Santa Cruz City Council Creates Office to Help Patients Get Pot

Times Staff Writer

In some cities, local government is all about filling the potholes.

In Santa Cruz, though, it’s also about filling the pot prescriptions.

In what could be a national first, the City Council in this liberal coastal enclave voted this week to set up the Office of Compassionate Use -- a municipal agency dedicated to helping seriously ill residents get marijuana.


But Mayor Mike Rotkin, one of the ordinance’s chief promoters, said Wednesday it could be quite some time before the office is up and running.

Under the ordinance, the office would be established only if a federal court embraces the plan.

“We’re not going to spend any money or take the risk of prosecution,” said Rotkin, adding that nobody yet knows just how the office would work.

Over the years, medical marijuana has been a cause passionately advocated by Santa Cruz officials. In a heavily publicized 2002 protest on the steps of City Hall, several council members joined with members of a busted marijuana-growing collective in publicly dispensing pot to patients.

The city and Santa Cruz County have since joined with the collective -- the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) -- in a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s right to shut down medical marijuana operations in areas where state and local authorities allow them.

Tuesday’s vote was held partly to advance that case, city officials said.

Council member Emily Reilly said the idea for a local pot office originated with organizers of the collective and the attorneys representing them.

“They felt that this might be the way to get the federal courts to do what the people of this city, this county and this state have said they want to have happen,” she said. “We were happy to do whatever we could to help this group if we can.”

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal agents can seize and destroy medical marijuana even in the 10 states where it is legal.

In Santa Cruz, city officials hope to argue that their pot agency is protected by the 10th Amendment, which guarantees states authority over functions not barred to them by the Constitution.

“It’s a separation-of-powers argument,” Santa Cruz City Atty. John Barisone said. “It’s another theory by which we can argue that WAMM’s activity is immune from prosecution under the federal Controlled Substances Act.”

Although its leaders were arrested, the 12-year-old collective was never prosecuted. A federal judge allowed it to temporarily resume operations for its 200 members, but his order lapsed two weeks ago, possibly leaving the group subject to further action.

Valerie Corral, one of its organizers, said she saw the Santa Cruz effort “not just as the act of some liberal city in California but as an attempt to create an accountable and responsible avenue of access to medical marijuana.”

She said city control over the drug’s distribution could help patients who are priced out of the “buyers’ clubs,” which state law now allows.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, there was no opposition from members of the public to the new office.

Councilman Ryan Coonerty, who cast one of the two dissenting votes, said the city’s reliance on a states-rights argument could backfire, citing similar arguments used in the 1960s to justify segregation in the South.

“It was important then for the federal government to be able to assert itself,” he said. “We should change a wrong and immoral federal drug policy, but find a way that doesn’t put the city in quite so awkward a position.”