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Medical Marijuana Outlets Condemned

Riverside County's D.A. calls dispensaries, which supervisors may soon license, illegal and magnets for criminals. The timing is criticized.

September 21, 2006|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

Medical marijuana dispensaries, which the Riverside County Board of Supervisors will consider licensing next week, are illegal and could attract violent criminals, the district attorney's office concluded in a report released Wednesday.

In the legal white paper on the issue, Dist. Atty. Grover Trask's office labeled the dispensaries easy targets for assaults and robberies and warned that many of the people selling the drug to medical users in dispensaries are hardened criminals.

Instead of buying marijuana at a dispensary, medicinal users should grow their own supply if they wish to remain protected under state law, the report stated.

"We aren't saying medical users can't use it and can't get it," but they must follow the law, said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin Ruddy.

The opinion comes as the supervisors are scheduled to vote Tuesday on an ordinance to regulate the distributors in unincorporated areas.

Supervisor Roy Wilson, who represents the Coachella Valley, said he was unsure whether the report would affect his vote, but he wondered why the legal opinion came so close to the vote.

"My initial feeling is, I don't know why we're getting that opinion at such a late date," he said. "We've had the planning staff looking over this for over a year now."

The district attorney's report said the four proposed regional dispensaries -- two in Palm Springs and one each in Corona and Palm Desert -- are subject to search and seizure by law enforcement.

"They are a clear violation of federal and state law, they invite more crime [via robberies] and they compromise the health and welfare of the citizens of this county," the report states.

Ruddy said the report was issued because of the continuing debate over the storefront operations and wasn't intended as a signal that the office would start aggressively prosecuting medical marijuana users.

"Our office doesn't go after anybody," he said. "If a case is presented to our office and we believe from the facts that someone is selling marijuana without a legal defense, then we will prosecute them."

State and federal laws conflict over the use of medical marijuana.

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215 to legalize the drug for therapeutic use. State lawmakers in 2003 passed legislation that allowed counties to issue identification cards to medical users to shield them from prosecution by local law enforcement.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that federal authorities could still seize and destroy marijuana stashes because federal law mandates that all marijuana use is illegal despite its intended purposes.

"It is illegal to possess, manufacture or to traffic in marijuana," said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. "There is absolutely no distinction made for medical purposes."

Medical marijuana users and several studies contend that monitored dosages provide effective pain relief for those with certain serious ailments and diseases.

Lanny Swerdlow, director of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, a local patients' rights advocacy group, questioned why the district attorney's office waited until now to join the policy debate.

"The D.A.'s office has refused to attend any of the meetings to discuss the ordinance, so here we are, less than a week before it's set to be voted on, and they try to scuttle the whole thing," he said.

Nearly 10 months ago, Riverside County became the first in Southern California to issue photo identification cards in an effort to comply with the state law shielding medicinal users from prosecution. A few thousand such cards have been issued.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors followed suit in May, voting to issue the cards.

jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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