Skip to main content

U.S. Crackdown Highlights Mixed-Up World of Medical Marijuana

A federal effort to shut down state-legalized marijuana dispensaries in California is the latest example of the topsy-turvy habitat that growers, users and cops live in with medical marijuana.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

“The problem is that this is a multibillion dollar industry that literally has no guidelines. … Every time anybody goes before some city council somewhere or the county, nobody knows what the hell they’re doing. And every time the elected officials change, it’s all new. It’s a friggin’ nightmare.”

So explains certified master gardener and marijuana farmer Kevin Jodrey, the cultivation director for the nonprofit Humboldt Patient Resource Center in Arcata, California, a city-regulated dispensary that distributes to its patients medical marijuana grown in the center’s own 1,600-square-foot, indoor production facility. Jodrey spent 30 years growing marijuana, the majority of it “on the illegal end,” he says, before turning to sanctioned medical cannabis farming in northern California four years ago.

State sanctioned, that is. Today the U.S. government is making his nightmare more intense by telling ostensibly legal pot dispensaries in California – creatures of the state’s legalization of medical marijuana 15 years ago – that they have 45 days to shut down completely or face Uncle Sam’s legal wrath.

Federal prosecutors appeared to take the gloves off Friday when they announced at a news conference that they were initiating a multi-pronged assault to prosecute major medical marijuana growers in California and shut down certain, select pot dispensaries throughout the state. Dozens of dispensaries, authorities assert, have become little more than money-making storefronts for drug dealing and other criminal enterprises.

Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for California's Northern District, which includes the San Francisco area, said the government believes that the law passed by California voters in 1996 to benefit ill people by allowing them access to medical marijuana has been “hijacked by people who are in this to get rich.”

She vowed that her office would come down especially hard on dispensaries located near schools, parks and other locations where children gather.

The feds have never cottoned to the idea of “medicinal marijuana,” keeping cannabis on their Schedule I roster of illegal substances that cannot be prescribed by a prescription. But even after 15 years of legal bluster threading through three presidential administrations, this is one of the hardest blow from Washington, D.C., to date.

That it’s taken since 1996 to reach this point reflects the dilemma of red-light, green-light enforcement of a patchwork of laws that tip-toe to the edge of outright legalization of cannabis, creating headaches for growers, users and the local cops trying to make sense of which rules rule.

Take Sheriff Thomas D. Allman of California’s Mendocino County. If hecould have just one magic wish, he says, he’d ask forgreater consistency in the interpretation and enforcement of medical marijuana laws. “As it stands now,” Allman complains, “it’s a mess.”

To back up a step: By a 56 percent majority, Golden State voters in 1996 approved Proposition 215, removing criminal penalties for the “seriously ill” who used, possessed, or cultivated marijuana — so long as they’d received “written or oral recommendation” from a physician. Dubbed the Compassionate Use Act, the proposition was intended to protect those with “cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”

Seven years later, California legislators passed Senate Bill 420, granting certain legal protections to medical marijuana dispensaries, while limiting qualified patients or their caregivers to the possession of no more than eight ounces of dried marijuana and/or six mature, or 12 immature, marijuana plants. The law allowed patients to possess undefined greater amounts of pot upon recommendation from a physician. It also permitted individual counties and municipalities to decide how much medical marijuana was permissible, so long as that amount was not less than what California law allowed. Subsequent court cases have wrestled over the constitutionality of such limits, leaving the door open to broad debate over what is and is not legal.

A sterling example of this confusion, say Allman and other critics of the current system, is in how much medicinal pot legally can be transported between jurisdictions

In the nearly 15 years since California, America’s motherland of marijuana production, passed Prop 215, the landscape has grown ever more Byzantine. Many of California’s 58 counties have adopted their own, often wildly differing thresholds as to how much medical marijuana one can legally cultivate or possess.

“If you’re going to transport medical marijuana from Mendocino to Los Angeles, you have to through something like 17 counties to get there,” Allman points out. “That means you would have to know the laws of 17 counties. We need a billboard on every county line, with the regulations for that county, because I don’t think that’s a fair way to do it, the government not telling the people what the laws are.”

Even within counties, the laws can differ. In the unincorporated areas of Mendocino County, for example, gardeners legally can grow as many as 99 pot plants outdoors with proper licensing. But in the Mendocino County coastal community of Fort Bragg, outdoor cultivation of medical marijuana is banned outright, while indoor grows are restricted to no more than 100 square feet per residence.

Such disparity is hardly unique to California, says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a nonprofit lobbying group based in Washington, D.C. Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia extend varying forms of legal protection to individuals who use marijuana with a physician’s recommendation. The degree  to which those protections are afforded — if at all — depends largely on geography and whether the prevailing political sentiments in an area sway liberal or conservative.

“Go to downtown Seattle, to Bellingham, to Tacoma. You can walk the main streets and see medical cannabis dispensaries,” St. Pierre says, citing the example of Washington state. “But if you go east and cross the Cascades to Spokane, cannabis is completely verboten.”

Consider the case of Daniel Harwood and Timothy Tangney, two couriers working for Northstone Organics, a marijuana farming collective in Mendocino County. Last October, the two were pulled over twice in two days by the same sheriff’s deputy in neighboring Sonoma County while en route to deliver 35 one-ounce packages of medical marijuana to individual patients scattered across the San Francisco Bay area. Harwood and Tangney insisted they were engaged in lawful commerce — as defined by Mendocino County. Sonoma County authorities saw things differently. The two men were each charged with four felony counts of intent to distribute marijuana. The pot was confiscated.

Then things really took a turn toward the surreal.

At their preliminary hearing in September, a Mendocino County sheriff’s sergeant, Randy Johnson, testified under subpoena as a defense witness, saying that the two couriers were operating in full compliance with Mendocino County’s medical marijuana guidelines. Johnson conceded on cross-examination, however, that while his county permits Northstone to grow and distribute medicinal marijuana in Mendocino County, those same laws afford no such protection beyond the county line.

That, says Sheriff Allman, is the crux of the quandary. “The law of the land is not the law of the land.”

Harwood and Tangney’s preliminary hearing continues this month, as does ongoing concern among medical marijuana growers that they remain targeted by federal authorities who have consistently held that marijuana holds no medicinal value, that state-enacted medical marijuana laws are moot, and that growing cannabis for any purpose is illegal. Period.

“Are medical marijuana growers subject to potential prosecution? Potentially yes,” says Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, D.C., explained before this latest crackdown. “They’re cultivating and selling large amounts of a controlled substance.”

Payne stressed that the DEA remains focused on large-scale drug trafficking organizations, not individual medical marijuana users.

“We just don’t have the resources,” he says.

Sign up for the free e-newsletter.

"Like" Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add news to your site.