By Nick Diamantides
Developing regulations for the burgeoning medical marijuana industry is no simple task, according to Long Beach City Prosecutor Tom Reeves. He made his comments to the approximately 25 people who attended the Neighborhood Advisory Group meeting last Thursday (October 15) evening at the Police/Community Center, 2023 Pacific Avenue.
Recently, the Long Beach City Council asked Reeves and City Attorney Robert Shannon to develop regulations pertaining to medical marijuana dispensaries (also called co-ops and collectives) in Long Beach.
Reeves reminded the audience that “In 1996, this state enacted Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act (CUA),” which permitted the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes but required a doctor’s recommendation for such use.
He noted, however, that currently three laws address marijuana possession, sales and use in California. Those laws are the Federal Controlled Substances Act, the CUA and the California Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMPA) enacted by the state legislature in 2003 to clarify and facilitate implementation of the CUA. Reeves stressed that the way those three laws interact with each other is not always easy to determine, and several court cases have arisen over disputes as to the proper interpretation of the laws.
Reeves stressed that, according to state law, it is still a felony to sell marijuana. The CUA and MMPA, however, make exceptions to that law by allowing medical marijuana facilities to establish themselves as “cooperatives” or “collectives” that only accept “donations” in exchange for the marijuana they distribute. Reeves noted that determining the difference between a “purchase” and a “donation” is a challenge faced by prosecutors throughout the state
Reeves explained that ostensibly the CUA is meant to benefit patients who are seriously ill with such diseases as AIDS, cancer, and other grave ailments. He said the law allows such people to use marijuana to treat their disease or the symptoms of their disease
Reeves noted, however, that, in his opinion, vague language was intentionally put into Prop 215. “It was intentionally vague because of the Federal Controlled Substances Act (which is still in effect),” he said. “Under that Act, it is a federal crime to cultivate, possess, transport, use or distribute marijuana.” He noted that the CUA and the MMPA are in direct conflict with federal law. Reeves acknowledged that federal authorities are not arresting people for possession of marijuana. “That’s a distribution of resources,” he said, explaining that there are not enough federal agents available to arrest everyone who possesses a small amount of marijuana.
In 2003, because the number of medical marijuana distribution facilities was rapidly growing, according to Reeves, the state legislature decided to clarify some of the terms of the CUA. “The CUA said that, with a doctor’s recommendation, a patient could cultivate as much marijuana as was necessary to medicate himself or herself,” he said, explaining that the CUA called for a doctor’s “recommendation” instead of prescription, because doctors are not allowed to write prescriptions for marijuana. “According to federal law, there is not legitimate medical use for marijuana,” he said. He added that one of the problems with the CUA is that it does not specify how a doctor can come to the decision that a patient would be helped by marijuana use. Another problem is that the CUA does not specify how much marijuana a patient with a doctor’s recommendation can possess.
Because of the fact that a specific permitted amount of marijuana was not listed in the CUA and other ambiguities in the law, the state legislature passed the MMPA, which specified the amount (eight ounces) and seemed to clarify other aspects of the law.
The MMPA, however, according to Reeves, has not solved the problem of how to properly regulate the distribution of medical marijuana. He said that there is evidence that some doctors are indiscriminately handing out “recommendations” for a price. In addition, patients’ caregivers are now permitted to possess marijuana but there is no clear-cut way to determine who qualifies as a caregiver, and there are cases of gangs robbing marijuana dispensaries at gunpoint for the cash or for the marijuana to sell it on the street.
Another problem, he noted, was that there is no clear way to know where medical marijuana dispensaries get their product. He stressed that a recent lab analysis of marijuana obtained at local dispensary showed that it had 1600 times the FDA permitted levels of a pesticide that can only be purchased in Mexico. Reeves said it was ironic that patients using medical marijuana with those levels of pesticide were actually endangering their health. Making matters worse, most dispensaries also sell food and drinks containing marijuana, but do not provide a list of ingredients contained in those products, as makers of processed foods are required to do.
Added to all those complexities, the California Supreme Court has handed down several decisions in the last few years that have modified how cities and counties can apply the CUA and the MMPA. More cases are pending.
Reeves said that, in the face of all the complexities, at the request of the Long Beach City Council, he has been working on regulations for medical marijuana facilities for several weeks. “There are several members of the council who, for either revenue-generation purposes or for their sense of compassion, they believe we should have these establishments in our city,” he said. Reeves said he did not know when council would be voting on proposed regulations for such facilities, but it would probably be in the near future.