Change is in the air on medical pot

If Jeff Clark has his way, medical marijuana patients will soon be able to buy pot from his collective in law-and-order Kern County, known more for growing almonds than cannabis.

Clark, 55, a disabled veteran, thinks the time is right.

After eight years of raids on storefront dispensaries under the Bush administration, Eric H. Holder Jr., the new U.S. attorney general, has made it clear that the Justice Department won’t go after organizations operating under state laws in California and a dozen other states.

Kern County’s Board of Supervisors and sheriff have agreed to lay off too, as long as pot sellers adhere to the state’s guidelines. Last month, supervisors rescinded a de facto ban on pot dispensaries in place since 2007.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Clark, who plans to open facilities near his home in Lake Isabella and in Bakersfield within the next few months. “This could be the turning point we’ve all been waiting for.”

But local government and law enforcement officials say that a more lenient Drug Enforcement Administration is not likely to mean that new medical marijuana dispensaries will sprout like weeds. Kern County authorities say that, even with their more relaxed approach, they won’t allow just anyone to open up shop.


“People think the DEA has opened the door to opening dispensaries anywhere and any time, and that’s just not true,” said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood. “I will do my job irrespective of what the DEA does or does not do.”

Even medical marijuana advocates say cities and counties that view medical marijuana with suspicion aren’t likely to suddenly welcome dispensaries. And they have plenty of tools to make life difficult for potential distributors.


Local laws

More than 100 cities and seven counties have laws banning dispensaries, said Joe Elford, chief counsel with the Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group.

The validity of such bans is being litigated in appellate courts, he said. Still other cities and counties have limited the number of operators or put temporary bans on new dispensaries. Elford doesn’t expect that to change soon.

“The DEA’s new stance certainly sends a clear message to localities that they should not be policing federal law,” Elford said. “But that remains to be seen.”

Kent Johnston, 56, a retired Ventura County sheriff’s deputy, got the cold shoulder last week from the Westlake Village City Council when he announced his intentions to open a medical marijuana dispensary. A city attorney informed him that the city adheres to the federal view that selling cannabis is illegal, Johnston said.

“I was not there to fight them. I was there to say this is going to happen because it’s legal,” said Johnston, who worked for 20 years in law enforcement.

“Wouldn’t you rather have me, a retired deputy, running one legitimately than someone doing it under the wire and causing problems? But they treated me like I was foolish and trying to break the law.”

Much of the tension has stemmed from the conflict between state and federal laws. Growing, selling and using medical marijuana is allowed under California law. But federal law makes cannabis illegal.

Court battles and follow-up legislation in the 13 years since voters approved Proposition 215 have reduced some of the confusion.

Last fall, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown issued guidelines to help patients, sellers and local law enforcement agencies determine what it takes to operate within the law.

The guidelines say sellers must organize as not-for-profit “collectives” or “cooperatives” to cultivate and distribute pot only to members.

Groups are required to keep detailed records, including copies of each member’s state-issued ID card and a doctor’s recommendation that marijuana will help relieve his or her medical symptoms.

They also are barred from signing up members on the spot after a quick medical interview, a guideline that has been widely ignored in more liberal areas, including Los Angeles and Oakland.

The state guidelines make it easier for police to enforce the law and make it less likely that collectives will be used as fronts for illegal drug sales, said John Irby, former deputy county counsel in Kern County.

“It’s hard to be legal, and you do not make any money if you are legal,” he said.

California’s cities and counties fall into three categories: those that accept and even embrace medical marijuana, including Los Angeles and San Francisco; those that adamantly oppose it; and those in between.

Ventura County is in the middle. It doesn’t encourage storefront dispensaries but hasn’t banned them either.

Although no such storefronts exist in the county, marijuana patients can turn to discreet delivery services advertised in a local weekly publication.


Illegal sales

Undersheriff Craig Husband said his deputies follow the state guidelines, but he acknowledged that the department suspects many operations are fronts for illegal sales.

“The attorney general provided clarity, but I don’t think it was the answer law enforcement wanted to hear,” Husband said. “There tends to be criminal activity involved around these facilities. You have others trying to burglarize or rob the facilities. There is a lot of diversion of product for profit.”

At least 111 cities, including Anaheim, Pasadena and Torrance, ban medical pot sales altogether. Counties that ban sales are Amador, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Merced, Riverside, Stanislaus and Sutter, according to Americans for Safe Access.

Bigger cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have plenty of storefronts, some with smoking lounges and arrays of baked marijuana edibles.

Los Angeles County has more than 100 dispensaries and delivery services. The city of Los Angeles has so many that in 2007 the council put a moratorium on new shops while it drafted an ordinance, expected later this year, to regulate them.

Applications spiked last month after Holder’s announcement of the new DEA policy, city officials said.

San Diego County has been among the regions most hostile to dispensaries.

When the state passed a bill in 2004 requiring counties to issue identification cards to qualified patients, San Diego County responded by filing a lawsuit. Its court battle arguing that the ID card program is preempted by federal drug laws has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it awaits review, Elford said.

In the meantime, the San Diego County district attorney’s office aggressively prosecutes suspected violations, said Steve Walker, a spokesman for the office. “We have prosecuted cases where essentially drug dealers have hidden behind these laws and run these storefronts,” he said.

In August, a task force made up of DEA and local drug agents raided four San Diego marijuana dispensaries and arrested three people, seizing 20 pounds of pot and marijuana-laced edibles. Those cases are working their way through federal court.


Fewer defendants

Elford predicted that there will be far fewer federal criminal defendants as the DEA’s new stance is implemented. So-called DEA landlord letters, which threatened landlords with forfeiture of property if they rented to dispensaries, are also expected to stop, he said.

But the bigger question will be whether localities follow suit by prosecuting only violators of state law, advocates say.

“It’s a little soon to tell whether there has been a significant change of heart by locals,” said Kris Hermes, an Americans for Safe Access spokesman.

Johnston, the retired deputy, said he will continuing pushing Westlake Village to allow medical pot sales. But it will be a campaign of letters and public comments, he said, because he can’t afford attorneys to make his case in court.

Clark, the marijuana advocate in Kern County, said he is ready to test the waters despite the risks. He was among advocates who regularly approached the Board of Supervisors in the last year to change its approach.

Patients who are legally entitled to use medical marijuana shouldn’t have to travel to other counties to get it, he said.

“I’m going to follow the law as written,” Clark said. “If I go to jail, then I guess our laws really don’t hold up.”