Counterintuitive pot politics

Dispensary advocates and law enforcement officials agree

Californians approved the state’s medical-marijuana law, Proposition 215, on Nov. 5, 1996. That’s back when President Clinton was serving his first term in the White House and Friends was just a couple of years into its decade-long run on NBC.

Californians made history when they passed the first medi-pot law 14 years ago, and next month they could do it again by becoming the first state in the nation to legalize the recreational use of the herb. If passed, Proposition 19 would allow anyone at least 21 years old to possess up to an ounce of pot. Known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, Prop. 19 also would allow local governments to authorize and regulate retail sales and collect taxes.

Voters may think that medical-marijuana advocates would support legalization, but after spending years battling with law enforcement on the implementation of the extremely vague Prop. 215, many are wary of the ambiguity surrounding legalization and are coming out against it.

“If they don’t like us for medical use, they’re really not going to like us for recreational use,” said Ralph Bailey of Doctor’s Orders Co-op Inc., whose local medicinal-marijuana dispensary was among the eight Chico facilities raided this past summer by sheriff’s deputies and police officers during a multi-agency effort led by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

It’s been more than three months since the raid, and Bailey insists he’s cooperated with law-enforcement officials, who seized three of the co-op’s computers, along with cash and processed marijuana. He’s given them the passwords to the computers, for example, and met with the sheriff’s investigators and representatives from the District Attorney’s Office. Yet, his property remains in the custody of the authorities.

Bailey opened the Chico cooperative in December, following the same rules he’d adhered to since opening the doors to his sister facility in Sacramento eight years ago. But with District Attorney Mike Ramsey’s much narrower interpretation of Prop. 215, Butte County medical-marijuana advocates have not enjoyed the relative freedom seen in other communities such as Sacramento and Oakland.

That’s why it’s interesting that Bailey and other medi-pot proponents are on the same side of the Prop. 19 debate as Butte County’s own top law-enforcement official, Sheriff Jerry Smith.

During a conference call this week from his Oroville office, Smith and Undersheriff Kory Honea went over their many concerns about this November’s ballot initiative. Not surprisingly, they are staunchly opposed to it. Honea, who has the benefit of a degree in law, said he’s found the text of the proposition difficult to digest. Smith agreed, saying it will add another level of ambiguity to the already confusing realm of medicinal marijuana.

“It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the downfalls of allowing one more [chemical] compound into our society,” Smith said.

Both men worry that, because marijuana use is illegal under federal law, legalization in the state could prevent the issuance of grants associated with the Drug-Free Workplace Act. They also fear that Prop. 19 would interfere with an employer’s ability to discipline an employee who shows up to work high. Unlike with alcohol, which studies have determined impairs driving performance at 0.08 percent, there is no agreed-upon limit for marijuana.

As written in Prop. 19, an employer cannot take action until a worker displays objective symptoms of impairment, Honea said.

“They might not slur their words, but isn’t it possible it affects the split-second decisions they make in life-threatening situations?” added Smith, who drove his points home by noting specific scenarios including the death of a local jogger who was recently struck and killed by an allegedly high motorist.

Public safety is the crux of their argument against Prop. 19. Honea noted that the Sheriff’s Office sees a great deal of violence associated with cultivation. One of the concerns, then, is the potential increase in violence should the amount of grows proliferate.

Honea said he’s seen no data supporting proponents’ argument that legalization will reduce crime.

“It would risk public safety to conduct that social experiment,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s a good way to create public policy.”

Locally, public policy related to pot is slow going. In fact, today, about 14 years after the passage of the Compassionate Use Act, Chico is finally coming to grips with the law. Currently, city staff is working on crafting a land-use ordinance addressing residential grows along with collective grows, processing and distribution. The issue has been bouncing from the City Council to various city appointed panels for the past year, getting closer and closer to finalization.

Meanwhile, 11 cities in the state have placed marijuana-tax measures on the November ballot in preparation for the passage of Prop. 19, which would go into effect the day after the election.

Amir Daliri of Cascade Wellness Center, a Chico dispensary, is hoping Nov. 3 is just an ordinary day. Like Bailey, he too is against the measure. Daliri is also the director of governmental affairs for a fledgling medi-pot advocacy group called the California Cannabis Association. The primary goal of the month-old association is to lobby for a regulatory framework that makes the medicinal-pot industry more transparent. As it stands, there are no statewide regulations—no packaging standards, mandated certification or employee training, or any enforced best practices.

“It’s kind of like the Wild West out there, and you self-regulate. … That’s what you’re forced to do,” Daliri said.

One of the concerns, he said, is that legalization will only exacerbate the confusion. The biggest worry, however, is that language in the proposition allowing cities and counties to regulate marijuana cultivation and sales—or to ban it altogether—will also lead to a prohibition of dispensaries, and thus prevent access for patients. Voters should keep in mind, he said, that very few cities and counties (32 and nine, respectively, as of January) in the state have enacted regulations governing dispensaries.

In other words, if they haven’t dealt with dispensaries, there’s little hope they’ll allow retail sales.

Proponents deny that claim and insist legalization will increase access, but Daliri doesn’t buy that. He noted that one of its biggest advocates is Richard Lee, executive director of Oaksterdam University, the Oakland-based dispensary and pot trade school. Daliri and others say legalization will give Lee, who has earned the support of the city of Oakland, a near monopoly.

Legalization, at least as written in the Prop. 19, has the potential to create many new problems, he summed up.

“We think it’s a jumbled legal nightmare,” he said.