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STATE MARIJUANA LAW CRITICIZED AS TOO LOOSE

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Newshawk: Sledhead
Pubdate: Mon, 17 Jul 2000
Source: Contra Costa Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Contra Costa Newspapers Inc.
Address: 2640 Shadelands Drive, Walnut Creek, CA 94598

Author: Jennifer Coleman, Associated Press

STATE MARIJUANA LAW CRITICIZED AS TOO LOOSE

Law Enforcement, Medical Personnel, Patients And Lawmakers Are Finding Problems In
Interpretation

SACRAMENTO -- California's groundbreaking medicinal marijuana law is being used in other
states as a model of how not to write a law to allow chronically ill patients to smoke the drug.

The Compassionate Use Act of 1996 doesn't define the specific amounts of marijuana
allowed or say if patients should be registered or required to carry an identification card, and
that has created confusion among law enforcement officials, medical personnel, patients and
lawmakers, said Gina Pesulima, spokeswoman for Americans for Medical Rights, a group that
advises grass-roots organizations promoting medical marijuana laws.

"Proposition 215 was pretty loosely written," Pesulima said. "We help other states draft
tighter laws, which will make it easier for everyone involved."

Since California voters approved the 1996 law, voters in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and
Maine have approved similar laws.

Voters in Nevada and Colorado also approved initiatives, but will vote again on their measures
this fall. Colorado's was disqualified from the ballot after the election, and Nevada's is a
constitutional amendment, which requires approval in two successive elections.

The Hawaii Legislature recently approved a law decriminalizing marijuana for medical
purposes.

Medical marijuana advocacy groups estimate that thousands of people are using the drug
under the new laws. Oregon has a voluntary registry that includes about 1,000 patients,
Pesulima said, but many users fear giving up their privacy and don't register.

California Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, has sponsored a bill that would tighten state
law by establishing a registry or identification card system and urging consistent enforcement.

The bill was put in the inactive file in the state Assembly, but Rand Martin, a consultant from
Vasconcellos' office, said he expects it to be approved this year.

In the meantime, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan on Friday announced a
plan to issue city ID cards allowing sick people to use marijuana. The cards, which cost $25
and require a doctor's note, allow patients to avoid local prosecution if caught possessing the
drug.

Last month, Martinez became the first city in Contra Costa County to approve a medical
marijuana ordinance regulating dispensaries. City councilmembers have said the law was too
vague, and the council was forced to come up with the ordinance after receiving a petition to
open a dispensary shortly after Prop. 215 passed.

Today, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer is expected to decide if an Oakland club is
allowed to distribute medicinal marijuana. He hinted last week he may be forced to permit it
because the U.S. Justice Department hasn't rebutted evidence that cannabis is the only
effective treatment for a large group of seriously ill people.

Gov. Gray Davis has approved spending $3 million over three years to research the benefits
and efficacy of marijuana, which is used by some to ease the pain of terminal or chronic
illness.

Advocates say research could help solve problems that arose from the 1996 measure, such as
how best to take the drug, how much to prescribe and how law enforcement officials should
treat those with a doctor's recommendation.

Even officers who fight drug use support the research, said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the
California Narcotic Officers Association.

"We've always supported all dispassionate research into the effects of any drugs. I don't think
anyone has any investment in ignorance," Lovell said.

There are no definitive plans yet for the research, which will be done within the University of
California system.

Possession and cultivation of marijuana remains illegal under U.S. law, and federal officials
have repeatedly told state officials that medical marijuana users risk federal prosecution.

Federal defendants who have tried to use the state's law as a defense have failed, said
Thomas J. Ballanco, the defense attorney involved in the two biggest cases using the
defense. He lost both.

In one of them, B.E. Smith was convicted of growing marijuana on federal land in Trinity
County. Smith has a doctor's recommendation for marijuana and said he was growing the
plants for himself and others who were able to smoke it under the Compassionate Use Act.

Smith is serving a 27-month prison sentence and is appealing the conviction.

"In the cases I've seen at the state level, it has been a successful defense," said Ballanco, who
had a client who had her marijuana plants seized, then returned by the Los Angeles Police
Department. "We just backed up a truck to the LAPD and drove off with a bunch of
marijuana," Ballanco said.

Pesulima's group, Americans for Medical Rights, provides legal assistance for patients who
have been arrested on drug charges and are using the Compassionate Use Act as a defense in
state courts.

"We're confident that patients are able to use the law as a defense," she said. "In the cases
where there's more of an ongoing battle, it's usually because they have more than the amount
allowed for personal use or they are using in public, which is clearly not allowed."
MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager