Pubdate: Fri, 9 Oct 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page, top of page, continued on page A9
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: John Hoeffel
Cited: District Attorney Steve Cooley
Cited: Americans for Safe Access
Referenced: The Attorney General's guidelines
Bookmark: (Marijuana - California)


Cooley Says the Vast Majority of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in 
L.A. County Are Operating Illegally.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Thursday he will 
prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries for over-the-counter sales, 
targeting a practice that has become commonplace under an initiative 
approved by California voters more than a decade ago.

"The vast, vast, vast majority, about 100%, of dispensaries in Los 
Angeles County and the city are operating illegally, they are dealing 
marijuana illegally, according to our theory," he said. "The time is 
right to deal with this problem."

Cooley and Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich recently concluded 
that state law bars sales of medical marijuana, an opinion that could 
spark a renewed effort by law enforcement across the state to rein in 
the use of marijuana. It comes as polls show a majority of state 
voters back legalization of marijuana, and supporters are working to 
place the issue on the ballot next year.

The district attorney's office is investigating about a dozen 
dispensaries, following police raids, and is considering filing 
felony charges against one that straddles the Los Angeles-Culver City line.

"We have our strategy and we think we are on good legal ground," Cooley said.

Medical marijuana advocates say the prosecutors are misinterpreting the law.

"I'm confident that they are not right," said Joe Elford, chief 
counsel for Americans for Safe Access. "If they are right, it would 
mean that thousands of seriously ill Californians for whom the 
Compassionate Use Act was intended to help would not be able to get 
the medicine that they need."

Law enforcement officials have been frustrated by the explosion in 
the number of dispensaries in Southern California, arguing that most 
are for-profit enterprises that violate the 1996 voter initiative 
legalizing medical marijuana and the 2003 state law permitting 
collective cultivation. Cooley's announcement, coming at a news 
conference that followed a training session he and Trutanich 
conducted for narcotics officers, dramatically raises the stakes.

In the city of Los Angeles, some estimates put the number of 
dispensaries as high as 800. The city allowed 186 to remain open 
under its 2007 moratorium, but hundreds of others opened in violation 
of the ban while the city did nothing to shut them down.

In August, Cooley and Sheriff Lee Baca sent a letter to all mayors 
and police chiefs in the county, saying that they believed 
over-the-counter sales were illegal and encouraging cities to adopt 
permanent bans on dispensaries.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA and an expert on 
drug policy, was not surprised that local prosecutors had decided to 
attack the rapid proliferation of marijuana stores.

"I think it's a natural response to the rather flagrant marketing 
practices of a bunch of the dispensaries. The medical veneer has been 
wearing thinner and thinner," he said. "I've always wondered why 
those things were legal when they didn't look legal to me."

Cooley said he believes that under state law, collectives must raise 
their own marijuana and can only recoup their costs. "That's 
absolutely legal," he said. "We're going to respect that."

But he said none of them currently do that.

The district attorney's warning could make the situation more chaotic 
in Los Angeles, where the City Council has struggled for two years to 
devise an ordinance to control the distribution of medical marijuana.

In addition to prosecuting dispensaries, Cooley said he would 
consider going after doctors who write medical marijuana 
recommendations for healthy people. Medical marijuana critics argue 
that some doctors freely recommend the drug to people who are not ill.

Medical marijuana advocates celebrated a brief thaw in the 
enforcement climate after the Obama administration signaled earlier 
this year that it would not prosecute collectives that followed state 
law. That spurred many entrepreneurs to open dispensaries in Los 
Angeles. As stores popped up near schools and parks, neighborhood 
activists reacted with outrage and police took notice.

Councilman Dennis Zine, a key player on the issue at L.A. City Hall, 
welcomed Cooley's decision to prosecute dispensaries. "There are many 
that are operating illegally and it's not a secret," he said, adding 
that he believes "a few" collectives in the city are operating legally.

Anticipating that police departments will ramp up raids on 
dispensaries, medical marijuana advocates reacted with dismay to 
Cooley's announcement.

"What we'll see is a big disruption," said Don Duncan, the California 
director for Americans for Safe Access. He called Cooley's decision 
"incredible" and said, "It certainly sounds scary."

Duncan acknowledged that many dispensaries do not follow the law and 
urged Cooley and Trutanich to focus exclusively on them. "You don't 
have to cast a net over the entire community, you can target the 
problem people and not take this extreme adversarial position," he 
said. "Some good people are going to be caught in the crossfire."

About 100 medical marijuana patients, activists and dispensary owners 
protested on a sidewalk outside the Montebello Country Club, where 
about 150 prosecutors and narcotics officers met. Motorists 
repeatedly honked and shook their fists in support as they rolled by, 
triggering cheers from the crowd.

Barry Kramer, the operator of California Patients Alliance, a 
collective on Melrose Avenue, said many dispensaries have responsibly 
regulated themselves for years in the vacuum left by the City 
Council's inaction.

"I feel like that gets lost," he said. "It's frustrating to get 
painted with one brush by the city."

Kramer said he believed that dispensaries would continue to operate. 
"People have found ways around marijuana laws for as long as there 
have been marijuana laws," he said.

But he also said that stepped-up prosecutions could resuscitate the 
criminal market: "Things will go underground. We'll see a lot more crime."

When Californians voted for Proposition 215 in 1996, they made it 
legal for patients with a doctor's recommendation and their 
caregivers to possess and raise pot for the patient's medical use.

In 2003, the Legislature allowed patients and caregivers 
"collectively or cooperatively to cultivate marijuana for medical 
purposes" but said they could not do it for profit.

Cooley and Trutanich, after reviewing a state Supreme Court decision 
from last year, have concluded that the law protects collectives from 
prosecution only in the cultivation of marijuana, not for sales or 

Medical marijuana advocates, however, note that the state currently 
requires dispensaries to collect sales taxes on marijuana, and that 
guidelines drawn up by the attorney general conclude that "a properly 
organized and operated collective or cooperative that dispenses 
medical marijuana through a storefront may be lawful."

The guidelines allow collectives to take costs into account but do 
not deal directly with over-the-counter sales.

Jacob Appelsmith, special assistant attorney general, said Atty. Gen. 
Jerry Brown talked to Cooley on Thursday. "Our staffs are continuing 
to meet about these issues," he said. 
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