Rohrabacher has been pushing for the legislation. He in fact favors legalization of marijuana.

The Republican did not say how the amendment may affect individual cases, but the attorney who represents a man who received a 10-year prison sentence for running dispensaries in the Inland Empire said the new law may provide a basis for some form of clemency.

“We’re going to argue at some point soon that it’s a violation of the budget act to incarcerate him,” said Roger Jon Diamond, who represents imprisoned dispensary operator Aaron Sandusky.

Sandusky was sentenced to a 10-year prison term in January 2013 after he and Diamond were not allowed to argue at trial that California’s legal tolerance of medical marijuana should have shielded him from federal penalties. But now that Congress has said the Justice Department should not spend taxpayer money to prevent individual states from administering their own medical marijuana laws, Diamond said there may be a new basis to argue for leniency when asking for a commutation of Sandusky’s sentence, a pardon or during a future court hearing.

“The budget act is kind of a gray area; it’s something that’s justified,” Diamond said.

Sandusky ran dispensaries under the banner of G3 Holistic Inc. in Upland, Colton and Moreno Valley. He is currently doing his time at Federal Correctional Institution Big Spring, a low-security prison nearly 40 miles east of Midland, Texas. Since his sentencing, voters in the states of Colorado, Washington and, most recently, Alaska and Oregon, have bucked federal law and approved marijuana for personal use, whether or not there is any claim to medical need.

Sandusky’s girlfriend, Darlene Buenrostro, said it is painful for him to remain in prison when restrictions against marijuana use have been falling away.

“It kills him. He says ‘Why am I here? I was fully compliant,’” she said.

California’s tolerance of medical marijuana does not mean cannabis can be legally obtained in all parts of the state. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that individual cities have the power to ban dispensaries. Different cities have since taken different paths.

Los Angeles, for example, governs dispensaries under the terms of Measure D. The voter-approved measure passed in May 2013 and limits the state’s largest city to 135 dispensaries, but Angelenos’ limited support for medical marijuana did not prevent a federal crackdown shortly after the measure passed.

Aaron Justis, president of the Buds & Roses Collective in Studio City, said the situation in Los Angeles has lately been calm in the sense that he has not recently seen what he considers to be random enforcement actions being conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration. He would, however, like to see further moves for marijuana policy to be set by state and local governments instead of Washington.

“If this (new legislation) makes our state officials more confident in regulating medical cannabis, it’s huge,” Justis said.

Long Beach, by contrast, has banned medical marijuana collectives involving more than three people since February 2012. The City Council is set to consider a new city law to regulate up to 18 dispensaries in the near future.

David Hendricks, deputy chief of the Long Beach Police Department, said city police have relentlessly enforced the local ban against dispensaries, but most cases against dispensary operators are prosecuted as misdemeanor violations of local law. Long Beach police have not had significant partnerships with federal authorities on marijuana-related cases for some 18 months, he said.

“To my knowledge, there is none operating (in Long Beach),” Hendricks said.

Hendricks also said the Police Department has not specifically provided comment on the current proposal to allow dispensaries in Long Beach but has historically opposed the opening of dispensaries out of concern that marijuana outlets could attract other crimes.