It’s about making money, say prosecutors

JOHN HOEFFEL
October 11, 2009

Dispensations … a man holds a placard at a clinic at Venice Beach, Los Angeles. Critics say some doctors will prescribe marijuana for people who are not ill. Photo: AFP/Mark Ralston

LOS ANGELES: Californian laws legalising medical marijuana and permitting collectives to cultivate the plant have had some unexpected consequences: one is the challenge local growers are posing to the profits of Mexican drug barons; another is an explosion in the number of marijuana stores, or dispensaries, in Southern California.

Law enforcement is arguing that most are for-profit enterprises that violate the 1996 Compassionate Use Act and the 2003 collective cultivation law.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney, Steve Cooley, has announced he will prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries for over-the-counter sales.

”The vast, vast, vast majority – about 100 per cent – of dispensaries in Los Angeles County and the city are operating illegally; they are dealing marijuana illegally,” he said. ”The time is right to deal with this problem.”

Mr Cooley recently concluded that state law bars sales of medical marijuana, an opinion that could spark a renewed effort by law enforcement across the state to rein in its use.

This comes as polls show a majority of state voters back legalisation of marijuana, and supporters are working to put the issue on the ballot next year.

The district attorney’s office is investigating a dozen dispensaries, following police raids.

”We have our strategy and we think we are on good legal ground,” Mr Cooley said.

Medical marijuana advocates say the prosecutors are misinterpreting the law.

”I’m confident that they are not right,” said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access. ”If they are right, it would mean that thousands of seriously ill Californians for whom the Compassionate Use Act was intended to help would not be able to get the medicine that they need.”

In the City of Los Angeles, some estimates put the number of dispensaries as high as 800.

In August, Mr Cooley and the Sheriff, Lee Baca, wrote to all mayors and police chiefs in the county, saying they believed over-the-counter sales were illegal and encouraging cities to adopt permanent bans on dispensaries.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, was not surprised by the move. ”I think it’s a natural response to the rather flagrant marketing practices of a bunch of the dispensaries. The medical veneer has been wearing thinner and thinner,” he said. ”I’ve always wondered why those things were legal when they didn’t look legal to me.”

Mr Cooley said he believed that under state law collectives must raise their own marijuana and can recoup only their costs. ”That’s absolutely legal.

”We’re going to respect that.” But he said none of them currently do that. Mr Cooley said he would also consider going after doctors who write medical marijuana recommendations for healthy people.

Critics of medical marijuana say some doctors freely prescribe the drug for people who are not ill.

Medical marijuana advocates celebrated a brief thaw in the enforcement climate after the Obama Administration signalled earlier this year that it would not prosecute dispensaries that followed state law. That spurred many entrepreneurs to open dispensaries in Los Angeles.

As stores popped up near schools and parks, neighbourhood activists reacted with outrage, and police took notice.

A Los Angeles City councillor, Dennis Zine, welcomed Mr Cooley’s decision to prosecute dispensaries.

”There are many that are operating illegally, and it’s not a secret,” he said, but added that he believes ”a few” collectives in the city are operating legally.

When Californians voted for Proposition 215 (also known as the Compassionate Use Act) in 1996, they made it legal for patients with a doctor’s recommendation and their caregivers to possess and raise pot for the patient’s medical use.

In 2003, the legislature allowed patients and caregivers ”collectively or co-operatively to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes,” but said they could not do it for profit.

Mr Cooley, after reviewing a state Supreme Court decision last year, concluded that the law protects collectives from prosecution only in the cultivation of marijuana, not sales or distribution.

Medical marijuana advocates note that the state requires dispensaries to collect sales taxes on marijuana, and that guidelines drawn up by the Attorney-General conclude that ”a properly organised and operated collective or co-operative that dispenses medical marijuana through a storefront may be lawful”.

The guidelines, however, do not deal directly with over-the-counter sales.

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28 Responses to “It’s about making money, say prosecutors”
  1. So o nome ja da para perceber que eh uma droga mesmo! Mas muita gente usa com o proposito medicinal. No estado da California medicos receitam como remedio, claro que voce tem que ter uma carteira licensiada pelo governo, assim voce consegue comprar em lugares especilaizados e voce pode escolher o tipo que quiser de marijuana. Na minha opiniao, se fosse prejudicial a saude, medicos nao receitariam como um beneficio para a saude.

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