After more than a decade of roiling confusion over what California's groundbreaking medical marijuana law and subsequent enabling legislation do and do not allow, state Attorney General Jerry Brown sought to clarify matters Monday by issuing a long-awaited set of guidelines for patients, providers, and law enforcement. In addition to clarifying what is permissible under state law, Brown also hoped to damp down the ongoing conflict between state and federal authorities over medical marijuana in California.
California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
Under the guidelines, medical marijuana dispensaries must operate as not-for-profit collectives or cooperatives, and are prohibited from buying marijuana from growers who are not themselves patients or registered caregivers. The only fees dispensaries can collect are those covering overhead and operating expenses.
The guidelines strongly urge patients to obtain state medical marijuana ID cards and advise police to accept such cards as proof of legitimate medical need. The guidelines also call on police to return seized marijuana to patients who are later proved to be legitimate. They prohibit medical marijuana patients from lighting up near schools and recreation centers or at work, unless employers approve.
Affirming that California's medical marijuana law is not preempted by federal law, the guidelines further direct "state and local law enforcement officers [to] not arrest individuals or seize marijuana under federal law" when an individual's conduct is legal under state law.
But while providing protections to patients and non-profit dispensaries organized as co-ops or collectives, the guidelines could provide a green light for law enforcement to go after the store-front dispensaries that have sprung up like mushrooms in some areas of the state. In ballyhooing a Friday raid against a Northridge dispensary by California Bureau of Narcotics Agents, Brown signaled Monday that a crackdown could be looming.
Accusing the Today's Healthcare dispensary and its operators of criminal behavior by operating a profitable business, Brown went on the offensive. "This criminal enterprise bears no resemblance to the purposes of Proposition 215, which authorized the use of medical marijuana for seriously sick patients," he said. "Today's Healthcare is a large-scale, for-profit, commercial business. This deceptively named drug ring is reaping huge profits and flaunting the state's laws that allow qualified patients to use marijuana for medicinal purposes."
California law enforcement pronounced itself pleased with the guidelines. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, praised Brown for promulgating them. "Since Proposition 215 was passed, the laws surrounding the use, possession and distribution of medical marijuana became confusing at best. These newly established guidelines are an essential tool for law enforcement and provide the parameters needed for consistent statewide regulation and enforcement."
Despite the apparent threat to non-compliant dispensaries and their suppliers, most medical marijuana advocates also pronounced themselves generally satisfied with the guidelines. The medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access has been working with Attorney General Brown and his predecessor, Bill Lockyer, for several years in an effort to see guidelines promulgated. ASA spokesman Kris Hermes said this week that while the guidelines are not perfect, they are a step in the right direction.
"We've been urging them to come out with an official statement that can direct law enforcement and stop what has been rampant disrespect for state law in some areas," he said. "From that perspective, the guidelines are a huge step forward. They provide a blueprint for local law enforcement to develop sensible policies around patient encounters, and they recognize the validity and law-abiding nature of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. That's huge," said Hermes. "These guidelines are a boon for patients, police, and everyone else in the state and will greatly advance the implementation of state law."
"Given the vagueness of the initiative and the statutes, the guidelines are pretty good," said Bruce Mirken, San Francisco-based communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "They establish parameters within which the distribution of medical marijuana is to be treated as legitimate and legal. That's important because some prosecutors have been adamant that there is no legal authority for dispensaries -- period. This cuts the legs out from under them," he said.
"They were about what we expected," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "Most of the guidelines are consistent with what our attorneys have been saying and advising their clients to do all along. There are a few problem areas, but these guidelines will help fill the vacuum."
One problem Gieringer pointed out was that the guidelines say dispensaries may possess and distribute only lawfully cultivated marijuana, and that they cannot purchase from or sell to non-members. "There is nothing in either federal or state law against purchasing marijuana, so we don't see any legal basis for saying it's illegal to buy from outside vendors," he said.
Another potential problem is that the guidelines say that co-ops and collectives should document their activities and record the source of the marijuana they purchase, Gieringer said. "That is going to be problematic until we have some assurance of protection from being arrested by the DEA, and we don't want to see the cops come in and seize the records, and then bust the growers."
"While there is much about the guidelines that is positive, we also have some worries about some of the dispensary language," Mirken said. "Requiring dispensaries to be non-profit is just silly. Is Jerry Brown going to demand that Walgreen's and Riteaid become charities, too? If society thinks private enterprise and the profit motive are a logical way to distribute goods and services, why not medical marijuana?"
Still, said Mirken, the guidelines are a step in the right direction. "Given that we have all these issues here in California, anything that moves us in the direction of an orderly system with some legal clarity is a good thing. When you have local authorities who just don't like medical marijuana and are looking for an excuse to bust people, which some of them have been doing all along, this is going to provide protection."
But at least one Bay Area dispensary operator was not so impressed. "Let's see how it all plays out," said Richard Lee, proprietor of Oakland's Bulldog Coffee Shop and SR-71 dispensary and key promoter of the Oaksterdam scene. "Hopefully, it will help people in more repressed redneck areas and not hurt people in more progressive areas like Oakland and San Francisco."
Although Brown's guidelines call for dispensaries to be organized as co-ops or collectives, Lee has not incorporated in that manner and has no plans to. "We've been here eight years," he said. "We were here before they even passed SB 420. Oakland has a system that allows reasonable profits; it's set up for the clubs to run like any other business, and we are fine with that. Does Jerry Brown really want to come in and mess with Oakland's system that works?"
While the guidelines could result in a temporary decrease in the number of dispensaries as non-compliant ones either close their doors or have them closed for them by law enforcement, the end result will most likely be more dispensaries opening in areas of that state that are currently underserved because of local law enforcement or official hostility.
"I'm not too worried about a short term decrease in the dispensaries if it brings a little more rigor," said Gieringer. "Things have been fast and loose, and we have some rogue operators who wouldn't normally be operating in a legal market. We will lose some of those people, which could result in a short term decrease in availability, but in the medium term, this should be balanced out by the increase in availability in currently underserved areas."
While not everyone is happy with all aspects of the guidelines, the state of California has now taken a big step toward legitimizing its medical marijuana industry, reducing the confusion surrounding the state's medical marijuana law, and sending a strong signal to the DEA that it intends to police itself.