Cloud Of Uncertainty Over Legalized Pot As Feds End Obama-Era Accommodation

January 12, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Three days after California businesses began selling marijuana for recreational use, a policy change by the federal government has sparked uncertainty about the future of legalized cannabis and provoked sharp reactions from officials in the state and around the nation.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Thursday rescinded an Obama-era policy that discouraged federal prosecutors from cracking down on the sale and consumption of pot. Sessions issued a memo directing prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws to “disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis and thwart violent crime across our country.”

The Obama administration’s hands-off approach had paved the way for a growing number of states to legalize cannabis use and boosted the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry.

U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a tweet that Sessions’ decision was “shameful” and an insult to the democratic process.

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted that Sessions had “destructively doubled down on the failed, costly, and racially discriminatory war on drugs, ignoring facts and logic, and trampling on the will of CA voters.” Newsom pledged to “pursue all options to protect our reforms and rights.”

The attorney general’s announcement did not clarify whether prosecutors would pursue federal charges against marijuana businesses or seek to disrupt the rapidly expanding market. Despite the new policy, California planned to continue issuing licenses to businesses that want to sell pot for recreation. The chief of the state’s new Bureau of Cannabis Control, Lori Ajax, said she plans to defend California’s law and continue efforts to implement regulations both for medicinal and recreational marijuana.

“We expect the federal government to respect the rights of states and the votes of millions of people across America, and if they won’t, Congress should act,” Ajax said.

Any effort to enforce federal law could undercut California’s carefully elaborated marijuana regulations and give rise to an illicit market, warned Josh Drayton, spokesman for the California Cannabis Industry Association, which represents 400 pot-related businesses. “We have worked very hard for the past few years to regulate this industry,” he said. “Allowing the federal government to come in … is going to affect the public safety and public health for the constituents of California.”

A total of 29 states have legalized marijuana for medical use.
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures.

The health effects of the drug and its legalization are widely debated. Advocates say that cannabis can relieve pain, ease chemotherapy-related nausea for cancer patients and stimulate the appetites of AIDS patients — arguments that have helped propel states to allow marijuana for medicinal purposes.

But critics cite a rise in emergency room visits and impaired driving in states where marijuana is legal for recreational use. In addition, marijuana can affect cognitive functioning, and people who use it long term can suffer from an obscure illness that causes extreme abdominal pain and vomiting.

Drayton said businesses “are trying not to get into a panic” about the policy shift announced by Sessions. MedMen, which operates marijuana stores in New York and California, saw a steep increase in business in California this week with the start of recreational sales, according to company spokesman Daniel Yi. He said the “reality on the ground” has not changed with Thursday’s federal announcement. “It has created more uncertainty, but it hasn’t created certainty that there will be a crackdown.”

State and federal laws have conflicted on marijuana for many years. It remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, despite the fact that many states have substantially decriminalized its use. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, although the District of Columbia continues to ban sales. A total of 29 states have legalized marijuana for medical use

The federal government’s shift to a more marijuana-adverse stance is unlikely to have a big impact on states that have legalized marijuana, said Robert Mikos, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and an expert on drug law and federalism. That’s because Sessions left it up to the country’s individual U.S. attorneys, who must decide whether to go after the marijuana industry. Mikos said many U.S. attorneys will be reluctant to crack down on popular marijuana reforms, especially if they have plans to run for higher office.

They also may hesitate to redirect funds from other key priorities, including the opioid crisis, he said.

Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor at New York University, agreed that not much would change despite Thursday’s policy change. The federal government simply lacks the resources to suppress cannabis production and consumption, said Kleiman, co-author of the book “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs To Know.”

The decision by Sessions did not come as a surprise to legislators and others, since he has been openly critical of marijuana legalization. However, President Donald Trump has said in the past that legalization of marijuana was up to the states. On Thursday, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that the Justice Department’s move “simply gives prosecutors the tools to take on large-scale distributors and enforce federal law.”

Opponents of legalized marijuana said that the federal U-turn could stem the growth of the marijuana industry and curb mass marketing.

“It is a good day for public health,” said Kevin Sabet, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida. Sabet said the Sessions policy is not aimed at individual users but rather the marijuana industry as a whole.

Governors in several states where marijuana is legal issued statements saying that Sessions’ new policy subverted the will of voters and committing themselves to uphold their state laws.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said the state has a well-regulated system that keeps “criminal elements” out. “We will vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue infringement,” he said.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, also a Democrat, said the voters in her state were clear when they decided to legalize marijuana, and the federal government shouldn’t stand in their way.

“My staff and state agencies are working to evaluate reports of the Attorney General’s decision and will fight to continue Oregon’s commitment to a safe and prosperous recreational marijuana market,” Brown said.

In Alaska, Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, said in a statement that he was disappointed by Thursday’s memo and remained committed to “maintaining our state’s sovereign rights to manage our own affairs while protecting federal interests.”

“I will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Justice and our congressional delegation to prevent federal overreach into Alaska,” he said.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said his state has created a comprehensive regulatory and enforcement system that prioritizes public health and safety. “We are expanding efforts to eliminate the black market and keep marijuana out of the hands of minors and criminals,” he said. “Today’s decision does not alter the strength of our resolve in those areas, nor does it change my constitutional responsibilities.”

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States, and the trend of states bucking its prohibition in favor of taxing and regulating it reflects a broad cultural shift toward greater acceptance. That could make it even harder for the federal government to enforce its laws, Kleiman said.

“Cannabis prohibition is over,” he said. “We are where we were with alcohol in 1930.”

A Gallup poll from late last year found that 64 percent of Americans believed cannabis should be legal. A February survey by Quinnipiac University found that 71 percent of U.S. voters want the federal government to respect state marijuana laws. In that survey, majorities of Republicans, Democrats, independents and every age group agreed the feds should not enforce prohibition on states that have legalized marijuana.

Carmen Heredia Rodriguez contributed to this story. This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.




City Moves Ahead On ‘Pot’ Enforcement

August 11, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

BELL GARDENS – Faced with the possibility of losing its authority to regulate the growth and delivery of medical marijuana in the city, Bell Gardens officials have adopted a series of measures that explicitly prohibited all commercial medical cannabis activity in the city.

Their actions come in response to Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of the Medical Regulation and Safety Act, a state-licensing program for dispensaries. Coming nearly 20 years after medical marijuana was first legalized in California, the three-pronged bill aims to clarify gray areas in the legislation that allowed “pot shops” and commercial medical marijuana activities to continue unregulated.

The Act requires cities like Bell Gardens to adopt ordinances or zoning laws to regulate medical marijuana operations within their borders, or risk the state becoming the final arbiter of the medical marijuana industry in the city.

“It was either act now, otherwise the state will decide,” explained Abel Avalos, Bell Gardens’ Director of Community Development.

Avalos told EGP the city decided to tighten its existing zoning codes in direct response to the state’s March deadline, but added that the changes also give Bell Gardens new tools to regulate the delivery and growing of marijuana in the city, activities that have popped up in greater frequency recently despite the city’s 2007 banning of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Illegal use of marijuana is an issue for the city, says Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez, pointing out the difficulty of enforcing laws prohibiting its use in public.

“Everywhere you go you can smell it,” she told EGP in frustration. “You can smell it at the gym, while you drive; there’s just no control.”

In November, voters will decide whether to approved the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act,” which would legalize marijuana for recreational use for adults 21 years and older, and tax the commercial growth and retail sale of nonmedical cannabis.

The current Medical Regulation and Safety Act only allows cities to ban nonmedical marijuana businesses and to prohibit businesses that also sell alcohol and tobacco to also sell medical marijuana. But according to Rodriguez, the measure fails to adequately deal with enforcement-related issues.

“What good are these laws if it’s difficult to enforce them?” she asks.

According to Bell Gardens Police Detective Sgt. Troy Henshaw, the department regularly receives calls complaining of people, often juveniles, smoking or using marijuana in public. The complaint sometimes comes from someone standing near the offender, other times it comes from a motorist driving behind a vehicle emitting a noticeable smoke and smell, he explained.

“Some of the calls result in no one being located and others have resulted in citations and arrests,” Sgt. Henshaw told EGP. “I would not say it is a big problem in public parks or spaces, but we do receive calls about it.”

Police must evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis to determine if a suspect’s possession of marijuana is legal, looking at such things as whether the person has a medical marijuana prescription card allowing them to be in legal possession of the substance. If not, the officer must make a decision as to how severe charges should be, which is often determined by the amount of illegal marijuana the person’s possession.

“Each situation is different, but if an individual is found to be violating a marijuana law…he or she can be issued a citation, arrested for a misdemeanor offense or for a felony offense and the marijuana is confiscated,” explained Sgt. Henshaw.

Since 2011, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is just an infraction with a maximum $100 fine and no criminal record, decriminalizing the offense as part of an effort to reduce the financial burden on the courts for prosecuting the charges.

In other words, “you get caught smoking, get a ticket and sent on your merry way,” complains Rodriguez.

The enforcement of the medical marijuana industry has proved difficult for many local cities. Illegal and unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries have long been a problem in the city of Los Angeles, with new facilities continuing to pop up despite voter approval of Proposition D, a measure that limits the number of dispensaries allowed to operate to no more than 135. The Office of L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, which at one time estimated the number of unlawful dispensaries in the city to be more than 800, has an ongoing effort to shut down the illegal facilities in what many have described as a constant game of “whack-a-mole.”

While the problem has not been no where near as bad in Bell Gardens, three medical marijuana dispensaries did illegally open along Eastern Avenue, near the city’s downtown commercial corridor.

In “plain sight,” but unbeknownst to the city, the businesses were quickly shut down once they were discovered, Avalos told EGP.

“No known dispensaries currently operate within Bell Gardens,” assured Sgt. Henshaw.

But the legalization of marijuana could bring new and bigger issues, points out Rodriguez.

She believes legalizing marijuana for recreational use will shift the burden of regulation onto municipalities like Bell Gardens, not to mention the issues of enforcement and the financial and societal consequences of marijuana-related crimes and accidents, problems she feels have surged since medical marijuana was legalized.

“This is just the beginning, it’s just starting and soon we may not be able to do anything about it.”

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