California marijuana laws are starting to get hazy

One thing is clear about marijuana in California these days -- enforcing the laws around it is getting more complicated.

It used to be fairly straightforward: Marijuana was illegal; using it, growing it, selling it.

More than three decades ago, California decriminalized marijuana use and possession; anyone caught with less than an ounce got a misdemeanor citation and a fine.

In 1996, voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.

On Thursday, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a law reducing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction, removing it from the courts system.

And in November, voters will consider Proposition 19, which would allow people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot and grow it on up to 25 square feet of private property.

In the meantime, police and prosecutors find themselves doing more legwork on marijuana cases.

"It's just very difficult to navigate these waters," said Sgt. Nino Amirfar, a spokesman for the Turlock Police Department. "We continue to address illegal possession of marijuana, however, we do take into consideration medicinal marijuana prescriptions."

Muddying the waters further was a January state Supreme Court decision that threw out a law that limited medical marijuana users to 8 ounces of dried pot and six mature marijuana plants or 12 immature plants.

Now, the law allows for a rather nebulous "reasonable amount" of marijuana.

"That changes by the person, by the condition and by the doctor," said Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Abel Hung.

He could not provide a specific number of drug cases, but said the office pursues prosecutions when warranted after police or prosecutors check the veracity of marijuana recommendations and the doctors who issued them.

"The procedure and policy of the DA's office is still the same," Hung said. "We have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis. There's a lot more for us to do."

Amirfar said there are circumstances when marijuana use is always illegal, such as when driving.

"You smell it on them, they could be operating their vehicle impaired," he said. "Until they can prove anything else, they're going to be detained. The process is still there. We have to go through it in order to get to the bottom line."

Sometimes, that isn't so easy.

Victim, crime or both?

Officers responding to a recent call in Turlock found a marijuana grow on commercial property on the west side of town. They found eight plots of land on one property, all posted as belonging to medical marijuana users.

"They've taken the time to separate the plots and post proper posting," Amirfar said. The cultivators had what appeared to be legitimate marijuana cards. "We take a picture of it, get the the person's name and send it to the DA for their review."

In that case, the crime came from an apparent attempted theft of the marijuana, making the growers potential crime victims as well as suspects. For now.

Hung wouldn't offer a view on Proposition 19 -- nor would either candidate for Stanislaus County judge when asked recently.

"In a general sense, if certain things are no longer considered crimes, there are fewer things to look at," he said.

Possible can of legal worms

But legalizing marijuana would open up another can of legal worms, regarding regulation and monitoring. For instance, marijuana isn't a tobacco product, so current law wouldn't prohibit legal use on or near school grounds.

And unlike prescription medications or alcohol -- which are legal but can be used illegally -- people often cultivate their own marijuana.

"Who's going to monitor strength of prescription?" Amirfar said. "Nobody's even addressed that."

Hung said despite the growing complexities, his office will pursue any cases that stem from illegal use of marijuana. "Whatever the law is, it's our job to enforce the law."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.