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Groups on Both Sides Oppose Marijuana Bill


09/29/03

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 possess?

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 the warpath.

"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 illnesses.

"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 the drug.

Corral was particularly bothered by an "eleventh hour switch" that she believed Vasconcellos had performed to appease law enforcement.

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 arrests.