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Court says feds can still bust medical pot 

Supreme Court ruling changes no laws, but how will it affect local regulation of medical marijuana?

In a long awaited decision, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Monday that the federal government still has the right to prosecute those who use or grow marijuana - even in states with pro medical marijuana laws.

The case stemmed from an Aug. 15, 2002 incident when Butte County deputy sheriffs and Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided Diane Monson's Oroville home.

In the Supreme Court's ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens described what happened:

"After a thorough investigation, the county officials concluded that her use of marijuana was entirely lawful as a matter of California law. Nevertheless, after a three-hour standoff, the federal agents seized and destroyed all six of her cannabis plants."

Monson teamed up with Angel Raich - who got her marijuana from the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative until the federal government shut it down in 1998 - and together the women sued then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, claiming that California's voter-approved medical marijuana laws protected them from federal prosecution and involvement.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against them, citing Congress' interstate commerce laws - which also control the production, use, and possession of marijuana.

The day of the ruling, John Walters, President Bush's chief of drug control policy, boldly proclaimed that the decision "marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue."

But others - medical marijuana advocates and state and local prosecutors alike - agreed that the court's ruling would actually change very little.

In Sacramento, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott told the San Francisco Chronicle that his department will mainly be pursuing large grows - gardens with hundreds and hundreds of plants compared to the six to several dozen most medical marijuana patients and care providers have.

"The reality is, we don't have the time or resources to do anything other than going after large-scale traffickers and large-scale growers," he said.

Over at the state capitol, California's attorney general, Bill Lockyer, reaffirmed his stance on the issue: "Today's ruling shows the vast philosophical difference between the federal government and Californians on the rights of patients to have access to the medicine they need to survive and lead healthier lives," he said. "There is something very wrong with a federal law that treats medical marijuana the same as heroin."

While no laws have been changed, the court's ruling apparently has affected how officials around the state are regulating medical cannabis: The state's Department of Health Services had been creating a registry for county-supplied medical marijuana identification cards and was set to launch the project in four counties. Now, said spokeswomen Lea Brooks, the department is reviewing the ruling and waiting to see how it will proceed.

San Francisco supervisors say they'll also wait to review the court's decision before they finish creating zoning and health regulation laws for medical marijuana dispensaries.

In San Luis Obispo, City Attorney Jonathan Lowell said his office is studying whether the city needs to continue banning dispensaries - a law it enacted in October 2004 as it waited for this Supreme Court ruling. Now Lowell is hoping for some guidelines from Attorney General Lockyer's office - especially when it comes to distribution centers.

"That's where we have a problem for local law enforcement. Do they uphold the laws of the state or of the federal government?" he said. "That's where we start scratching our heads."

Other cities that enacted similar bans in the last few months - like Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, and Paso Robles - are also reviewing what to do next. Morro Bay - which banned dispensaries last month - will decide whether to extend its ban another 10 months on June 13.

Rob Shultz, Morro Bay's city attorney, doubts the city council will permanently ban distribution centers. Shultz said that the council, like San Francisco officials, is looking at zoning as a way to regulate, rather than outright ban dispensaries.

"At least from my standpoint I don't think they'll prohibit it. We've gone on record in the past supporting medical marijuana," he said.

In the Five Cities area - Mark, who asked that New Times not use his last name - supplies medical marijuana to about 40 patients from his home-based co-op. Mark said the ruling won't change, or stop, how he and others distribute their cannabis. What would make them change is if a local city allowed a dispensary.

"If we could do this out of a building instead of out of my house, I'd do it," he said. "We're just waiting."

He's not the only one waiting. San Luis Obispo attorney Lou Koory said that since state and federal officials can't agree on the matter, it's up to local communities to define how their citizens can access this controversial medicine.

"Medical cannabis is ongoing and underground," Koory said. "Until [a] city council steps up and regulates, it's likely it will stay underground - even though it's a legal activity." ³

 

Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at ahyatt@newtimesslo.com.

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