Stance on medical marijuana stirs pot

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement Monday that the federal government is thinking of throttling back prosecution of medical marijuana use has stirred mixed reactions locally.

Area law enforcement officials see no change of course in going after traffickers, while people who rely on medical pot are cautiously hopeful that a change in federal policy means marijuana dispensaries will reopen in San Luis Obispo County.

The gist of Holder’s comments was twofold: Federal resources won’t be used to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana. On the other hand, the feds won’t tolerate drug traffickers who “hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal.”

Rob Bryn, Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said he sees “virtually no change in the Attorney General’s policy — it’s a reinforcement of a position the federal government has taken for some time.”

Calling dispensaries “get-rich schemes being perpetrated by people wanting to find a loophole, the federal government still holds that all marijuana in any of its forms is illegal,” Bryn added.

A call seeking comment from Dr. Josef T. Schwartz, who advertises “discrete and comprehensive” medical cannabis evaluations, was not returned.

Elaine McKellips, a 57-year-old medicinal marijuana smoker for the past five years because of a variety of illnesses, said Holder’s comments gave her hope.

“Hopefully I won’t be so stressed out about where, when and how I get it — and what kind of people I have to deal with in getting it.”

There are several historical pinch-points that have dogged the federal vs. state positions on the use of medical marijuana.

The first was the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 that classified marijuana as a drug unacceptable for any use.

The second was a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that said the regulation of illicit drugs is a matter of interstate commerce and as such is overseen by the federal government.

The third federal vs. state showdown came when Californians passed the Medical Marijuana Initiative, Prop. 215, in 1996.

But dispensaries have had a tough time in San Luis Obispo County. The Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers dispensary in Morro Bay was shut down in April 2007 and its owner, Charles Lynch, was indicted and convicted on five counts of distributing illegal drugs. His case is now on appeal.

A proposed dispensary in Templeton was later blocked. And Atascadero has placed a 10-month moratorium on whether to allow a dispensary in its city.

Part of the problem with local governments and law enforcement is that as of now, there is no one agency that regulates dispensaries. This means that it’s unknown how many have opened and where, how they operate and whether or not they conform to state law in that they don’t make a profit.

Bryn noted of the Lynch bust, “One of the reasons we so aggressively focused our actions in this county against this (case) is because of the clear issues of what’s going on in L.A. today, where there are gang-related robberies, shootings and trafficking outside of dispensaries.

These people aren’t in compliance; they’re dope dealers making money.”