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News (Media Awareness Project) - US CA: Legal, Not Legal
Title:US CA: Legal, Not Legal
Published On:2012-01-24
Source:San Francisco Bay Guardian, The (CA)
Fetched On:2012-01-26 06:01:11

Notes on the Evolving State of California Cannabis

HERBWISE It's been a weird year to start a marijuana column. Shortly
after we started Herbwise, which was intended to be our weekly look at
marijuana culture and events, politics reared its ugly head, rendering
it necessary to go to hearings at the State Building, call up
California Assembly members, and occasionally wade through seas of
legalese. Such is the state of cannabis under ongoing federal
prohibition, but it's been a particularly dramatic year.

And in some moments, news and culture reporting melded together in the
marijuana world. Take, for example, the case of Oakland's Harborside
Health Center, which is often called the largest dispensary in the
world (it is certainly the largest in California). After years of
painstakingly crafting a working relationship with city government,
the business was heavily audited by the IRS. The federal agency
decided Harborside fell under the jurisdiction of Section 280E of the
Internal Revenue Code, which denies tax refunds for businesses
involved in illegal drug trafficking. The collective now owes $20
million in back taxes, an amount that founder Steve DeAngelo asserts
will bankrupt it if his business is forced to pay up.

Despite the ever-growing acceptance of the plant in the United States
- -- a Gallup poll put the number at 50 percent in the fall of 2011 --
medical marijuana is under attack by the federal government. Last
fall, US Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag sent out
letters to the landlords of roughly a dozen Bay Area dispensaries
threatening them with civil forfeiture, or possibly four decades in
prison, if they failed to move this "trafficking" off their property
within 45 days. The letters targeted dispensaries considered to be in
a school zone.

Most left without a fight. In San Francisco, the Tenderloin's Divinity
Tree Patients Wellness Cooperative, the Market Street Collective on
Upper Market, and the Mission District's Medithrive and Mr. Nice Guy
were among the businesses that shut their doors, some completely and
some to transition into delivery-only services. [UPDATE: Attorney Matt
Kumin tells the Guardian that Divinity Tree and Medithrive have filed
a "coordinated federal lawsuit" through his office in protestation of
the closures]

Fairfax's sole dispensary, Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, was
forced to close after 15 years of legal operation overseen by
long-time cannabis activist Lynette Shaw. The 7,500-person Marin
County berg's town council passed a resolution supporting the
Alliance, which served as a symbol of popular support for legal
cannabis in a county beset with some of the highest breast cancer
rates in the country.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and Sen. Mark Leno have been the most
outspoken California politicians in coming out against the federal
government's meddling with the state's cannabis. At a press conference
at San Francisco's State Building in October 2011, Ammiano announced
his frustration that the feds would "upset the will of the people" by
curtailing safe patient access. Proud to be an elected gay official,
he promised to continue to crusade for an issue that he says
disproportionately affects the LGBTQ community.

One of the steps Ammiano took was to meet with Haag to discuss what
could be done to assuage her concerns with the industry. "That was
very, very disappointing," Ammiano commented on this initial talk. In
a recent phone interview with the Guardian, he remembered that Haag
implied that the order was coming from above, from high up in the
Obama Administration.

Ammiano doubts her assertion that she had little discretion in the
matter. "She said she was only doing what the boss was telling her to
do. We had a hard time with that."

He does think that the Obama Administration is sending its attorneys
mixed messages -- case in point, US Attorney General Eric Holder's
repeated comments that federal interference in state-legal marijuana
operations would be "a low priority." Ammiano also makes the
connection between the attacks on cannabis and the self-sustaining
industries behind the War on Drugs. "The DEA, some of the diehards,
this is like a jobs program for them," he said.

His meeting with California Attorney General Kamala Harris went more
smoothly. Ammiano says Harris, who voiced cautious support for the
industry last fall, was eager for a more comprehensive regulatory
system to be put into place, but she supported Proposition 215 -- the
1996 measure that legalized medical marijuana in California -- on principle.

Faced with an ambiguous future, medical cannabis' proponents --
politicians, activists, entrepreneurs, and patients -- are putting
forth plans for just such a system. This year will be the playing
field for a passel of campaigns to take medical marijuana out of the
under-supervised arena in which it's found itself.

Three ballot initiative campaigns seek to address the issue. Two --
Regulate Marijuana Like Wine and Repeal Prohibition -- would legalize
cannabis use for adults across the board. Another, which has perhaps
the most likely chance to succeed in the $2 million process of getting
onto the ballot, is being put forth by patient advocacy group
Americans for Safe Access, the United Food and Commercial Workers (the
union that represents many cannabis workers in California), and
marijuana collectives. It's called the Medical Marijuana Regulation,
Control, and Taxation Act.

"We decided to focus on medical because we figured that taking that
further step at this point is unwise given the federal government's
actions over the last months," said attorney George Mull, who is part
of the team that proposed the measure. If passed, the initiative would
establish a 21-member state regulatory board comprised of doctors,
industry folk, patients, activists, government officials, and others.
A state supplemental tax on cannabis would be levied and local
governments would be required to allow one dispensary per 50,000
residents. Ammiano said that he and Leno were also working on
proposing legislation that would provide regulations.

But the future of medical marijuana in California remains somewhat
cloudy. "I'm worried that even if we come up with the regulations, the
feds will find something else," said Ammiano. Complicating the matter,
the California Supreme Court moved unanimously on Jan. 18 to review
the power that cities and counties have to make their own laws
concerning cannabis accessibility -- plus, it plans to look at the old
disconnect between state and federal law on the matter..

So much for the politics of marijuana in 2012. Away from the
headlines, it's plain to see that the plant is increasingly accepted
in popular culture. On a local level, East Bay YouTube stoner Coral
Reefer continues to tweet to thousands of followers every time she
sparks a bowl, and on the national stage, Miley Cyrus admits to
smoking "way too much fucking weed," after seeing the birthday cake
friends had gotten her. (It had Bob Marley's face on it.)

On television, the United States is learning about Harborside's
travails -- but not just from the news shows. Discovery Channel shot a
season of reality TV following DeAngelo and his staff, telling the
stories of patients and about the reality of running a dispensary for
a show they entitled Weed Wars even before the final $20 million IRS
ruling. As the collective is being persecuted by the feds, its fan
base across the country grows.

Will Discovery Channel renew Weed Wars for a second season? Regardless
of the network's views on the protagonists' profession, if the cameras
are kept rolling they're sure to capture another year of interesting
times for California cannabis.
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