Trutanich & Cooley get it wrong; Dispensaries are legal and should be regulated, not “eradicated”

October 14th, 2009
Posted by Kris Hermes

Last Friday, a day after Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and District Attorney Steve Cooley attended a law enforcement training hosted by the California Narcotic Officers Association (CNOA) on the “eradication” of medical marijuana dispensaries, both officials declared a war on safe, affordable access to this therapeutic substance. In multiple newspapers, Trutanich and Cooley flagrantly stated their opinion that almost all dispensaries in Los Angeles are operating illegally, in violation of state law. Not only did these local prosecutors fail to provide any evidence of such violations, making unfounded accusations instead, but they have also ignored (or, more appropriately, rebuffed) the California Attorney General guidelines on this matter.

As the recently elected City Attorney for Los Angeles, the medical marijuana community had hoped that Carmen Trutanich would bring a more sensible and compassionate approach to medical marijuana dispensary regulation than his predecessor Rocky Delgadillo. Unfortunately, the new city attorney likewise holds that, no matter what, it is illegal to dispense medical marijuana from a storefront, ignoring established law, dozens of local regulatory ordinances across the state, and guidelines issued by the California Attorney General.

One has only to look back to the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 to understand the will of the voters. The initiative sought to “encourage the federal and state governments to implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all patients in medical need of marijuana.” Then, the state legislature passed the Medical Marijuana Program Act in 2003, which affirmed patients’ right to obtain their medication by associating collectively and decriminalized the “sales” statute for those lawfully engaged in such activity. In 2005, the State Board of Equalization established a taxation policy on the sale of medical marijuana, reinforcing the position that sales are legal under state law.

Furthermore, legal precedents such as People v. Urziceanu and Williams v. Butte County have established that medical marijuana providers who associate collectively or cooperatively are protected under state law. These landmark rulings even deemed the exchange of money for medical marijuana to be a lawful activity. In addition, the California Attorney General, who issued guidelines in August 2008, found that “a properly organized and operated collective or cooperative that dispenses medical marijuana through a storefront may be lawful under California law…”

The strongest argument that the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office has made to counter established law on this matter is from the case People v. Mentch. The court found in Mentch that primary caregivers could not conduct themselves as medical marijuana dispensaries. However, this was well established in the 1997 ruling Lungren v. Peron, and does not apply to collectively and cooperatively run dispensaries, such as those in Los Angeles.

The recent proliferation of dispensaries in Los Angeles is not an excuse to ban medical marijuana dispensing altogether. It is incumbent on City Attorney Trutanich to advise the City Council to regulate, not eradicate, medical marijuana dispensaries. Research has shown that regulations successfully reduce crime and make communities safer. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted sensible regulations back in 2006, and if the county can do it, certainly the city can as well. Local officials, patients and members of the community are close to hammering out a compromise on regulating dispensaries in Los Angeles; this is no time to reverse course. With a regulatory ordinance, the city can better enforce local and state law, and ensure safe and affordable medicine for the patients of Los Angeles.

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