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Editorial

Hazy marijuana laws

Amid conflicting court decisions, lawmakers should quickly clarify California's laws on medicinal pot.

April 05, 2012
  • Joe Tremolada smokes marijuana as U.S. marshals raid Oaksterdam University in Oakland, Calif. The facility, one of several that federal agents raided on Monday, teaches people how to grow marijuana.
Joe Tremolada smokes marijuana as U.S. marshals raid Oaksterdam University… (Noah Berger / AP Photo )

Richard Lee has been one of the state's most visible activists for liberalized marijuana laws, having spent $1.5 million of his own money supporting an ill-fated ballot initiative in 2010 to decriminalize recreational use. But Lee is also an entrepreneur in the legally cloudy arena of medical marijuana, and on Monday the Internal Revenue Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration raided his home and his hemp-related ventures, including Oaksterdam University, a trade school focused on the marijuana industry.

The feds haven't disclosed what they were looking for, other than to say the raids grew out of a federal criminal investigation. Nevertheless, Lee's supporters complain that the Obama administration isn't honoring its own policy from 2009, when a top Justice Department official advised U.S. attorneys not to go after "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

That policy doesn't seem to have much sway these days, considering the recent crackdowns by federal authorities on medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Colorado. But even if it were still in effect, the vagueness of state law and conflicting judicial interpretations make it well nigh impossible for anyone in California to be in clear and unambiguous compliance. That's because Proposition 215, the 1996 measure that decriminalized the medicinal use of marijuana, and SB 420, the 2003 law to clarify its provisions, left far too many loose ends.

Foremost among these is the ability of local governments to set their own, specific policies on medical marijuana. Oakland has been a leader in that effort, adopting an ordinance regulating and taxing medical marijuana-related ventures. But a recent California appeals court ruling calls into question any city's ability to set restrictions of any kind on dispensaries. Another ruling held that dispensaries had to grow all their marijuana on site, but cities couldn't ban them. There are also fundamental questions about whether dispensaries can sell their wares, and if so, how much money they can make without violating SB 420's ban on profiting from the sale or distribution of marijuana.

State lawmakers appear to be waiting for the California Supreme Court to resolve the disagreements in the lower courts, which would clear away some of the haze. But regardless of what the justices decide, there will still be major issues to resolve. The Legislature should stop waiting and fill in the many blanks in medical marijuana laws. That won't resolve the basic conflict between state and federal governments regarding marijuana, but at least it will clarify what the state's policy is.

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