Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Smoke & Mirrors in Long Beach: CA's Backward-Ass Medical MJ Laws

Long Beach is the latest California city to find itself embroiled the mess surrounding CA's inconsistent, arbitrary system of regulating (or, rather, failing to regulate?) collectives that provide medical marijuana to seriously sick patients.

In 1996, California voters overwhelmingly passed Prop. 215 (codified as section 11362.5 of the Health & Safety Code, known commonly as the "Compassionate Use Act", or the "CUA").  The CUA removed criminal penalties for qualified patients who use, possess and cultivate marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.  After a few years, the shortcomings of the CUA became apparent: while it legalized possession for qualified patients, sale or transfer of medical marijuana remained illegal, essentially leaving most patients with no way to access their medicine unless they grew it themselves.

In 2003, the state legislature enacted SB 420 (yes, it's seriously called "SB 420", commonly known as the "Medical Marijuana Program Act" or "MMPA").  The MMPA expanded upon the CUA to allow collectives and cooperatives to distribute medical marijuana to their members on a non-profit basis.  Keep in mind that marijuana "sales" are still illegal in CA, but that might be news to you if you've ever walked into a medical marijuana dispensary.  Dispensaries may provide Rx to their members, who pay a fixed price for a fixed quantity (i.e. $50 for 3.5 grams) as "compensation for services", or "reimbursements of costs", but don't call that a "sale".  Proceeds of these transactions may be used to pay salaries, rent, overhead, etc, but the dispensary may not "profit" thereby (???).  This system has created a multi-billion dollar legal gray area here in California, clogging the courts and saddling cities, tax-payers and dispensary operators with millions of dollars in legal bills and court costs.  Throw in conflicting federal laws and indecipherable zoning ordinances and you start to get the picture. 

Since the passage of of the MMPA, storefront dispensaries have sprouted like weeds (pun intended) across Southern California.  Individual cities have grappled with how to control the spread of these shops through various zoning ordinances and licensing schemes. The City of Brea has recently blown over $300,000.00 fighting to shut down 2 small dispensaries (as of the time of this writing, Brea Alternative Medicine and the Brea Patient Association are still open and operating).

The City of Long Beach is the latest municipality to find itself ensnared in the web that is California's screwy-ass medical marijuana system.  Like many other local cities, Long Beach had enacted a licensing system for its dispensaries, including restrictions on where / when the shops could operate and imposing a $15,000 application fee for new dispensaries.  When LB threatened to shut down a dispensary that had been operating without the proper licenses, two members sued the city, claiming that the licensing ordinance violated federal laws prohibiting possession and distribution of marijuana.  Since federal law trumps California law, an appellate court ruled that the city's system of licensing and regulating dispensaries was unenforceable.

The plaintiffs' successful lawsuit has had the unintended consequence of rendering ALL dispensaries in LB (arguably) illegal since the city's licensing scheme has been struck down.  It has also armed anti-pot crusaders with a new weapon to overturn dispensary licensing systems in other California cities.  Nick Schou of the OC Weekly calls the decision "a legal 'victory' most pot activists seem to wish had never happened".  The suit was opposed by groups like NORML, the ACLU, and Americans for Safe Access

Medical marijuana activists gathered last night to protest outside of Long Beach City Hall while the city counsel met to discuss their options going forward. 

It's become apparent that the whole mess is going to get a lot messier until Americans start to adopt a more common-sense-based approach to marijuana in general.  Until Congress and the White House come to the (gasp!) realization that marijuana prohibition causes more harm than the drug itself, we're going to keep fighting the same battle over and over again.  States like California have had their hands tied by an archaic, illogical, racist, wasteful, federal "War on Drugs" (dumb).  Recent polls show that a majority of Americans now favor legalizing and regulating the plant, similar to alcohol (smart!).  But, alas, the will of the majority continues to be hijacked by the whims of a few.

Contact your Congressman (or Congresswoman) today and let them it's time to reconsider the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which classifies marijuana in the same schedule as heroin among drugs with no known medicinal value.

If you or a loved one is accused of a crime involving drugs or medical marijuana, contact the attorneys at Rizio & Nelson for a free consultation.

Photo stolen from the OC Register.