More than three years after Garden Grove police seized a small amount of marijuana from a chronic pain patient, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to consider the city's argument -- which divided California's major law enforcement organizations -- that it should not have to give the drugs back.
Advocates cheered the development as a step forward for medical marijuana users to get their "medicine" back from police.
"This is our biggest legal victory to date, and we're very glad it's now become final," said Joe Elford, an attorney with Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based medical marijuana advocacy group.
City officials expressed disappointment and said their position was never to challenge the constitutionality of California's medical marijuana law, only whether police could be forced to return the drug.
Police pulled over Felix Kha, a Garden Grove resident, in June 2005 for a traffic violation and found him in possession of one-third of an ounce of marijuana. Though Orange County prosecutors dropped drug charges after a doctor confirmed that the cannabis was for medical use, police refused to return the drugs on the grounds that to do so violated federal drug distribution laws.
A judge in Orange County Superior Court sided with Kha, ordering the police to return his marijuana. But the city again refused and instead appealed to California's 4th District Court of Appeal. The court of appeal also sided with Kha, declaring that patients enjoy a federally protected property right to their medical marijuana.
Garden Grove argued that such a right doesn't exist since federal law makes marijuana possession illegal in almost all circumstances, and asked the California Supreme Court to look at the case, but in March the court refused.
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to review the decision brings the case to a close.
Elford said his group has received hundreds of complaints from medical marijuana patients about local police seizing their drugs on the logic that "we'll take it from you and let the courts sort it out."
With the Kha case closed, he said, "There will be hundreds, if not thousands of patients who will no longer be subject to the confiscation of their medicine." Elford said that California, one of 13 states that had declared medical marijuana to be legal, has as many as 300,000 valid medical marijuana patients.
A litany of the state's major law enforcement organizations opposed the return of Kha's marijuana, including the California State Sheriffs' Assn., the California Police Chiefs Assn., the California Peace Officers' Assn., and the California District Attorneys Assn., along with 15 cities or counties. But Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown supported Kha's position.
Lawyers for Garden Grove argued that California law didn't contain a specific provision for the return of medical marijuana, and contended that to return the drugs would have violated federal law. M. Lois Bobak, an attorney for Garden Grove, called the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to review the case a disappointment. She said police lawfully seized Kha's marijuana since, at the time he was pulled over, he could not prove he had a legal right to possess marijuana.
She said Garden Grove did not challenge the constitutionality of California's medical marijuana law, called the Compassionate Use Act.
"The only thing Garden Grove argued was that requiring police to return properly seized marijuana would conflict with federal law," Bobak said. "There's nothing in the Compassionate Use Act that says police have to return marijuana that is properly seized."
Elford said Kha's marijuana was never returned, and that his client moved out of Garden Grove as the case was making its way through the courts. Despite his victories, given the amount of marijuana involved, "it wasn't worth his while" to return and claim it now.
"I'm in good spirits today. I've been litigating this thing for over three years," Elford said Monday. "It's been a long, strange journey."