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Feature: California Attorney General Issues Medical Marijuana Guidelines -- Mostly Good But Some Problems, Say Advocates

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #549)
Drug War Issues

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.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

I don't see why anyone should be allowed to make a business for profit from 215. It's about the patients and it's not about your ability to make millions and structure business models around "street prices." Thank you, Jerry Brown. Nobody should be getting rich off of 215. If you want to get rich, then you should be working for outright legalization.

Fri, 08/29/2008 - 4:00am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

How else then will you motivate people to risk their lives, liberty, and property to provide patients with what they need? What then, if not profit, would drive the provider to innovate and constantly improve his product? Should your "Kind and Krunchy Granola Love" be enough compensation for the hard working people who risk so much to provide medicine for sick people? More importantly, what gives Jerry Brown the right to decide under what terms providers should be compensated in the first place?

This is America! There is plenty of room for both "Kind and Krunchy Granola Loving Providers" as well as "Corporate Money Loving Providers". With both kinds of providers existing the patients are sure to be served well. If you limit the market to just one type of provider then the patients are sure to suffer. I believe every American deserves the best healthcare and drugs possible. When people like Jerry Brown get in the way we all lose.

Fri, 08/29/2008 - 12:34pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Elli Lilly, Parker Davis, the US Government holds patents on cannibus, patent #6,630,507,if these enities can make billions why can't the growers denpensaries,the tax payer recieve and make a profit.See the 1619 James Town Colony Act it was used to pay taxes,get real, it's a real medication, the history proves it.Security to get the thieves out requires a fee serv ice, the labor requires a fee, everything requires a fees, not to tax this is unconstitutional.Not to profit is uncapitialistic.This is a energy reseource and this is the only reason it has been labeled as it is to keep the nazi oil regimes in power.

Fri, 08/29/2008 - 1:43pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

What a joke. While I understand that while prop. 215 was about the patients why is it that when people try to sell herb for a profit it's a 'crime ring' but pharma companies do the exact same thing and make billions. Don't pharma companies tell us they are doing there for profit work for the bnefit of the sick as well? Why does one 'dealer' get to make billions and another is forbidden from profits by the gov't. So compassion clubs must work for free while pharma makes billions.What hypocrisy!

Billy B. Blunt
Tacoma, WA

P.S. Think twice about registering your name anywhere... the dumb evil assholes (dea) can get this/your information at their discretion!

Fri, 08/29/2008 - 4:07pm Permalink
Malkavian (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Our opponents are cunning people, very, very cunning people. Even in the face of horrible defeat they manage to still be able to define cannabis (as other illegal drugs) as being outside of everything normal we know of, as if a very special and (quite medieval) set of rules MUST be used to deal with this "special problem".

So now they have us whining over someone making a profit, yet in every other aspect of society making a profit is considered a virtue. This is only a "problem" because they designed the law to be, well, weird. Or rather - they have maintained too many restrictions, which creates an incentive to reap above-normal profits, and now they're complaining that the market responds with surgical precision to their inferior laws. Somehow this 215 proposition can't win. If they're making profits it's bad, and when they not every single wording is designed to scream Communism, which, incidentally, no one likes either.

Cannabis is, among other things, a medicine. Making a medicine requires money, time and resources from those making it, so clearly those making the effort should be paid. The not-for-profit crap removes a good deal of the incentive to invest and make better medicine.

What medical cannabis patients, politicians and worried citizens should be asking is whether the providers of medical cannabis are producing a medicine that's being controlled for pests, mold, fertilizer remains and whether the strains yield predictable potency, mix of cannabinoids, whether it's cured properly to decrease the harshness of the smoke, and so on.

So while this is a step in the right direction it's remarkable that no health public servants are present in this debate. It's still the lawyers, the police, the DEA and so on and so forth. Crime crime crime....

Tue, 09/02/2008 - 3:18pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

If I can die of alcohol, or get thought cancer from tobacco, I have a GOD GIVEN right to smoke marijuana. And praise the lord for youtube and google, which is ending the government propaganda machine, and allowing us everyday folks to study and learn facts on our own.

POT IS OF GOD, or EARTH if your not a believer, so again why cant I enjoy a dub?
oh yeah cause its a controlled substance... well I control it just fine!!!

Fri, 08/29/2008 - 11:26am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

At least he is not saying to arrest everyone like Dan Lundgren or Pete Wilso would say. Mr. Brown is trying to be fair and I give him credit. I would like to see him as Governor again. He is a very fair man.

Norman Lepoff, M.D. retired

Fri, 08/29/2008 - 12:33pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Why is that photo attached to every article about 215? What is it supposed to convey? It makes the chronicle look amateurish.

Fri, 08/29/2008 - 1:14pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I like to know what the guide lines are. After all isnt that the title of the article? All that is talked about are guide lines for co-opps. Is that it? No guide lines for growers or patients? Or is that up to the voters? Please finish the artical.

Fri, 08/29/2008 - 2:30pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Please vote for this project to give the artisans a decent life. For details visit this project...

Sun, 08/31/2008 - 6:21am Permalink
badpaul (not verified)

The only reason there doing this is. They think Marijuana will be leagel in california for anyone 21 or older after Nov. Votes. Thus getting rid of desp. is there prime target as the state wants all the taxs or profits for themselves when it get leagle. So they start closeing them now so they can sell it in state run liquor stores and keep track of all of the folks whom feel the need to lite up once in a while to help them sleep to get away from the pain there in...

Wed, 05/05/2010 - 1:49pm Permalink

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