Subject: US: No end, win in sight in dispute over marijuana dispensaries

Source: Contra Costa times, US

Monday 13 Feb 2006

Author: Herbert A Sample, Sacramento Bee

SAN FRANCISCO - In the past few months, this city enacted an ordinance
regulating medical marijuana shops, federal authorities raided one of
the dispensaries and advocates protested the crackdown by openly giving
free marijuana to ill patients in a city plaza.

While the federal government continues going after medical cannabis
shops across the state, and many communities still resist giving
business licenses to the operations, support for the dispensaries in San
Francisco remains strong -- even among law enforcement officials.

And that has set up what appears to be the makings of an intractable
feud that some observers say no one is winning.

"It seems to me that this is a really good example of both sides of a
hot topic doing really badly at handling it," said Rory Little, a
professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in
San Francisco.

"The feds have been ham-handed to some extent in what you call raids, in
their search warrants and their seizing of plants and things like that,"
said Little, a former federal prosecutor. "On the other hand, the
medical marijuana people have been unbelievably open to being co-opted"
by groups supporting recreational marijuana smoking.

Local governments in California have been heading in disparate
directions on medical marijuana. Roseville, for example, permanently
banned medical marijuana dispensaries last year after repealing its law
regulating cannabis shops.

In another anti-marijuana move, San Diego and San Bernardino county
supervisors last month voted to sue to overturn Proposition 215, passed
in 1996 legalizing medical marijuana, and a 2005 state medical marijuana
ID card law, arguing that those measures conflict with federal statutes.

On the other hand, Oakland passed rules two years ago permitting four
dispensaries. Santa Cruz last year created a city department to
distribute medicinal marijuana -- the Office of Compassionate Use --
although it is not operating yet.

San Francisco voters in 2002 approved a similar policy in a nonbinding
vote, and the Board of Supervisors in November enacted this city's first
dispensary regulations.

The new rules allowed many of the city's nearly three dozen shops to
remain but restricted where new ones could locate, and limited hours of
operation and how much a patient could buy.

Catherine and Steven Smith, co-owners of the HopeNet Co-op and members
of city task forces on medical marijuana, were active in the effort to
enact the ordinance. To them, the new law tacitly acknowledged the shops
as a legitimate part of the community.

"We're definitely becoming part of the establishment," said Catherine
Smith, 49, who uses marijuana for control of migraines and to manage pain.

But on the morning of Dec. 20, federal Drug Enforcement Administration
agents raided the Smiths' home and seized evidence but made no arrests.

The agents later approached HopeNet's shop but retreated as a crowd of
several dozen medicinal marijuana supporters protested. A few hours
later, after the demonstrators had dispersed, the agents entered the
co-op and confiscated marijuana and other evidence, temporarily putting
the dispensary out of business.

"It really took away our ability to help people," Smith said.

The raids angered medicinal marijuana supporters and two county
supervisors, who organized a January press conference in city hall,
where aides to Mayor Gavin Newsom, District Attorney Kamala Harris and
state legislators read supportive statements.

At Civic Center Plaza across the street, HopeNet then passed out
marijuana joints and candies to their patients, without interference
from law enforcement. The separate -- but linked -- events were meant as
a push-back, said Camilla Norman Field, deputy director of the Drug
Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit group that advocates changes in
laws regarding marijuana and other drugs.

"When there is a direct action against our city and our community and
our patients by the DEA, you're going to see a direct response from our
community, including city officials," said Field.

Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, contended
that when the federal government confronts one of the more than 100
dispensaries in the state, it suffers a public relations defeat.

The dispensaries "are publicly listed in the Yellow Pages. They are
doing this in an open manner," she said. "The truth is that every time
(federal officials) move forward on medical marijuana, they receive a
black eye."

But Gordon Taylor, assistant special agent in charge of DEA operations
in San Francisco, said efforts by several California cities and counties
to delay or bar dispensaries demonstrates a groundswell against what he
prefers to call "marijuana distribution centers."

In those cities and counties that do facilitate the distribution of
medicinal marijuana, the DEA will continue to enforce federal law, he added.

"We have a responsibility to do that even in areas where it may not be
popular," said Taylor, who works out of the agency's Sacramento office.

Further, he said it's time to "set the record straight" that many,
though not all, dispensary customers are healthy and are obtaining the
drug for recreational purposes.

It is that assertion, said Little, the Hastings law professor, that
drives federal efforts. He said federal agents might have had ample
probable cause for their searches, but they antagonized medicinal
marijuana advocates by raiding operations where there were ill patients,
such as a 2002 search of a Santa Cruz cooperative.

Little said medical marijuana proponents also hurt their cause by
joining with groups, such as the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws, that also advocate legalizing recreational use.

While the seeming intractability of the two sides may persist for
several more years, the popular trend appears to favor medicinal
marijuana advocates as more states pass laws allowing its use and
political pressure builds on federal officials, said Kenneth Walsh, a
criminal justice professor at San Francisco State University.

"Eventually the people just won't be denied," said Walsh, a former New
York City police officer.

In the meantime, the standoff between the federal government and
medicinal marijuana supporters continues.

"Something has to be worked out with the federal government," said
Anthony Ribera, a former San Francisco police chief and head of the
University of San Francisco's International Institute of Criminal
Justice Leadership. "The fact of the matter is, federal law supersedes
local law and that's the reality of it."