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Smoked Out 

The federal government makes good on its threat to shut down medical-marijuana dispensaries—and the worst may be yet to come

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Green War

Nearly all medical-marijuana advocates agree that the tumult surrounding collectives' rights to cultivate, transport and distribute cannabis has been exacerbated under the Obama administration. Despite recent Gallup Polls revealing a record-high 50 percent support for medical marijuana in the United States, and President Obama's own 2008 campaign promise to support state's rights for medical marijuana, this administration has been declared the worst ever when it comes to actual support, according to groups like the Marijuana Policy Project.

Obama recently told Rolling Stone magazine, "I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana—and the reason is, because it's against federal law." He then cited the "murky" area where large-scale commercial operations supply not only medical marijuana users but "may also be supplying recreational marijuana users."

The question of legality, not to mention backtracking on campaign promises, has also come to play in Sonoma County.

click to enlarge DRAGGED AROUND Often, marijuana cases go on for so long and cost so much that even innocent defendants simply plead guilty.
  • DRAGGED AROUND Often, marijuana cases go on for so long and cost so much that even innocent defendants simply plead guilty.

Sarah Shrader, of the Sonoma County chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), says that it's difficult to track whether marijuana cases are medical or not, since charges will note simply "cultivation" or "possession" without mention of doctor's recommendations. But she does say that she's seen an uptick in cases under Jill Ravitch's term as district attorney. Critics charge this is in contradiction to statements Ravitch made at a 2010 candidate forum at the Sonoma County Library, where she told the audience of over a hundred that what was most important regarding medical marijuana is that there is safe access for qualified patients.

"I understand that there is a place for it," she said, "and I understand that the law requires that there be safe access in our community." Later in the debate, she went on to say that enforcement would be on a "case-by-case basis," adding that Sonoma County was enlightened when it came to medical-marijuana laws.

Pozzi says that she's spoken to public defenders in counties like Kern, Tulare and San Bernardino, and from what she's heard, Ravitch is lenient in comparison.

"I know marijuana cases are not her priority," says Pozzi. "Her priority in prosecuting cases are crimes of violence and elder abuse."

But Shrader says she's getting calls about new cases every week and that she's currently tracking at least a dozen medical cannabis cases, the majority of which have multiple defendants. She does say that Ravitch has been willing to sit down and review cases and changes in case law with advocates from SAMM and ASA, but that it's been over a year since they've met with her.

The district attorney's office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Untangling the Mess

In December 2011, California Attorney General Kamala Harris sent out a memo detailing her concerns about the lack of regulation for medical dispensaries and collectives in the state, while at the same time affirming her commitment to maintain access for qualified patients to physician-recommended marijuana. But to do so, lawmakers must first "define the contours of the right to collective and cooperative cultivation," wrote Harris, citing Section 11362.775 of the Health and Safety Code.

"By articulating the scope of the collective and cooperative cultivation right, the Legislature will help law enforcement and others ensure lawful, consistent and safe access to medical marijuana," she continued.

Spokesperson for SAMM Mary Pat Jacobs says that a state-wide regulatory agency for dispensing collectives might be the solution, at least to solve confusion about what's legal and what isn't at a local and state level. Of course, such an agency wouldn't remedy anything at the federal level, where marijuana is still considered to be dangerous, illegal and without any medicinal use. Jacobs points to a bill proposed by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano that would establish a regulatory framework for medical marijuana in California, which passed out of the Public Safety Committee on April 17.

"It might be the solution to the problems going on right now," she says.

It remains to be seen if the "Windsor 16" will end up with jail time, probation or fines, or, for that matter, whether they were operating within proper legal guidelines. Mitch says that, for now, his wife has put in a vegetable garden, and that the most potent thing they're growing is tomatoes. He still seems baffled by the sheriff's raid and the eradication of the gardens on his property.

"If it doesn't work with your attorney there watching you to make sure everything's good," says Mitch, with a sigh, "then I don't see how people have a chance."

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