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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Decision to Review Pot Law Hailed

Marijuana: County authorities hopeful Supreme Court's actions will nullify state law on medicinal use or clarify its enforcement.

August 31, 2000|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County authorities Wednesday cheered the Supreme Court's decision to intervene in a California medical marijuana case, saying they are optimistic the court will throw out the state law or at least clarify how it should be enforced.

"We don't feel there's sufficient medicinal benefits of the drug, and they've created a nightmare for us to deal with," said Capt. Dennis Carpenter, who oversees the narcotics unit of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

The law undermines public safety because, Carpenter said, it's vague enough to allow recreational smokers and distributors to legitimize their actions simply by arguing they're using the drug to alleviate aches and pains.

"Many people we've known for years to be users, now all of a sudden have severe headaches, and before the law came up they had no medical conditions," Carpenter said.

Several of the county's medical marijuana users--a group that advocates say numbers three dozen or more--defended their use of the drug. If the high court invalidates the law, that won't stop sick people from taking the drug to alleviate chronic pain or nausea, said Simi Valley resident Rex Dean Jones, who smokes marijuana to treat a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure. Instead, he said, those users will simply grow their own plants or buy it on the black market.

"How can the government disregard the will of the people?" said Jones, who argues the Supreme Court should not even consider overriding the 1996 law passed by California voters. "I think the whole thing is a bogus scam."

The 65-year-old retiree tangled with the law two years ago, when police seized 14 marijuana plants from his home.

Prosecutors dropped charges after confirming that Jones was a qualified medical marijuana patient. Jones has since replanted and tried unsuccessfully to sue the Police Department.

Despite her distrust of the federal government, one advocate believes the court may surprise many and uphold the state law.

"The court may simply want to distinguish how [distribution of medical marijuana] can be done," said Andrea Nagy, a migraine sufferer from Thousand Oaks.

Nagy ran the county's only official marijuana distribution center for four months, until Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury used a civil lawsuit in 1998 to shut it down.

It could be months before the high court considers the Oakland case as the test case for medical marijuana rights. But this week the court issued an order at least temporarily halting marijuana distribution from that center.

The emergency order alone has no immediate effect locally, and appears to apply only to the Oakland center, officials and medicinal users said.

Since Nagy's center closed, there are no distribution centers in the county, according to law enforcement officials.

About two dozen users in the county get their marijuana from the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood. That organization's president said his doors will remain open.

Whether the Oakland facility will be able to resume business is a question pending before the high court.

The court's ruling could affect users and distributors not just in Oakland but throughout California and the handful of other states with similar laws on the books, officials say. Marijuana distribution is illegal under federal law.

Since Proposition 215 passed in 1996, law enforcement officials throughout the county have gone after several marijuana growers and distributors despite their medical claims.

In addition to Jones and Nagy, authorities pursued a Camarillo couple and four people involved in growing hundreds of plants in the remote Lockwood Valley.

Bradbury said his office will "continue to review cases involving the medicinal use of marijuana on a case-by-case basis" until the court passes judgment in the Oakland case.

But Bradbury said the order indicates the state law's days could be numbered because it conflicts with federal law. The court order "suggests the proponents of medical marijuana should have sought congressional approval before advancing Proposition 215," he said.

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