United States: Federal Government Changes its Policies on Medical Marijuana
By Sam Pearson, State Hornet
When a student was caught smoking marijuana in the Tahoe National Forest, he might once have faced charges despite having a medical marijuana card. Instead, in this particular case, prosecutors dropped the charges because of recent changes in drug policy, said Roseville-based defense attorney Toni Carbone.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Oct. 20 the federal government would stop prosecuting medical marijuana users in states that had passed medical marijuana laws, such as California and 12 other states, including Nevada and Oregon.
Carbone has already seen the effects of this change. Her client received no penalty even though park rangers ticketed him for having 1.2 grams of marijuana on federal land, where state medical marijuana laws do not apply.
California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, creating a program that allowed people to obtain doctors' recommendations to use marijuana and obtain it from dispensaries throughout the state.
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill that would legalize and tax marijuana in California and held a hearing Oct. 28 at the state Capitol as part of the Public Safety Committee, which he chairs. It was the first-ever legislative hearing held on marijuana legalization.
The Obama administration's reversal and Ammiano's bill has raised hopes among marijuana advocates that broader decriminalization or legalization of the drug could be possible.
"I think this may be a historic opening," said Allen Hopper, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, in testimony at the state Capitol.
Ammiano's bill, A.B. 390, would allow people to grow, sell and possess marijuana in the state, while the state would collect fees and taxes along the way.
"If the Ammiano bill were to pass, you would shortly see pot bars in every campus town in the state, right alongside the more traditional alcohol bars, and that would assure that students who wanted to purchase marijuana would have a convenient place to do that," Keith Stroup, a lawyer for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in an email.
In addition, marijuana groups are collecting signatures for a ballot initiative set for the November 2010 election that would also tax and legalize marijuana.
Paul Fabbri, a student at American River College, collects signatures for the measure on the Library Quad at Sacramento State. Fabbri, who is paid 70 cents per signature by Oaksterdam University, said the measure would generate billions for the state.
"Not that much is going to change except we'll be able to make money off it," Fabbri said, arguing that marijuana use was so widespread that the state could not afford to let a revenue opportunity slip away.
Both efforts face legal hurdles, including whether the state can legalize and profit from behavior prohibited by the federal government.
Although the federal government has eased up on medical marijuana users, it is uncertain whether it would tolerate further loosening of marijuana laws. Obama said at an online town hall meeting in March that he did not believe legalizing marijuana was a good way to stimulate the economy.
Tamara Todd, an attorney for the Drug Policy Network's office of legal affairs, told the Public Safety Committee that nothing prevents the state from changing its laws.
"Tomorrow, California could repeal its entire criminal code," Todd said, adding that she believed nothing in the Constitution required certain things to be illegal.
The state Legislative Analyst and the Board of Equalization, which collects taxes, tried to quantify marijuana sales to anticipate the bill's impact. This is difficult because records are not kept for sales of illegal substances, Robert Eugenito told the committee.
The Board of Equalization assumed legalization would lead to lower prices, which would increase demand for the drug.
Before Ammiano's hearing, an anti-drug group held a news conference denouncing the bill. Bishop Ron Allen of the International Faith-Based Coalition joined State Sen. George Runner, R-Antelope, in slamming the proposal.
"We simply say, 'Seriously?' to the legalization of marijuana," Allen said.
Runner called the bill "another dumb legislative proposal."
None of this, however, changes California State University regulations.
The Chancellor's Office has advised campuses that it does not believe California's medical marijuana law applies to college campuses and the CSU system would risk losing federal funding if it did not prohibit all marijuana use on its property.
In the Sacramento State residence halls, students are not allowed to smoke or use marijuana for any purpose.
Students living in the residence halls have to sign a license document that outlines the residence hall policies. It states, "Marijuana is illegal. Use of marijuana in any form on University property is prohibited … Medical marijuana cards are not recognized."
Carbone said California's medical marijuana law applies once a student is in court, not when they were caught using the drug.
"It's only an affirmative defense," she said. "It's not immunity from being arrested."