Pubdate: Sun, 16 Dec 2012
Source: Times-Standard (Eureka, CA)
Copyright: 2012 Times-Standard
Authors: Grant Scott-Goforth, Paul Elias
Note: Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco and Manuel
Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.


Marijuana Legal Landscape Still Hazy After Legalization in Two

President Barack Obama says he won't go after pot users in Colorado
and Washington, two states that just legalized the drug for
recreational use. But advocates argue the president said the same
thing about medical marijuana -- and yet U.S. attorneys continue to
force the closure of dispensaries across the U.S.

Earlier this month, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors
unanimously extended a moratorium on new medical marijuana
dispensaries for a second time since December 2011, after the federal
government began threatening local governments -- including the cities
of Eureka and Arcata -- with legal action for having marijuana-related

Federal prosecutors insinuated that elected officials and government
employees could face legal action, and the county decided that
pressure was enough to suspend its ordinance that issued dispensary

"They're not idle threats." Deputy Counsel Davina Smith told the
supervisors on Dec. 4, explaining the counsel's recommendation of the
extension. She said a vague legal landscape continues to cloud the
dispensary issue.

A slew of marijuana and dispensary court cases are pending in
California, most awaiting precedent from two cases under review by the
state Supreme Court.

Much of the legal scrutiny involves dispute over whether state laws
preempt local laws in regulating dispensaries.

Welcome to the confusing and often conflicting policy on pot in the
U.S., where medical marijuana is legal in many states, but it is
increasingly difficult to grow, distribute or sell it. And at the
federal level, at least officially, it is still an illegal drug everywhere.

Obama's statement Friday provided little clarity in a world where
marijuana is inching ever so carefully toward legitimacy. In an
interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, he said that federal authorities
have "bigger fish to fry" when it comes to targeting recreational pot
smokers in Colorado and Washington.

Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said the federal pressure
interferes with the ability of local governments to reduce harm by
regulating dispensaries.

"I would welcome any movement from the feds that would allow state and
local government to regulate marijuana," he said. "Even better would
be to see not just a hands-off approach, but ... a cooperative approach."

Lovelace said he had heard talk that the recent presidential election
might spur some changes in the federal stance on marijuana, but that
remains to be seen.

"A statement to Barbara Walters is far from substantive policy,"
Lovelace said.

The marijuana regulation conflict is perhaps the greatest in
California, where the state's four U.S. Attorneys criminally
prosecuted large growers and launched a coordinated crackdown on the
state's medical marijuana industry last year by threatening landlords
with property forfeiture actions. Hundreds of pot shops went out of
business, and several in Humboldt County were forced to shut down.

Steve DeAngelo, executive director of an Oakland, Calif., dispensary
that claims to be the nation's largest, called for a federal policy
that treats recreational and medical uses of the drug equally.

"If we're going to recognize the rights of recreational users, then we
should certainly protect the rights of medical cannabis patients who
legally access the medicine their doctors have recommended," he said.

The government is planning to soon release policies for dealing with
marijuana in Colorado and Washington, where federal law still
prohibits pot, as elsewhere in the country.

"It would be nice to get something concrete to follow," said William
Osterhoudt, a San Francisco criminal defense attorney representing
government officials in Mendocino County who recently received a
demand from federal investigators for detailed information about a
local system for licensing growers of medical marijuana.

Some advocates said the statement showed the president's willingness
to allow residents of states with marijuana laws to use the drug
without fear of federal prosecution.

"It's a tremendous step forward," said Joe Elford, general counsel for
Americans for Safe Access. "It suggests the feds are taking seriously
enough the idea that there should be a carve-out for states with
marijuana laws."

Obama's statements on recreational use mirror the federal policy
toward states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes.

"We are not focusing on backyard grows with small amounts of marijuana
for use by seriously ill people," said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman
for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento. "We are targeting
money-making commercial growers and distributors who use the trappings
of state law as cover, but they are actually abusing state law."

Alison Holcomb, who led the legalization drive in Washington state,
said she doesn't expect Obama's comment to prompt the federal
government to treat recreational marijuana and medical marijuana

"At this point, what the president is looking at is a response to
marijuana in general. The federal government has never recognized the
difference between medical and non-medical marijuana," she said. "I
don't think this is the time he'd carve out separate policies. I think
he's looking for a more comprehensive response."

Colorado's marijuana measure requires lawmakers to allow commercial
pot sales, and a state task force that will begin writing those
regulations meets Monday.

Former Humboldt Growers Association and Emerald Growers Association
Executive Director Alison Sterling-Nichols said she appreciated the
president's statement, but was still skeptical.

"Honestly, he said that in '08 when he was running for president about
medical marijuana," Sterling-Nichols said.

Sterling-Nichols referred to an interview in which Obama told the Mail
Tribune, "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to
try to circumvent state laws on this issue."

Sterling-Nichols, whose background is in medical marijuana and
environmental issues, said medical marijuana patients are facing
difficulty finding medicine in California under pressure from the
Obama administration. She said Obama's recent statement was no
guarantee for marijuana users in Colorado and Washington.

"In my mind, anything's possible," she said. "Obviously, states should
be ready for repercussions."

Humboldt County attorney and medical marijuana advocate Greg Allen

"The president has said similar things before, as I recall, and
actually was being completely untruthful," Allen said. "One can hope
he's being sincere this time."

Allen said he supports Obama, and suspects the president realized that
marijuana was a larger issue than he had expected when saying his
administration would take a hands-off approach.

"He said it. It didn't happen. He lied," Allen said.

Associated Press writers Terry Collins in San Francisco and Manuel
Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report. 
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