Pubdate: Tue, 20 Sep 2005
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2005 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: C. W. Nevius
Cited: Drug Enforcement Administration ( )
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Opinion)


Want to try to understand California's medical marijuana laws? Better
pack a lunch. And not just for the munchies. This is going to get confusing.

Last week's federal appeals court hearing on the case of Ed Rosenthal
of Oakland captures the dichotomy perfectly. Rosenthal -- whose
credibility isn't helped by his nickname, "the Guru of Ganja'' -- was
busted in 2003 for growing pot for a medical facility.

Under state law, the marijuana was basically legal as soon as it was
bagged and ready to be sold in the clinic, but when he was growing it,
it was prosecuted as a controlled substance under federal law. Does
that make sense?

"It is still a violation of federal drug laws to possess, distribute
and cultivate marijuana" is all Drug Enforcement Administration
spokeswoman Casey McEnry will say when asked about the case.

OK, but is marijuana a menace to society, or has it been essentially
legalized in California? As far as the DEA is concerned, the final
word comes from the Supreme Court, which ruled in June that federal
law trumps state voter-approved Proposition 215. So marijuana is illegal.

But frankly, that's a joke on the street. Because right now, getting a
medical card to buy marijuana is a snap. According to the 1996
California law, all it takes is a doctor's recommendation.

Don't have one? No worries. When Alameda County Sheriff Charles
Plummer toured the pot clubs in the unincorporated area of San
Leandro, he says he found that there was no need to make that annoying
trip all the way to the doctor's office.

"They had one right in the place,'' Plummer says. "They showed me the
office. And there's nothing in there unless he brings in a black
satchel when he comes. You or I could walk in today with $100 or $200
and get a card.''

If you don't think the legal system is confused and conflicted,
consider what happened in Rosenthal's case. He was convicted, but his
sentence was for 24 hours. Both sides were outraged. Assistant U.S.
Attorney Amber Rosen was upset because she felt the sentence was much
too light, and Rosenthal complained that it was too harsh. A decision
on the sentence is pending.

There you have it. On the one hand, we have the federal DEA
aggressively chasing down and arresting pot growers. In June, for
example, "Operation Urban Harvest'' led to the seizure of more than
9,000 plants in 25 locations in the Bay Area. The DEA proudly touts
the results on its Web site. Another victory in the war on drugs?

Right. And then you drive down East 14th Street in San Leandro. Stop
by one of the many pot clubs, where a steady stream of young,
healthy-looking clients keep the security guard at the door busy as
they stop by for a daily dose.

Shawn Wilson, chief of staff for Alameda County Supervisor Alice
Lai-Bitker, took me to East 14th, where we parked in front of the
Health Center on a weekday afternoon and counted 13 clients through
the door in five minutes.

"They are coming and going there like a busy Starbucks,'' Wilson

Are these legitimate medical cases? Most doubt it. Wilson says a pot
club entrepreneur told Lai-Bitker that one of his clubs pulled in
$400,000 in a month. That's a lot of cancer patients.

"It's really a fraud,'' Plummer said. "It has just gone

But wait. What about the desperately ill patients who use marijuana
for pain management and relief of symptoms from treatment like
chemotherapy? The law sounded like a great idea back when it was
passed -- to almost everyone.

"I voted for it,'' says Plummer, who has been in law enforcement for
53 years. "I've got to admit it. I didn't read it very well, and now I
feel stupid.''

Not everyone is trying to take advantage. Take Jason Scriven, the
31-year-old owner of the Garden of Eden, who is trying to run his pot
club the right way.

Scriven keeps a database of clients, limits them to two visits a day,
calls to verify recommendations from doctors and sells only small
amounts (1.75 grams is $22.50) to discourage dealers. He has a full
camera security system and provides the feed to surrounding businesses.

"Every time someone comes in here, they have to sit down and go
through an interview process,'' Scriven says. "This is not

But if you ask Scriven where he gets his "product,'' the answers turn
a little vague. There's the catch-22. Even in a well-run, well-
monitored facility like his, the pot has to come from somewhere. But
if you are growing it in bulk, even for cancer patients, you can end
up in the sights of the DEA.

The law, as it is being enforced, makes no sense. And it leaves
someone like Plummer caught in the middle. The other day, a friend of
his, a doctor, wrote him a medical marijuana recommendation just to
show how easy it was.

"It said, 'He's been in law enforcement for over 50 years and is
experiencing a lot of stress,' '' Plummer said. "I showed it to the
D.A., and he said, 'Yep, that would do it.' ''

The way things are going on East 14th Street, he may want to fill the

C.W. Nevius' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in the Bay Area
section and in East Bay Life on Fridays.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin