State's attorney general urges changes to medical marijuana law

SAN FRANCISCO - Attorney General Kamala Harris urged California lawmakers Wednesday to get serious about clarifying the state's 15-year-old medical marijuana law, saying numerous holes in the notoriously liberal statute have left law enforcement and legitimate patients in a near-constant state of uncertainty.

In a letter to the Legislature's leaders, Harris said the state needs to spell out if the hundreds of storefront dispensaries and delivery services that sell marijuana - purportedly for medical use - are legal, or if the only lawful way to obtain the drug is through patient collectives in which all members jointly grow their own supplies.

"Without a substantive change to existing law, these irreconcilable interpretations of the law, and the resulting uncertainty for law enforcement and seriously ill patients, will persist," she wrote in the letter to Senate President Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez.

Harris, a Democrat who was elected with backing from the state's medical marijuana industry, has been under pressure to defend it since October, when the four federal prosecutors based in California announced a coordinated effort to shut retail pot shops they described as ruses for public drug dealing. Dozens have since closed.

Harris sent a separate letter to the U.S. attorneys Wednesday advising them of her request to the Legislature and asking them to focus on human trafficking and international gangs instead of California residents who are trying to comply with the state's pot laws.

"The federal government is ill-equipped to be the sole arbiter of whether an individual or group is acting within the bounds of California's medical marijuana laws when cultivating marijuana for medical purposes," Harris wrote to her federal counterparts, noting that U.S. law does not recognize any health benefits in the drug.

As California's top law enforcement official, the attorney general is empowered under the medical marijuana law to issue guidelines on such issues as what users need to do to avoid arrest. Harris' office spent much of 2011 preparing to revise the guidance Gov. Jerry Brown, in his previous role as attorney general, issued in 2008.

Instead, she said in the letters sent Wednesday, she concluded after consulting representatives from local governments, law enforcement and medical marijuana community that it was really up to the Legislature to provide clarification because any directives she issued would by definition lack the force of law.

"The facts today are far more complicated than was the case in 2008," Harris said in her letter to Steinberg and Perez. "I have come to recognize that non-binding guidelines will not solve our problems - state law itself needs to be reformed, simplified and improved to better explain to law enforcement and patients alike how, when and where individuals may cultivate and obtain physician-recommended marijuana."

Brown said at the time that medical marijuana dispensaries were only legal if they were set up as nonprofit cooperatives or collectives, and that anyone running for-profit pot clubs could be arrested and prosecuted by local authorities. He expressed the hope that his guidelines would both dissuade the federal government from raiding dispensaries that were operating legally and force those that were not out of business.

Instead, the number of storefront pot shops ballooned, and the federal pressure intensified with the coordinated assault by the four U.S. attorneys.

Among the issues Harris would like to see cleared up, besides the question of whether dispensaries are legal and if they need to be run as nonprofits, is how marijuana-infused food items should be treated and regulated. Under current law, companies and individuals that furnish edible marijuana to dispensaries "may be engaged in the illegal sale and distribution of marijuana," she said.

It remains to be seen how much of an appetite the Legislature has for tackling the topic of medical marijuana. Earlier this year, two marijuana-related bills, one that prohibited employers from discriminating against medical marijuana users and another that would have allowed marijuana growing as a misdemeanor, did not go anywhere.

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