Pubdate: Thu, 29 Dec 2011
Source: Desert Sun, The (Palm Springs, CA)
Copyright: 2011 The Desert Sun
Note: Does not accept LTEs from outside circulation area.
Author: Marcel Honore


Experts: New Year Won't Bring Clarity on Legality, but Courts Could 
Answer Questions on Regulation

Palm Springs - Just over a year ago, voters were on the verge of 
making California the first state to legalize marijuana for 
recreational use, but public opinion turned, and the idea swiftly 
went up in smoke.

That voter rejection left courts and local municipalities to grapple, 
yet again, with medical marijuana laws that are often vague, 
confusing, contradictory and vary from city to city.

In 2012, don't expect any new laws or decisions that will clear the 
murky legal landscape for the hundreds of thousands of Californians 
who use medical pot - or for opponents of legalization.

"At the moment, it's an anarchic situation and it will remain so for 
the rest of the year," said Dale Gieringer, director of the National 
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws' California chapter.

However, the new year could see key court cases develop, as well as 
ballot initiatives, that could clarify the ability of cities and 
counties to license and regulate marijuana dispensaries.

Whether federal authorities will continue the crackdown launched in 
the fall of 2011 on California dispensaries is anyone's guess.

Police groups against full-fledged legalization and medical pot 
advocates alike are hoping the California Supreme Court in 2012 will 
weigh whether state or federal law reigns supreme when it comes to 
the distribution and possession of medical marijuana.

Such a review by the state's highest court would follow a state 
appellate court ruling in October that determined that federal law 
trumped the state.

That decision, in Pack v. City of Long Beach, struck down Long 
Beach's authorization of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, filed 
a brief last week asking that the supreme court court review the ruling.

"After 15 years, we're finally starting to see some clarity through 
the court system," said Covina police Chief Kim Raney, vice president 
of the California Police Chiefs Association, which opposed the 2010 
initiative to legalize pot.

"We're finally starting to see courts deal with how cities are 
regulating" medical pot, Raney said.

But longtime drug policy-reform advocate Bill Zimmerman said he 
doubts the California court would take on the federal-versus-state conundrum.

"I really don't see the rationale by which they would accept such a 
case," said Zimmerman, who managed the Proposition 215 campaign to 
legalize medical pot in 1996.

"Once the feds close down a dispensary, it's a matter of federal law 
and the California courts really don't have the jurisdiction to 
intervene," he said, arguing it was a case for the U.S. Supreme Court instead.

Also up in the air is whether a ballot initiative that aims to add 
teeth to the state's pot laws would come before voters in 2012.

Even that initiative's backers question whether they'll succeed.

On Dec. 15, a coalition of pro-medical pot and union groups filed a 
ballot initiative that proposes a new, statewide system for 
regulating and taxing medical marijuana.

But getting the money and the half-million signatures to put the 
Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act on the 
November 2012 ballot could be a challenge, said Gieringer, whose 
NORML supports the initiative.

The coalition was late to put the initiative together, primarily 
because it was a reaction to a federal crackdown of dispensaries and 
their property owners launched in October, he said.

"It's going to be tough to get the signatures," Gieringer said. 
"We'll see whether that makes the ballot."

Plus, the proposed initiative is one of several pro-pot measures 
already filed with the attorney general that pursue a range of 
reforms that would basically compete with one another.

Because there's no unified approach, no one is throwing significant 
cash behind any one initiative, Zimmerman said. "And that's why it 
now looks to me like nothing will qualify for the ballot," he said.

Whether any initiative has a chance of making the November ballot 
should become clearer around May, said John Matsusaka, a law and 
business professor at the University of Southern California who heads 
the school's Initiative & Reform Institute.

In Palm Springs, the only city in Riverside County to allow 
dispensaries, the police department doesn't expect any change in 
state or federal laws any time soon.

The department continues to follow the state's 1996 Compassionate Use 
Act, which authorizes the dispensing of marijuana to people with a 
doctor's prescription, Palm Springs police Sgt. Mike Kovaleff said.

Locally, there have been no raids similar to those in Northern 
California, where federal authorities raided a Mendocino County 
dispensary directly permitted by the local sheriff.

That action came after U.S. Attorney's Offices in October announced 
they would prosecute dispensary owners as well as any property owners 
who shelter them. Since then, some 200 dispensaries have shut down 
across the state, marijuana advocates say.

The federal action prompted several lawsuits, including one filed by 
ASA, that are pending.

The United States Attorney's Office for the Central District of 
California declined to comment on what to expect from federal 
authorities next year.

Marijuana seizures at the California-Mexico border were up 47 percent 
in 2011. Raney, the Covina chief, said that could be traced, in part, 
to demand fueled by the state's myriad dispensaries.

California's Proposition 215 was supposed to allow patients to 
collectively grow small amounts of pot, "but we've all seen what it's 
turned into," Raney said.

"California can't step out any further," he added. "It has to be a 
national discussion. It can't just be a state discussion."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom