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Groups on Both Sides
Oppose Marijuana Bill
By Eric Bailey, Times Staff Writer
SACRAMENTO — In the seven years since California legalized
marijuana as medicine, a vexing question has remained
unresolved: How much pot should patients be allowed to
A bill that would limit the ill to six plants or a half-pound
of pot is headed to the desk of Gov. Gray Davis. But the
measure by state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) has
run into opposition from two groups on polar sides of the
state's 1996 medical marijuana initiative.
The California Narcotics Officers Assn., long opposed to
medicinal pot, is staunchly against the bill. On the other
side, a hard-core cadre within the deeply divided medical
cannabis movement contends that the six-plant restriction is
far too tight.
A spokesman for Davis said the governor, scrambling in the
final weeks before the Oct. 7 recall election, has yet to form
an opinion on the proposal.
"I really don't know what he will do on this one," said John
Lovell, a lobbyist for the narcotics police. "But it strikes
me that, with the narcotics officers and several of the
marijuana advocacy groups opposing it, the bill may not have
much of a political constituency."
For Vasconcellos, that's a diagnosis for frustration.
"This saddens me enormously," the veteran senator said. "This
is the most carefully negotiated bill I've worked on in my 37
years here. If this crashes, no one else will pick it up."
Vasconcellos has for several sessions been treading where few
Capitol lawmakers dared step: into the contentious quarrel
over Proposition 215, which legalized medical cannabis.
Since the law took effect, police and prosecutors have voiced
frustration on issues ranging from the conflict with federal
law, which declares pot illegal for any use, to the question
of who is a legitimate patient.
Medical pot advocates, in particular hard-core Bay Area
activists who helped place Proposition 215 on the ballot, have
countered that tampering with the law's open-ended limits
would trample the will of the voters.
For the last three sessions, Vasconcellos has introduced bills
attempting to sort out the conflict. Last year, a similar bill
made it to the governor's desk, but it was vetoed.
This year, the senator sought to push a bill that the governor
would be hard-pressed to kill, a measure that would win
acceptance from all sides — police, prosecutors and patients.
Instead, some of medicinal pot's most visible activists are on
"John Vasconcellos has no right to barter away the rights of
medical marijuana patients," said Steve Kubby, national
director of the American Medical Marijuana Assn. "We won those
rights through the polls. He's simply shredding them."
Some contend six plants or a half-pound of pot simply isn't
enough for some patients, who use marijuana to combat AIDS
wasting, nausea from cancer chemotherapy, glaucoma and other
"It just doesn't work in the real world," said Valerie Corral,
founder of a Santa Cruz pot co-operative and a participant in
the Capitol negotiations.
She said patients in her co-operative on average need about
two pounds of pot a year. Those who must eat cannabis or use a
pot tincture may need four times as much as those who smoke
Corral was particularly bothered by an "eleventh hour switch"
that she believed Vasconcellos had performed to appease law
In early drafts, the measure called for a study by state
health officials to set acceptable limits for pot use by
patients. But health officials recently announced that such a
study would not only be difficult, it would also cost millions
of dollars. With such a price tag, the bill wouldn't stand a
chance under the state's current budget constraints.
Vasconcellos countered with a simple cap. Initially, there was
talk of a 99-plant limit, similar to that in an ordinance
adopted in Sonoma County. But after law enforcement officials
complained, that number was slashed.
"A lot of people don't want to be reined in, in any way," said
Scott Imler, founder of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource
Center and a supporter of Vasconcellos' efforts. "But any bill
that landed on the governor's desk that talks about 99 plants
for every patient would be dead on arrival."
Before a 2001 federal raid shut down his dispensary, 85% of
its members used less than a half-pound a year, Imler said. "I
think a half-dozen plants is a reasonable limit."
For patients who need more, Vasconcellos included two caveats.
Those with greater needs could possess and plant more pot if
their doctors deemed it necessary. In addition, a local city
or county could adopt higher limits.
"It's a soft cap," Vasconcellos said. "We've got a threshold
that's fairly generous. My feeling was, we can't apply what's
good for San Francisco to the rest of the state."
Aside from seeking to put limits on patients' pot, the bill
would launch a voluntary system of ID cards so patients could
more easily avoid arrest when confronted by police officers.
The more moderate wing of the medical marijuana movement has
thrown its weight behind Vasconcellos.
"This will help patients, help police and help taxpayers who
don't want to see their money wasted on bum prosecutions of
sick people," said Glenn Backes of the Drug Policy Alliance.
"This is about sorting it out for local law enforcement."
In particular, he said, the Vasconcellos bill would help
patients in rural counties, where police and prosecutors have
tended to take a zero-tolerance stance on medical marijuana.
"Law enforcement hasn't known how to separate caregivers and
patients from recreational users," said Karyn Sinunu, a Santa
Clara County assistant district attorney who helped craft the
measure. "This has been a tough shift for them."
Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access,
said the limits are too low. But she remains hopeful. "If law
enforcement sees this as a floor instead of a ceiling, then
this will be a great process," she said.
While some police groups are staying neutral or offering tacit
support for the measure, the state's narcotics officers will
push for a gubernatorial veto.
Lovell said the narcotics officers have not taken a stand on
the bill's plant and possession limits, though he speculated
there would be concerns. Officers' biggest beef for now is
with the voluntary nature of the ID-card system. The narcotics
officers wanted the system to be mandatory so police could be
certain before they arrested a suspect who claimed to be a
medical patient but couldn't prove it.
Backers of the bill said the ID program had been made
voluntary because they believed a state patient registry could
be seized by U.S. drug agents and become a hit list for