California police have no interest in setting pot rules

01/26/2014 12:00 AM

03/02/2014 11:12 AM

In 2010, as Colorado lawmakers were creating America’s first state-licensed and regulated medical marijuana industry, fellow police officers at a Colorado Drug Investigators Association conference jeered a state law enforcement official assigned to draft the legislation.

Some of the sharpest barbs came from visiting narcotics officers from California.

“I was told that we hadn’t learned anything from California – that you can’t do anything to regulate marijuana,” said Matt Cook, a retired Colorado Springs police officer who became the first director of Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, a policing agency that now regulates state-licensed marijuana workers, pot stores and commercial cannabis producers.

While Colorado moved forward with pot industry oversight, the narcotics officers who berated Cook were right – at least about California, where trying to regulate America’s largest marijuana economy has become a perennial political loser. A key factor has been intense law enforcement opposition itself.

In California, police have forcefully opposed any legislation seen as legitimizing a marijuana industry. Their opposition reflects a belief by many police officers that medical marijuana businesses are profiteering shams that were never authorized by California voters.

Training seminars offered for police by the California Narcotic Officers’ Association suggest there is no such thing as medical marijuana and that state voters were hoodwinked into approving its use so people could legally get stoned.

“The general feeling in the law enforcement community is that California’s medical marijuana law is a giant con job,” said John Lovell, a lobbyist for narcotics officers, police chiefs and correctional supervisors. Lovell has led opposition to medical marijuana regulations, saying existing dispensaries in California are “a corrosive presence in the community” and authorities are unwilling to legitimize “free-standing pot shops” that he says attract crime and expand neighborhood availability of marijuana.

A California Police Chiefs Association’s “white paper” on marijuana business, depicting “storefront dispensaries as a cover for selling an illegal substance,” is cited by lawmakers opposing pot legislation and by officials approving local bans on medical marijuana stores.

“Most police chiefs in California understand the voters’ intent with Proposition 215,” the state’s 1996 medical marijuana initiative, “but what has actually happened in California is fraudulent,” said Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, president of the state chiefs association. “In no place that I’ve read in the law does it authorize or legitimize dispensaries that morphed into over-the-counter retail outlets.”

California, America’s first state to legalize marijuana for medical use, has birthed a billion-dollar industry of hundreds of marijuana dispensaries handling millions of dollars in cash and vast quantities of pot with little oversight.

In Colorado, where pot retailers this month began voter-approved sales of recreational marijuana, the state meticulously tags marijuana plants, inspects dispensary books and requires video surveillance of regulated pot deliveries and sales. In Washington state, where voters also legalized recreational use, new regulations seek to prevent diversion of marijuana from state-licensed marijuana stores to the black market.

Amid opposition from police, marijuana industry regulation bills died in the California Legislature in 2012 and 2013.

The last failed attempt came in the closing days of last year’s legislative session, after an Aug. 29 U.S. Justice Department memo declared that federal authorities were less likely to bring marijuana prosecutions in states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana while also implementing “strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems” for pot businesses.

“There are definitely forces and law enforcement pressures to not vote on marijuana regulation,” said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who co-sponsored unsuccessful legislation last year to put the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in charge of licensing and regulating commercial medical marijuana growers, shippers and sellers.

With California marijuana advocates plotting 2014 or 2016 ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana use, Ammiano said he will introduce a new pot regulation bill this year. Its passage is considered a long shot.

Support for medical uses

The pot regulatory stalemate in California stands in contrast to the state’s history as the birthplace of the modern medical marijuana movement. During the 1980s and 1990s AIDS crisis in San Francisco, infected gay men suffering severe weight loss turned to smoking marijuana to ease nausea and boost appetites.

In 1999, the Legislature allocated $8.7 million for the nation’s first sustained modern medical research for pot. After seven completed clinical trials involving 300 subjects between 2002 and 2012, University of California researchers concluded that marijuana was a promising therapy for pain from nerve damage from injuries, HIV, diabetes, strokes and other conditions. They called for additional studies.

But instructional materials for a certified police officer training program offered by the California Narcotic Officers’ Association declare that “this ‘medical marijuana thing’ ” is “an epidemic that is infecting our society.”

“I put ‘medical marijuana’ in quotes because technically there is no such thing,” wrote Seth Cimino, a Del Norte County sheriff’s deputy, in materials for a 2012 training seminar he taught in Redding called, “Medical Marijuana from the Streets to Dispensaries.” The program offered officers, paying $35 to $45 for the session, “training ... to make your arrests stick” in medical marijuana cases.

The state narcotics officers’ association also manages a Santa Clarita-based organization, the Narcotic Educational Foundation of America, that produces materials that warn of a “well-financed and organized pro-drug legalization lobby” promoting medical marijuana as a gateway to unbridled pot legalization. The group’s report warns of dangerous health consequences, including cognitive damage, from legalizing “crude, intoxicating marijuana.”

Diane Goldstein, a former lieutenant for the Redondo Beach Police Department, said anti-marijuana training is a major factor in political resistance to any legislation seen as pro-pot.

“When California police officers continue to support training that says there is no such thing as medical marijuana, they are deliberately undermining not just policy and law but science,” said Goldstein, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an advocacy group of mostly retired police officers who support marijuana legalization and a taxed and regulated pot industry.

Lovell said law enforcement officials are sympathetic to seriously ill people who use marijuana for symptom relief. But he said police are turned off by streams of seemingly fit young people frequenting dispensaries with easily obtained medical marijuana recommendations.

Lovell said he would prefer regulations that would require a bona fide doctor-patient relationship for marijuana recommendations and put public health officials – not retail-style dispensaries – in charge of dispensing medical cannabis.

Vague laws and revenue

Steve Walter, an assistant district attorney and narcotics prosecutor in San Diego County, said many in law enforcement are frustrated that dispensaries flourished under vague California medical marijuana laws that merely state that patients with doctors’ recommendations can collectively cultivate and share marijuana.

San Diego authorities take the view that marijuana dispensaries are illegal and have aggressively prosecuted them. But Walter concedes other jurisdictions have different interpretations. He said some legislative clarity would help.

“I can’t imagine that, if you’re going to have this industry or some semblance of it, you wouldn’t want to have some regulations,” he said.

Marijuana advocates charge that police are unwilling to support state rules because they are too invested in pot policing through drug enforcement grants and revenue from seized houses, cars and property in marijuana prosecutions.

Matt Kumin, a San Francisco attorney specializing in medical marijuana cases, said police have come to rely on marijuana enforcement to produce funding for their budgets. He said authorities, who have “always been taught this is evil weed,” resent marijuana legalization because “people who were their enemies are going to be part of the community.”

This month, The Wall Street Journal reported that police in Washington were taking budget hits as a result of voters there approving marijuana for recreational use. The newspaper reported that some police drug task forces lost 15 percent of funding due to decreased revenue from marijuana forfeiture cases.

The Journal’s analysis of U.S. Justice Department data said California took in $181.4 million in revenue from seized property and money in marijuana cases from 2002 to 2012, followed by New York at $101.3 million.

Disputing marijuana advocates’ contention of a financial incentive for police, Chief Raney noted that California has already widely decriminalized marijuana possession, most recently when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation in 2010 reducing marijuana misdemeanors to noncriminal citations.

Raney said he wants to preserve rights of local communities to restrict marijuana businesses and ensure the availability of pot “isn’t going to filter down to our youth.” He charges that cannabis advocates are unwilling to consider law enforcement’s concerns.

“I have not found those people credible to sit and talk with,” he said.

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