In a decision that could have immediate fallout for medical marijuana dispensaries, a state appeals court has ruled that California law allows cities and counties to ban the stores. The contentious issue has bounced through the state courts for years, but the opinion issued Wednesday is the first published one that directly tackles it and does so in unambiguous language. The decision could embolden more cities and counties to enact their own. It also could spur those that have bans to be more aggressive about seeking court orders to close defiant dispensaries.
The California Medical Association, representing more than 35,000 physicians statewide, questions the medical value of pot and acknowledges some health risk from its use but urges it be regulated like alcohol. It is the first major medical association in the nation to urge legalization of the drug. Dr. Donald Lyman, who wrote the group's new policy, attributed the shift to growing frustration over California's medical marijuana law, which permits cannabis use with a doctor's recommendation. That has created an untenable situation for physicians: deciding whether to give patients a substance that is illegal under federal law.
"The war on drugs has failed," said a recent report compiled by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which comprised a former UN secretary-general, former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, a former US Secretary of State and a host of public intellectuals, human rights activists and politicians.
Recently, the California Medical Association, representing more than 35,000 physicians, the largest statewide physician organization in America, boldly decided to adopt a different, more pragmatic approach to the polarizing issue of marijuana decriminalization. The decision – the result of a carefully considered process, painstakingly researched and debated for more than one year – is centered on one concern above all others: patient safety.
The West Coast is a different world when it comes to progress on drug policy reform. Three of the four states most likely to see strong pushes for marijuana legalization in the next couple of years are on the West Coast (the other being Colorado). And medical marijuana is a fact of life from San Diego to Seattle. But it's not just pot politics that makes the West Coast different. The region has also been a pioneer in sentencing reform and harm reduction practices, even if countervailing forces remain strong and both policy areas remain contested terrain.
Californians need to be honest with themselves: The marijuana industry that is flourishing in plain sight is not really about medicine. No question, some patients with HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, cancer and other serious conditions are getting much-needed relief from medical marijuana. But the law is so loosely structured that almost anyone who wants to smoke marijuana or grow it for sale to dispensaries can do so with near impunity - at least from the state - under the voter-passed Proposition 215 of 1996.
The California Medical Assn.'s recent decision to support marijuana legalization has drawn mixed opinions from physicians and others. At the same time, legal challenges continue across the country over state medical marijuana laws. And in recent months, the federal government has threatened to shut down marijuana dispensaries for violating federal law.
Four California-based U.S. attorneys have announced their intent to prosecute the medical-marijuana dispensaries, growers and delivery services that are breaking state and federal laws. What constitutes violations of law, however, is murky — and may put the very existence of the dispensaries at risk. "California law says that it's essentially O.K. to grow, have and transport marijuana if you're a patient authorized by a doctor or if you're the patient's primary caregiver and if you're providing the marijuana not for profit," a spokesman for the U.S. attorney says. "Stores are violating California law because they're operating at a profit and they're not a primary caregiver. It's very clearly laid out."
A new marijuana legalization ballot measure was cleared Monday to start seeking petition signatures. But its proponents aren't affiliated with the Oakland-based backers of last year's Proposition 19, who intend to mount a 2012 initiative of their own. The state attorney general's official summary says the measure, named by its proponents as "The Regulate Marijuana Like Wine Act of 2012," would decriminalize marijuana sales, distribution, possession, use, cultivation, processing and transportation by people at least 21 years old.
Several members of California's congressional delegation are taking their concerns about a federal crackdown on the state's medical marijuana dispensaries directly to President Barack Obama. In a bipartisan letter signed by nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the lawmakers criticized what they called an "unconscionable" multi-state effort targeting medical marijuana dispensaries. They also called for the reclassification of marijuana as a controlled substance subject to fewer federal restrictions.
The Obama administration's crackdown on California's highly profitable medical marijuana industry represents a dramatic departure from the low-key approach it has long pursued. California's four U.S. attorneys said that they are taking aim at large-scale growers and dispensary owners who are raking in millions of dollars while falsely claiming that their medical marijuana operations comply with state law, which does not allow for-profit sales.
Federal prosecutors are threatening to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries throughout California, sending letters that warn landlords to stop sales of the drug within 45 days or face the possibility that their property will be seized and they will be charged with a crime. 'It's a complete about-face' of Obama's promise not to target users of medical pot in states that allow it, one group's attorney says.
Marijuana activists in California are gearing up this week for a flurry of statewide protests during President Obama's October 25 visit to the Bay Area, and then again for the election in the first week of November. The recent federal crackdown, in other words, is galvanizing the weed community. "We're pushing them back," said Stephen DeAngelo, founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland. The medical cannabis club has started a legal defense fund to fight a recent $2.5 million IRS bill. "We're already beginning to regain momentum from this outrageous travesty of a federal assault."
Sponsored by San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, AB 1017aims to give prosecutors more discretion in how they charge weed growers and processors, called "trimmers." According to the bill's author, Mendocino County District Attorney C. David Eyster, mom-and-pop trimmers — many of them economically desperate victims of the country's recession — currently face a felony punishable by sixteen months, or two or three years in prison for manicuring buds. That's because existing law "requires that every person who plants, cultivates, harvests, dries, or processes any marijuana, or any part thereof, except as otherwise provided by law, be punished by imprisonment in the state prison."
The bulk of the marijuana consumed in the United States used to come across the border from Mexico, Canada and elsewhere. Now, more than half of it is believed to be home grown in California, where an enormous black market has emerged under the cover of the state’s medical marijuana law. With more than a third of all states now experimenting with some form of legalization and decriminalization — and several California counties attempting to openly regulate pot production — Frontline and the Center for Investigative Reporting team up to investigate the country’s oldest, largest and most wide-open marijuana market. Is the federal government now moving to shut it down?
California lawmakers are looking at a range of bills to expand, contract or change state marijuana laws. Legalization proponents say it reflects a political disconnect on an issue much of the public considers mainstream. Lawmakers took steps recently to ban pot shops from residential neighborhoods and give local governments the authority to shut down problem operators. They also rejected proposals to reduce penalties for illegal pot cultivation and protect medical marijuana patients from workplace discrimination.