Anaheim marijuana case could have consequences for county

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    Anaheim marijuana case could have consequences for county

    If the city of Anaheim successfully defends its ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in court, will San Diego County follow suit?
    That's what some medical marijuana activists say they fear and what some critics of the dispensaries say they hope will happen.
    In 2006, the Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit to overturn the state's 1996 medical marijuana law. The supervisors unsuccessfully challenged the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear an appeal in May.
    On Wednesday, the supervisors extended a temporary ban on dispensaries through August 2010. Some medical marijuana foes called for an outright ban on the establishments, which they say promote teen drug use and attract crime into neighborhoods.
    The Anaheim case, which will be heard by the Fourth District Court of Appeal on Wednesday, has attracted widespread attention among medical marijuana activists and local governments. If the court upholds the ban, it may encourage other cities and counties to ban dispensaries, medical marijuana activists say.
    "I certainly think it's a bellwether case," said Joe Elford, an attorney with the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
    Likely scenario?
    The case stems from a 2007 decision by the Anaheim City Council to ban medical marijuana dispensaries. A group called The Qualified Patients Association sued the city, challenging the ban.
    Tony Curiale, an attorney for the group, said the city is attempting to preempt state law by prohibiting medical marijuana establishments. He also said the ban would deny patients access to their medicine in their communities.
    "If Anaheim prevails, it will essentially gut the California medical marijuana program," Curiale said.
    The city's ban is illegal because it would preempt the state's Medical Marijuana Program Act of 2004, also known as Senate Bill 420, Curiale said. The law says that qualified patients who associate collectively or cooperatively to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes will not be subject to state criminal sanctions, Curiale said.
    Officials with the city of Anaheim did not return calls for comment.
    Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said she would be willing to ban dispensaries in the county.
    "My first priority is public safety," Slater-Price said. "If that requires an all-out ban, I'll do it."
    Through his spokesman, Supervisor Bill Horn declined to say whether he would support a ban on dispensaries in San Diego County.
    "County staff has been told to come back with options in 60 days and when they do, then different scenarios will be discussed," said Horn's spokesman, John Culea. "Right now (that) scenario is hypothetical for San Diego County and wouldn't be proper for the supervisors to comment."
    Dianne Jacob, who is chairwoman of the Board Supervisors, also declined to say whether she would support a ban. She said the courts have left a lot of unanswered questions, including whether state law preempts federal marijuana laws.
    "I think this area of the law is a mess," Jacob said in a written statement. "Policy makers need guidance and direction from the courts because patients, activists, law enforcement and the medical community don't agree."
    More than 100 cities and seven counties in the state have banned medical marijuana establishments in their jurisdictions, according to the Americans for Safe Access Web site. About 50 cities and four counties have implemented moratoriums.
    Growing skepticism
    In North County, Escondido banned dispensaries last month, citing concerns over the potential for increased crime and teen drug use. Oceanside temporarily banned the establishments in June while city officials draft a dispensary ordinance.
    Cities across the county have reported a surge in the number of medical marijuana shops this year. The rush apparently is driven by recent events, including the county's failure to overturn the state's medical marijuana law.
    Earlier this month, authorities shut down 14 dispensaries and arrested more than 30 people from Vista to San Marcos to San Diego. County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said the shops served as little more than fronts for illegal drug sales.
    Local medical marijuana advocates said the raids show county authorities have little appetite to regulate the establishments and are only interested in shutting them down.
    Rudy Reyes, an outspoken medical marijuana advocate and a burn patient who uses the drug to ease his pain, said he believes the county would ban dispensaries here if Anaheim wins the lawsuit.
    "If the case goes their way, they are going to ban them," Reyes said.
    Following the rules
    Those who oppose medical marijuana say that would not be such a bad idea.
    "I challenge this board and the DA to investigate every one of the 70 establishments and see if even one of them is acting within state guidelines. They are not," Scott Chipman, an Imperial Beach resident, told the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.
    In 1996, California voters approved the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized marijuana for medical use. But the rules on how to distribute and obtain medical marijuana remain vague.
    Last year, California Attorney General Jerry Brown released a set of guidelines that said for-profit medical marijuana dispensaries in the state are probably operating illegally.
    However, nonprofit cooperatives registered under the state's Food and Agricultural Code, or organized as less formal "collectives," are legal under California law, according to the guidelines.
    The county has been criticized for dragging its feet in adopting medical marijuana dispensary regulations and implementing the state's medical marijuana patient ID program. It began accepting applications for IDs only after it lost a long court battle challenging the state's medical marijuana law earlier this year.
    Curiale, the attorney challenging Anaheim's ban, said the court could issue a narrow ruling that answers only whether the city's law is legal. But because of the high interest in the case, the court may issue a wider ruling saying that similar bans in other cities also are illegal, he said.
    "It depends on how far the court is willing to go," Curiale said

    Sunday, September 20, 2009 5:40 pm

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