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Confusion about marijuana sales traced to California law

The central question in Los Angeles is whether cooperatives are allowed to sell medical pot. Some say it can be provided only to those who help grow it.

January 06, 2010|By John Hoeffel

On the same day, however, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant released a draft order that would force an Eagle Rock dispensary to stop selling marijuana, agreeing with Trutanich that collectives can only grow it. "A storefront dispensary that sells to its members, I believe, is beyond legislative intent," the judge said in court.

Conflicting advice

In August 2008, Brown, the state's top legal official, issued guidelines to clarify how medical marijuana can be distributed. He noted that dispensaries "are not recognized under state law" but expressed the opinion that "a properly organized and operated collective or cooperative that dispenses medical marijuana through a storefront may be lawful."

Since then, however, there have been several court decisions that prosecutors insist reinforce their view that collectives are allowed to grow marijuana but not to sell it.

Brown, who is planning to run for governor, has not responded to a request for an interview on the issue, but his office released a statement saying it "is in the process of updating its guidelines to reflect recent developments in the law, but we are still waiting for a few key court decisions to issue."

"I think the pressure is on him to do that," said David Berger, a special assistant Los Angeles city attorney. "His opinion needs some revision."

The debate could be resolved if the Legislature revised the 2003 law. But both sides believe the chances of that happening this year are slim, especially with a budget crisis, a statewide election on the horizon and a legalization measure likely to be on the November ballot.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), a co-author of the law, does not believe it needs to be rewritten. The problem, he insisted, is with how prosecutors in Southern California are interpreting it. "I can tell you the intent was not to prohibit dispensaries from engaging in sales of this medicine. In fact it was to clarify the allowance of it," he said.

But the law's lead author, former Democratic Sen. John Vasconcellos, said it was cautiously worded and could be made more explicit. "I would probably write it much more boldly today because the public is much more supportive."

Paul Koretz, a Los Angeles city councilman who was a co-author of the law when he was in the Assembly, said he thinks the law should be clarified. "Now we've seen the pitfalls," he said. "We clearly need to come up with some things we think need to be in the state law and find an author and have the city be a sponsor of legislation."

There is one lawmaker interested in marijuana legislation: Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. The San Francisco Democrat is pushing a bill to legalize pot. But he is also weighing whether to lead an effort to redo the medical marijuana law.

He said he believes that Trutanich and Cooley are on "a political crusade."

"I saw 'Chinatown,' " he said. "It really smells that way to me."

But he worries about what will happen if the state waits for the courts to decide the issue.

"It's going to be really rocky," he said, "until something definitive comes down."

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