May 26, 2009 – By Jeff McDonald
Background: San Diego County supervisors decided to sue in 2005 rather than implement state medical-marijuana laws. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not hear the county’s final appeal.
What’s changing: County officials appear poised to begin issuing government identification to qualified medical-marijuana patients – a mandate from state lawmakers.
The future: Medical-marijuana advocates hope the court setback and identification cards will prompt local officials to develop clear rules governing the distribution of medical marijuana in San Diego County.
With the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal last week to consider San Diego County’s lawsuit against state medical-marijuana laws, local officials appear poised to begin offering identification cards to qualified patients.
The government-issued ID will help protect patients, activists say, but without a law enforcement-approved way to distribute medical marijuana, sick and dying people still face the threat of arrest and prosecution.
Not only that, but a growing number of storefront medical-marijuana dispensaries in San Diego will likely test the tolerance that police and prosecutors have for providers of the drug.
“We’ve had our physician’s recommendations all these years, which is all we need, and they have ignored those,” said Richard Hertz, a patient and provider who was charged with illegal drug sales this year. “So a state-issued card probably won’t make any difference.”
Others are more optimistic. They hope the ID cards are the first step by officials to embrace medical marijuana, which was approved by 56 percent of California voters in 1996.
“It’s not a complete remedy, but it will help quite a bit,” said Rudy Reyes, who became an advocate of medical marijuana after being severely burned in the 2003 Cedar fire. “Right now the local cop is literally allowed to come after me and say, ‘You’re no better than a recreational user’ because I don’t have a card.”
Reyes, who regularly argues in favor of medical marijuana before the Board of Supervisors and San Diego City Council, said patients need more than ID from the government.
“There has to be a way for people to acquire their medicine without having to go on the street,” he said.
Steve Walter, who oversees the narcotics unit for District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, said storefront dispensaries are not allowed. Walter said the demise of the county’s lawsuit will not change much.
“I have yet to see (a dispensary or collective) that does comply with the attorney general’s guidelines,” Walter said. “I have yet to see one that doesn’t make a profit.”
The state guidelines allow marijuana suppliers to charge enough money to recover their costs. They also encourage counties to develop more specific local rules governing medical marijuana.
San Diego County never implemented the medical-marijuana laws. Instead, officials elected to fight the legislation in court and crack down on providers and dispensaries.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Even though marijuana is permitted for medicinal use in California, the state law is vague about how patients may access or transport the drug.
Last year, the state Attorney General’s Office issued guidelines aimed at clarifying how legitimate patients may grow and distribute the drug, but some counties remain more tolerant than others.
Marijuana dispensaries are permitted in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and elsewhere. Drug agents in San Diego County have routinely raided storefronts and uprooted collective marijuana gardens.
Once they are arrested, many medical-pot defendants plead guilty to lesser charges to avoid the possibility of prison – including Hertz. A handful of suspects arrested in a February raid plan to take their chances with a jury.
“If the card program had been in place, there would be regulations to avoid situations like that,” said Eugene Davidovich, a software developer who was charged with selling a quarter-ounce of marijuana to a drug agent posing as a medical-marijuana patient.
“I’m afraid of going to prison,” said Davidovich, who lost his job and now faces a June 8 hearing. “I don’t believe I’ve done anything to deserve it.”
Two dispensaries opened in San Diego this month. According to one Web site, the count is more than 20 storefronts and a dozen delivery services.
Sean Grady, who opened the Pacific Beach Collective two weeks ago, said ID cards will make a big difference in educating police and public officials about medical marijuana.
“We’re here to try and get safe access to patients,” said Grady, who insists he followed state guidelines to the letter. “Our biggest opponent is education. I don’t know that everybody is as informed as they could be about the situation.” Source.