For the first time in the dozen years of turmoil since state voters legalized medical marijuana, California's top law enforcement official stepped into the fray Monday with new guidelines designed in part to quell the ongoing friction between the state and federal authorities.
Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown issued an 11-page directive intended to help legitimate patients avoid arrest while giving police the tools to distinguish legal medical marijuana operations from illegal cultivators and criminal middlemen.
He suggested his new "road map" would serve as a shield against the federal government, which has waged war against the state's pot rules by conducting raids and mounting court challenges.
"Hopefully the feds will back off in instances where people are really following these guidelines," Brown said Monday in a telephone interview.
The guidelines affirm the legality of many of the state's medical marijuana dispensaries, but only those operated as collectives or cooperatives and not in business for profit.
"Clearly there have been abuses, places that served as big fronts for illegal drug dealing," Brown said. "This will help get criminals out of medical marijuana."
An unlikely coalition of police and medical marijuana activists welcomed the new guidelines, the first substantial directive from a state agency since voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996.
"As far as I'm concerned, I give this two thumbs up," said Kevin Reed of the Green Cross, a collective in San Francisco. "If you're in it for profit, you shouldn't be in medical cannabis."
"This is huge," said Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group. "Hopefully this will send a message to the federal government that California doesn't intend to deter from the course it has set."
The federal government maintains a strict prohibition against marijuana as medicine, and for more than a decade it has made California -- which has an estimated 200,000 cannabis-using patients -- the principal beachhead in the battle against medical marijuana.
Federal officials at the president's Office of National Drug Control Policy and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration did not return calls for comment.
Police, meanwhile, welcomed Brown's guidelines, saying they shed light on what had often seemed to them a shadowy world.
"We have been operating in the dark for many years," said Jerry Dyer, Fresno's chief of police and president of the California Police Chiefs Assn.
Dealing with medical marijuana patients and dispensaries, he said, "has been like trying to hit a moving target. This allows us to know what the target is."
Brown's guidelines urge patients to apply for state-sanctioned medical marijuana ID cards -- and advise police to accept authenticated cards as proof of medical need.
Patients are prohibited from using cannabis near schools and recreation centers or at work, unless an employer gives permission. Police, meanwhile, must return seized cannabis to patients who are later proved legitimate.
Brown takes a notably hard line on for-profit dispensaries.
Scores of storefront operations have sprouted up, often with business owners running virtual emporiums of cannabis.
Under the attorney general's guidelines, they must operate as not-for-profit collectives or cooperatives, and establishments are prohibited from buying marijuana from illegal, commercial growers. Instead, the marijuana must be grown by patients or their caregivers, with fees limited to covering overhead and operating expenses.
Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy project questioned the nonprofit distinction, saying, "The last I heard, Walgreens isn't a charity."
But the rules essentially give police a green light to raid for-profit storefront dispensaries.
The guidelines also say that a dispensary that signs up patients after they simply fill out forms making the owner their primary caregiver is "likely unlawful."
They suggest that investigating officers be alert to signs of mass production and illegal sales, including "excessive amounts" of marijuana and cash, weapons and other indicators of criminal activity.
"We know that cartels are controlling many of the medical marijuana dispensaries operating for profit," said Dyer, the Fresno police chief.
"I'm hopeful the state will partner with local police and the feds to shut down the cartels."