[FONT=Arial,Helvetica]POT GROWERS DEFEND CROP
Arrests Highlight Lack of Regulations for Medicinal Use
Three men accused of running a pot factory in Azusa claim that they are caregivers who grow exclusively for medical marijuana dispensaries.
Bryn Anderson, 38; Paul Shaw, 35; and Charles Newcomb, 47, were arrested last month in an industrial sector of Azusa with more than 700 marijuana plants.
Because of differences between federal law, where it is illegal to grow or use marijuana, and state law, where marijuana can be used and grown by patients with a doctor's prescription, medical marijuana is in a legal gray area.
Anderson believes that his case shows the difficulty that dispensaries have in legally obtaining marijuana without getting in trouble with the law.
"It doesn't get dropped off by a little green elephant," Anderson said. "Someone has to grow it."
Shaw declined to comment for this story. Newcomb no longer has a working phone number, according to Anderson. He said that Newcomb is being evicted from his apartment.
Under the guidelines of Proposition 215, the 1996 voter proposition that legalized medical marijuana, and SB 420, a 2003 state Senate bill, a person who provides marijuana to people with a doctor's prescription can claim to be a caregiver and can legally grow marijuana.
But there are no state regulations or licenses that determine who is a caregiver and who is growing for the black market.
Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, said that prosecutors rely on evidence from law enforcement officers to determine if a person is legally growing marijuana.
"We don't file charges for people who use medical marijuana for personal use," Gibbons said.
Medical marijuana's precarious legal status was shown in January when federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided 11 medical marijuana dispensaries and seized thousands of pounds of pot.
A month later, California dispensaries were ordered by the state Board of Equalization to start paying sales tax as a legitimate business would.
Newcomb's lawyer, Bruce Margolin, who is also director of the L.A. branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says the law allows the men to grow marijuana for dispensaries.
"As caregivers under Proposition 215, they are allowed to provide medicine for patients," Margolin said.
SB 420 specifies that patients or caregivers can possess six mature or 12 immature plants per qualified patient.
Margolin says his client and the other two growers have a patient list of thousands all over Los Angeles County and all three have doctor's prescriptions to be patients themselves.
However, SB 420 does not specify how many clients a caregiver can have, or how to regulate caregiver growing operations so that they would not be mistaken for black market grow operations.
There may also be some disagreement about how to define a caregiver.
Although Margolin said that his client was a caregiver for patients that used his marijuana, Proposition 215 defines a caregiver as the person that has "consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health or safety" of a patient - a designation that may make it hard to believe a caregiver could have thousands of clients.
This lack of clarity in how to operate without getting in trouble with law has Anderson wishing the state would get more involved.
"We need regulation, so people can see that what we are doing isn't illegal," Anderson said.
Lt. James Whitten, an officer in the narcotics division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, agrees.
"If we are going to have legal medical marijuana, then prosecution needs some standards so they can pursue growing-operation cases," Whitten said. "It needs to come under some reasonable regulation."
Margolin says that all the confusion over the difference in state and federal law means he is often showing judges and prosecutors the law regarding caregivers possessing marijuana.
"They look at case law I bring them and they just can't believe that this is part of the state law," Margolin said.
To avoid that confusion, several California counties allow anyone with a valid ID card acquired from a doctor's prescription to register their growing operation.
Mendocino and Nevada County caregivers can also form patient lists by having patients write them in on their card as their primary caregiver.
With the patient lists, the county can figure out how much marijuana they are allowed to grow.
Despite lacking a similar registration program, growers in other parts of the state have had cases dismissed after arguing they were connected to dispensaries.
John Cassatt had charges dismissed against him before even going to trial in Nevada County in 2002 after being arrested with almost 400 plants.
In Sonoma County in 2002, Ken Hayes also had charges thrown out after being arrested for possessing almost 900 plants.
Here in Los Angeles County in 2002, Elizabeth Levin's case was thrown out before going to trial. She was arrested with almost 200 plants.
Margolin says that he has had cases where the district attorney has declined to even file charges.
"Once I go and talk to the DA and tell him that they are trying a guy who is connected to dispensaries, they don't want anything to do with it," Margolin said.
But John Lovell, a lobbyist with the California Narcotics Officer's Association, which opposes medical marijuana, says there are just as many cases where growers claiming to be associated with dispensaries were convicted of marijuana cultivation.
"There is no lawful way to manufacture marijuana on a large scale," Lovell said. He was unable to provide any specific cases of convictions against a defendant who argued he was involved in medical marijuana cultivation.
Lovell also said that evidence suggests that growers who were involved in dispensaries are also involved in growing for the black market, a claim disputed by Chris Fusco of Americans for Safe Access.
"All law-compliant dispensaries are very careful not to intermingle with the illicit marijuana trade," Fusco said.
Dispensary trade is not very profitable, according to Fusco, with collectives offering growers a fixed donation to cover their costs and provide the growers with a decent income.
"Prices really vary with the quality of the medicine," Fusco said. "Sometimes growers give it away, sometimes they will get thousands of dollars for a large sale of quality medicine."
The Azusa police valued the plants in Anderson, Newcomb and Shaw's grow house at $6,000 per plant, which could bring in millions of dollars on the street.
Anderson declined to say exactly what amount of compensation he would have expected for the pot, but said he did not make a lot of money as a grower.
"I have an old truck and live in a one-room apartment with my girlfriend and four dogs," Anderson said. "I didn't choose to do this to make money." [/FONT]