Pubdate: Tue, 25 Feb 2003
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2003 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  http://www.latimes.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/248
Author:  Daryl Kelley

FLAW IN MEDICAL POT LAW FOCUS OF CASE

Ventura County, in arresting man a third time, limits possession to six 
plants. Elsewhere, up to 99 are allowed. There is no statewide standard.

A 1996 state law that created a thicket of legal entanglements by allowing 
medical use of marijuana without saying how much a patient can possess is 
set for another round of debate in Ventura County, beginning today.

The case of Mike Loftus is Exhibit A.

The 33-year-old Loftus, who is disabled with an inner-ear ailment and uses 
prescription marijuana to prevent dizziness and nausea, was arrested and 
cleared of illegally possessing the drug in 1999 and 2001. In the latter 
case, police finally returned his 22 plants -- dead.

Now he's in trouble again.

Under a controversial guideline enacted by local law enforcement agencies 
last year, county prosecutors say the 29 plants and one pound of the dried 
hemp seized at Loftus' Newbury Park home in October were enough to charge 
him with felony possession of an illegal drug for sale.

He also is charged with two counts of misdemeanor child endangerment.

"It's simple harassment," Loftus said Monday, the day before he takes his 
case to the county Board of Supervisors for a hearing in a political forum, 
and two weeks before his criminal case is to be heard in Superior Court.

"The law says I can grow my own medicine and it doesn't give me a limit," 
Loftus said. "Now they're telling me I'm a criminal. They're only doing 
this because I made them look bad before."

Loftus said a county narcotics team not only stripped him of 24 of his 29 
plants and all but a quarter of an ounce of marijuana and seized $4,300 he 
had borrowed from his credit card to pay household expenses.

"They walked in my front door when me, my three children and my pregnant 
wife were carving pumpkins," said Loftus, who suffers from Meniere's 
disease. "They had on bulletproof vests and guns strapped on their legs. I 
still don't have my money back, and we're paying our bills on a loan from 
my parents."

County Supervisor John Flynn is concerned about the marijuana guidelines. 
He invited Loftus to tell his story to the board today, and he wants the 
public to be involved in setting a reasonable standard for possession of 
the drug.

"The Board of Supervisors ought to be part of making that standard, of 
determining the number of plants that can be kept," Flynn said. "Law 
enforcement has been rather rough on people, not as sensitive as they ought 
to be to people who are really sick."

A county staff analysis of the issue, requested last June after the board 
learned of law enforcement's new guidelines, is expected in the next month.

Police and prosecutors say they're only trying to make sense of a state law 
that is inequitable. By leaving it up to cities and counties to set their 
own quantity guidelines for medicinal marijuana, Proposition 215 -- the 
state ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana use -- left a 
gaping hole, they said.

Most of California's 58 counties -- including every large county in 
Southern California except Ventura -- have no quantity guideline and deal 
with possession on a case-by-case basis.

In Northern California, some counties allow for possession of up to 99 
plants and 3 pounds of the dried drug, while some allow for as few as five 
plants and 1 pound of cultivated product. Ventura County allows six plants 
or 1 pound of pot.

The standards "are set all over the board," Ventura County Sheriff Bob 
Brooks said. "We would like to have the attorney general set a statewide 
standard."

After an early informational bulletin in 1997 by then-Atty. Gen. Dan 
Lungren that two plants were sufficient to meet patients' medical needs, 
the attorney general's office has left it to the Legislature and state 
health officials to declare a reasonable standard for medicinal marijuana 
possession. Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has said in a letter to county district 
attorneys that he would work with them and medical experts to come up with 
a uniform approach, but none has been adopted so far.

"We'd like to have a statewide standard, but it's been in the Legislature 
for the past several years and has never made it to the governor's desk," 
said Lockyer spokeswoman Hallye Jordan.

California's position is further complicated by the federal government's 
insistence that marijuana possession is strictly illegal, even for medical 
purposes. This month, a medical marijuana advocate was convicted in an 
Oakland federal court of cultivating the drug and faces several decades 
behind bars.

Under pressure to provide a guideline for officers to follow, Ventura 
County law enforcement finally imposed one last March after two years of study.

Flynn and other county supervisors criticized prosecutors, the sheriff and 
the chiefs of five independent police departments for acting without 
consulting local health officials and elected lawmakers.

Brooks said he needed no local law to decide how to implement a state 
statute, and that a county ordinance gives his department no more or less 
legal standing.

"We believe our policies are liberal enough to meet a person's legitimate 
medical needs," the sheriff said. "We believe the only need of more 
marijuana is to sell it. And unfortunately, drug dealers use the medical 
marijuana law to cover their activities."

Christopher Conrad, a Bay Area expert on marijuana cultivation and use, 
said Ventura County's standard is one of the state's most restrictive. His 
"Safe Access Now" campaign supports as a compromise possession of 3 pounds 
of marijuana and 99 plants, in a 100-square-foot plot, Conrad said.

Very few Southern California cities or counties have adopted guidelines, 
although the city of San Diego three weeks ago approved a 1-pound standard.

As for Loftus' case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Redmond said the Newbury Park 
man clearly exceeded the county's guidelines for reasonable medical use of 
marijuana.

"If he says he didn't possess the plants for sale, let a court or a jury 
decide," Redmond said.

Nonetheless, Redmond said, the state marijuana initiative has created 
problems for everyone involved.

"It's a vague statute for both the law enforcement officer and the 
medicinal user," he said. "It leaves that open gap: When is it legal and 
when is it not? They left it up to local interpretation."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart