California: Marijuana Law Goes Up In Smoke As Federal Agents Raid Dispensaries

LOS ANGELES - The young woman in the bikini top and bottle tan was having a good time in the bright afternoon sun. Gyrating opposite the Muscle Beach Gym on the boardwalk at Venice beach, she chanted her mantra in an eastern European accent. "The doctor is here! The doctor is here!"

Sitting behind her in a beach chair, an equally bronzed young man repeated the single word: "Caliente!"

The saleswoman changed her mantra: "Medical marijuana! Medical marijuana!" she said, proffering cards to the tourists ambling by.

"Do you suffer from Aids, glaucoma, insomnia, cancer, migranes [sic], eating disorders, anxiety, depression, nausea, chronic pain or many other disorders?" asks the card. "Walk-ins welcome. No appointment necessary."

The Medical Kush Beach Club is probably not what the voters of California envisaged when they passed proposition 215 - the Compassionate Use Act - in 1996. The act allows patients in the state to possess or cultivate marijuana and permits the cultivation of marijuana for a patient.

Twelve years later, marijuana dispensaries such as the Medical Kush Beach Club have sprung up across the state, providing legal marijuana to anyone with an appropriate referral from a doctor, typically obtained for $100-$150 (PS52-PS78), a standard medical visit fee.

Yet while California and a dozen other states have passed medical marijuana laws, the federal government has not.

This week, Charles Lynch, the proprietor of Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers, a medical marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay, 200 miles north of Los Angeles, found himself at the sharp end of a legal argument that has pitted state authorities against federal drug enforcement agencies.

Facing five charges of distributing illegal drugs, Lynch was found guilty in a Los Angeles courtroom of selling 100kg (220lb) of marijuana. He faces between five and 85 years in prison; his lawyers intend to appeal.

During his trial, the prosecution contended that Lynch had sold $2m worth of marijuana to patients from his dispensary between its opening in 2006 and a raid by federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in March this year. He sold drugs to young people "not yet old enough to legally drink", prosecutors told the jury, and carried the proceeds in a backpack full of cash.

Lynch's lawyers argued that he had been told by a federal agent that local jurisdiction would prevail and he would therefore not be prosecuted by federal authorities, a legal principle known as entrapment by estoppel. But prosecutors - and the jury - dismissed the contention.

Bone cancer

Owen Beck, who as a teenager was taken by his parents to receive treatment from Lynch for bone cancer, was prevented, with other patients, from testifying as soon as his medical condition was mentioned. The judge ruled that state laws concerning medical marijuana were irrelevant in a federal court.

Character references from the city's mayor and officials of the local chamber of commerce, who attended a ceremony to mark the opening of the dispensary, also made little impression.

"We all felt Mr Lynch intended well," the jury forewoman, Kitty Meese, told reporters after the trial. "But under the parameters we were given for the federal law, we didn't have a choice.

"It was a tough decision for all of us because the state law and the federal law are at odds," she said.

In Culver City, two miles from the beach at Venice, the staff at the Organica Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary housed in a single-storey stucco building tucked off a main road, sympathised. On July 31, Organica was raided by the DEA.

"It was like a smash and grab," said Ed Jones, a friend of the owner, Jeff Joseph. "They were armed to the hilt, like we were a terrorist cell. They stole all our money. I'd rather have been done in by gangs."

Sarah Pullen, a spokeswoman for the DEA, said the agency was "enforcing federal drug law, which still holds that marijuana is an illegal drug in any form".

Even the permissible age of a patient is a source of dispute between the two competing jurisdictions: under state law, anyone under 18 is a minor; under federal law, it is 21.

Despite the raid and the confiscation of its stock, records and money, the dispensary was up and running again the next day and, within a week, a steady stream of customers was passing through its doors.

"I heard the unthinkable happened," customer Clifford Williams shouted across to Joseph, as the owner sat on a tatty sofa in the dispensary's car park.

Williams, 18, has been a customer for two months, having been referred by a doctor for anxiety and migraines. "My parents wanted to put me on lots of pharmaceutical drugs," he said.

'War on people'

The raid caught the attention of an LA council member, Bill Rosendahl. "It's ridiculous to have this constant battle between federal and state laws," he said. "America has gone over the top. The war on drugs is out of control - it's become a war on people."

Rosendahl and his fellow LA city councillors voted last year to issue licences to existing dispensaries and place a moratorium on new ones. The move, he thinks, has helped temper the DEA's approach. But until there is a change in federal law, he says, the agency will continue to carry out raids.

"The real leadership needs to come from the federal government," he said.

He pointed to a bill launched the day before the raid on Organica by Barney Frank, a senior Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. His bill would eliminate most federal penalties for marijuana use.

Another backer of the bill, Democratic representative William Clay of Missouri, described the prosecution of marijuana offences as "a phoney war on drugs that is filling up our prisons, especially with people of colour".

But John Walters, the director of the federal government's Office of National Drug Control Policy, countered that too many people were trivialising the effects of the drug.

"Baby boomers have this perception that marijuana is about fun and freedom," he said. "It isn't; it's about dependency, disease, and dysfunction. Too many of us are in denial and it is time for an intervention."

In numbers

* 200,000 registered medical marijuana patients in California

* 150 - estimated number of medical marijuana dispensaries in California

* 20m marijuana plants cultivated in California

* $13.8bn (PS7bn) - estimated street value of California's marijuana crop

* 2m cannabis plants eradicated in California by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration

* 829,625 people arrested nationally for marijuana violations in 2006

* 96.8 million Americans (40.2% of the population over 12) admit to having tried marijuana

* 14.6 million Americans admit to having used marijuana in past month

(c) 2008 The Guardian

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