A 1996 state law that created a thicket of legal entanglements by allowing medical use of marijuana without saying how much a patient can possess is set for another round of debate in Ventura County, beginning today.
The case of Mike Loftus is Exhibit A.
The 33-year-old Loftus, who is disabled with an inner-ear ailment and uses prescription marijuana to prevent dizziness and nausea, was arrested and cleared of illegally possessing the drug in 1999 and 2001. In the latter case, police finally returned his 22 plants -- dead.
Now he's in trouble again.
Under a controversial guideline enacted by local law enforcement agencies last year, county prosecutors say the 29 plants and one pound of the dried hemp seized at Loftus' Newbury Park home in October were enough to charge him with felony possession of an illegal drug for sale.
"It's simple harassment," Loftus said Monday, the day before he takes his case to the county Board of Supervisors for a hearing in a political forum, and two weeks before his criminal case is to be heard in Superior Court.
"The law says I can grow my own medicine and it doesn't give me a limit," Loftus said. "Now they're telling me I'm a criminal."
Loftus said a county narcotics team not only stripped him of 24 of his 29 plants and all but a quarter of an ounce of marijuana and seized $4,300 he had borrowed from his credit card to pay household expenses.
"They walked in my front door when me, my three children and my pregnant wife were carving pumpkins," said Loftus, who suffers from Meniere's disease. "I still don't have my money back."
County Supervisor John Flynn is concerned about the marijuana guidelines. He invited Loftus to tell his story to the board today, and he wants the public to be involved in setting a reasonable standard for possession of the drug.
"The Board of Supervisors ought to be part of making that standard, of determining the number of plants that can be kept," Flynn said.
A county staff analysis of the issue, requested last June after the board learned of law enforcement's new guidelines, is expected in the next month.
Police and prosecutors say they're only trying to make sense of a state law that is inequitable. By leaving it up to cities and counties to set their own quantity guidelines for medicinal marijuana, Proposition 215 -- the state ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana use -- left a gaping hole, they said.
Most of California's 58 counties -- including every large county in Southern California except Ventura -- have no quantity guideline and deal with possession on a case-by-case basis.
In Northern California, some counties allow for possession of up to 99 plants and 3 pounds of the dried drug, while some allow for as few as five plants and 1 pound of cultivated product. Ventura County allows six plants or 1 pound of pot.
The standards "are set all over the board," Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks said. "We would like to have the attorney general set a statewide standard."
Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has said in a letter to county district attorneys that he would work with them and medical experts to come up with a uniform approach, but none has been adopted so far.
California's position is further complicated by the federal government's insistence that marijuana possession is strictly illegal even when prescribed for medical purposes.
Under legal pressure to provide a guideline for officers to follow, Ventura County law enforcement finally imposed one last March after two years of study.
"We believe our policies are liberal enough to meet a person's legitimate medical needs," the sheriff said. "We believe the only need of more marijuana is to sell it."