Pubdate: Wed, 7 Oct 2009
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2009 The Associated Press
Author: Marcus Wohlsen, Associated Press Writer
Bookmark: (Marijuana - California)
Bookmark: (Maijuana - Popular)
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)


SAN FRANCISCO - Marijuana advocates are gathering signatures to get 
as many as three pot-legalization measures on the ballot in 2010 in 
California, setting up what could be a groundbreaking clash with the 
federal government over U.S. drug policy.

At least one poll shows voters would support lifting the pot 
prohibition, which would make the state of more than 38 million the 
first in the nation to legalize marijuana.

Such action would also send the state into a headlong conflict with 
the U.S. government while raising questions about how federal law 
enforcement could enforce its drug laws in the face of a massive 
government-sanctioned pot industry.

The state already has a thriving marijuana trade, thanks to a 
first-of-its-kind 1996 ballot measure that allowed people to smoke 
pot for medical purposes. But full legalization could turn medical 
marijuana dispensaries into all-purpose pot stores, and the open sale 
of joints could become commonplace on mom-and-pop liquor store 
counters in liberal locales like Oakland and Santa Cruz.

Under federal law, marijuana is illegal, period. After overseeing a 
series of raids that destroyed more than 300,000 marijuana plants in 
California's Sierra Nevada foothills this summer, federal drug czar 
Gil Kerlikowske proclaimed, "Legalization is not in the president's 
vocabulary, and it's not in mine."

The U.S. Supreme Court also has ruled that federal law enforcement 
agents have the right to crack down even on marijuana users and 
distributors who are in compliance with California's medical marijuana law.

But some legal scholars and policy analysts say the government will 
not be able to require California to help in enforcing the federal 
marijuana ban if the state legalizes the drug.

Without assistance from the state's legions of narcotics officers, 
they say, federal agents could do little to curb marijuana in California.

"Even though that federal ban is still in place and the federal 
government can enforce it, it doesn't mean the states have to follow 
suit," said Robert Mikos, a Vanderbilt University law professor who 
recently published a paper about the issue.

Nothing can stop federal anti-drug agents from making marijuana 
arrests, even if Californians legalize pot, he said. However, the 
U.S. government cannot pass a law requiring local and state police, 
sheriff's departments or state narcotics enforcers to help.

That is significant, because nearly all arrests for marijuana crimes 
are made at the state level. Of more than 847,000 marijuana-related 
arrests in 2008, for example, just over 6,300 suspects were booked by 
federal law enforcement, or fewer than 1 percent.

State marijuana bans have allowed the U.S. Drug Enforcement 
Administration to focus on big cases, said Rosalie Pacula, director 
of drug policy research at the Rand Corp.

"It's only something the feds are going to be concerned about if 
you're growing tons of pot," Pacula said. For anything less, she 
said, "they don't have the resources to waste on it."

In a typical recent prosecution, 29-year-old Luke Scarmazzo was 
sentenced to nearly 22 years and co-defendant Ricardo Ruiz Montes to 
20 years in federal prison for drug trafficking through a medical 
marijuana dispensary in Modesto.

At his bond hearing, prosecutors showed a rap video in which 
Scarmazzo boasts about his successful marijuana business, taunts 
federal authorities and carries cardboard boxes filled with cash. The 
DEA said the pair made more than $4.5 million in marijuana sales in 
less than two years.

The DEA would not speculate on the effects of any decision by 
California to legalize pot. "Marijuana is illegal under federal law 
and DEA will continue to attack large-scale drug trafficking 
organizations at every level," spokeswoman Dawn Dearden said.

The most conservative of the three ballot measures would only 
legalize possession of up to one ounce of pot for personal use by 
adults 21 and older - an amount that already under state law can only 
result at most in a $100 fine.

The proposal would also allow anyone to grow a plot of marijuana up 
to 5 feet-by-5 feet on their private property. The size, Pacula said, 
seems specifically designed to keep the total number of plants grown 
below 100, the threshold for DEA attention.

The greatest potential for conflict with the U.S. government would 
likely come from the provision that would give local governments the 
power to decide city-by-city whether to allow pot sales.

Hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state already 
operate openly with only modest federal interference. If recreational 
marijuana became legal, these businesses could operate without 
requiring their customers to qualify as patients.

Any business that grew bigger than the already typical storefront 
shops, however, would probably be too tempting a target for federal 
prosecution, experts said.

Even if Washington could no longer count on California to keep pot 
off its own streets, Congress or the Obama administration could try 
to coerce cooperation by withholding federal funds.

But with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement earlier 
this year that the Justice Department would defer to state laws on 
marijuana, the federal response to possible legalization remains unclear.

Doug Richardson, a spokesman for the White House's Office of National 
Drug Control Policy, said the office is in the process of 
re-evaluating its policies on marijuana and other drugs.

Richardson said the office under Obama was pursuing a "more 
comprehensive" approach than the previous administration, with 
emphasis on prevention and treatment as well as law enforcement.

"We're trying to base stuff on the facts, the evidence and the 
science," he said, "not some particular prejudice somebody brings to 
the table." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake