Sunday, May 17, 2009




There is silence now where once loud huzzahs erupted from medical marijuana advocates in California after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signaled this spring that federal authorities will no longer raid or interfere with medipot dispensaries in states where it is legal, so long as users abide by state law.

That's because no big change has occurred since then in this state, whose voters via the 1996 Proposition 215 became the first in the nation to pass a state law legalizing medical use of marijuana.

Federal prosecutions of medipot providers arrested while George W. Bush was president continue. Inconsistencies in what's legal persist from one county to the next. While some officials in big cities and urban counties advocate municipal sales of pot to keep prices down and make sure clinics operate within the law, their counterparts in other places continue banning medipot altogether.

Los Angeles County, for the biggest example, has more than 100 medical cannabis clubs, storefronts and delivery services, but nearby cities like Anaheim and Pasadena ban them. While some medipot supply outlets feature smoking lounges and marijuana brownies, counties like Amador, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Merced, Riverside, Stanislaus and Sutter ban all sales, according to the pro-pot group Americans for Safe Access.

Then there are the abiding inconsistencies between state and federal law. Where the state says anyone can smoke or otherwise take marijuana for medical reasons with a mere recommendation from a doctor, federal law recognizes no medical effects at all from the weed, despite Holder's stated new policy.

That's how a federal appeals court the other day could uphold a 10-year prison term for a Chico medipot patient convicted in 2002 of conspiring to grow more than 1,000 marijuana plants, even though he had a doctor's recommendation and testified he was growing the plants for himself and four other patients who shared expenses.

That's why, if you use medical marijuana and live in housing subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, you can be evicted anytime - even if you're in complete compliance with every state and local law. As a result, Americans for Safe Access recommends on its Website that such patients not smoke pot in their apartments, but try to use only edible pot concoctions or vaporizers.

For while the California Supreme Court has upheld Proposition 215 and counties are required to issue ID cards to medipot patients who register, plenty of county officials refuse to comply. San Diego County, for one, has not issued cards, instead suing the state in an action that now awaits review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the nation's highest court upholds the San Diego County stance, there's a strong possibility several counties that reluctantly began issuing IDs last year will stop doing it or rescind the cards they're already given out.

That's because plenty of local officials believe medipot is a scam, a get-rich scheme by growers who somehow conned the majority of state voters.

An example is Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who told a reporter the Holder position doesn't matter to him. "I will do my job irrespective of what the Drug Enforcement Administration (which answers to Holder) does or does not do," he said.

Adding to the welter of confusion is the fact that despite Holder's policy change, Justice Department lawyers nominally working for him argued before a federal appeals court a month later that marijuana "currently has no accepted medical use."

At the same time, some politicians argue that California should just forget about both federal law and all disputes over the medical merits of pot, and simply legalize the weed in order to tax it, which might help balance the constantly strapped state budget. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, taking a cue from Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, who last winter proposed full legalization, argued this month that California should consider just that.

Some estimates claim marijuana is the largest cash crop along California's North Coast and in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with estimates of the total street value of California-grown pot ranging up to $14 billion per year. A 10 percent sales tax on that amount would contribute more than $1.4 billion to the state's coffers.

But there's confusion here, too, since no one can say how much prices might drop if pot became legal.

This all creates a legal maze of almost unprecedented complexity that probably won't be resolved until or unless Congress legalizes marijuana, or at least its use for legitimate medical reasons. No one should expect that to happen anytime soon.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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