When voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996, California became one of two states to decriminalize marijuana on a medical basis. (Arizona voters passed the similar Proposition 200 on the same day.) Proponents of medical cannabis didn’t have long to rejoice, however: In 1997, the Clinton administration let it be known that doctors who issued prescriptions for medical marijuana would forfeit their authorizations to prescribe federally regulated narcotics. A federal judge ruled against enforcement of the Clinton administration’s policy, but the Bush administration later renewed a hard line against state medical marijuana laws, insisting that state laws regarding federally regulated drugs were invalid in the face of federal law.
For medical cannabis advocates, the election of Barack Obama brought the hope of a softening of federal policy. Indeed, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated in February of this year that the Justice Department would no longer raid medical marijuana establishments authorized under state law. (Holder reiterated the Justice Department’s more tolerant stance in October, saying, “It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana.”) Medical cannabis advocates cheered, and medical marijuana establishments proliferated. But once again, the celebration may have been premature.
Fourteen states now have laws authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and California leads the nation in the number of medical marijuana dispensaries. In some locales, though, the battle against them seems to be intensifying, through increased law enforcement action, municipal ordinances, and local zoning enactments.
California first decriminalized marijuana in 1976, and Proposition 215 followed 20 years later. You might be surprised, then, to learn that 2008 saw 78,000 people arrested in the state for marijuana violations. That’s an increase of about 14,000 arrests over 2006. I think it’s safe to assume that many thousands of people learned the hard way that Proposition 215, The Compassionate Use Act of 1996, often falls short as a legal panacea for marijuana users.
Redding Chief of Police Peter Hansen recently made a splash in the news when he sent letters to nine medical marijuana dispensaries, reminding them that marijuana is still illegal under federal law and mentioning the possibility of penalties of up to 20 years in prison. In that light, I thought it important to get the thoughts of the Sheriff of Shasta County, Tom Bosenko.
Shasta County voters elected Bosenko in 2006, following Jim Pope’s 15-year tenure holding the office. Before taking office as sheriff, he was the Sheriff Department’s Patrol Division captain. He has served with the Sheriff’s Department for 30 years.
HJ: Sheriff Bosenko, what is your stance on medical marijuana dispensaries?
Tom Bosenko: I’m opposed to them. Dispensaries are illegal under the law, both state and federal, while cooperatives and collectives must adhere to strict rules and guidelines from the Attorney General. Most, if not all of them, are not complying with those guidelines, so they’re operating illegally. In fact, several law enforcement agencies throughout the state have conducted investigations and sweeps, and have discovered that the majority are operating illegally. Also, we have information indicating that organized crime is involved in the distribution of medical marijuana.
HJ: Has the Sheriff’s office conducted interviews with those doctors who write recommendations for medical marijuana?
Bosenko: We have contacted some of them to make them aware of what’s required of them, and to ensure that those patients issued recommendations are qualified for them under the law.
HJ: Some proponents of medical marijuana suggest that an increase in the number of medical marijuana clinics will actually take money away from organized crime, while adding to the tax base. How would you respond?
Bosenko: It’s unlikely that their proliferation would take money away from organized crime. Look at alcohol and cigarettes: Both are legal and taxed, and yet organized crime continues to make money off of them by transporting them across state lines to sell in the black market. A proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries and co-ops would not eliminate trafficking, but would instead create a new market — a market for tax-free marijuana. Organized crime may, over time, become more involved in this lucrative market, and medical marijuana “businesses” could find themselves targeted, or at the very least, under the unwelcome influence of organized crime.
HJ: I’ve heard that gang members have pulled up to dispensaries in moving vans, raided the establishments at gunpoint, and have made off with marijuana and money. Is that true?
Bosenko: Yes. That’s happened at dispensaries, co-ops, and Proposition 215-authorized grow sites, and some people have been murdered during some of those raids. Others have suffered serious injuries. Already, a medical marijuana establishment has been burglarized right here in Redding.
HJ: What would you say to people who feel that marijuana is a safe drug?
Bosenko: I believe that if people will look in depth at the sound medical and scientific research concerning the short and long-term effects of marijuana, they’ll be less inclined to look at it as a benign drug — or as a medicine.
HJ: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
Bosenko: Marijuana is still illegal both within the state and federally. I have zero tolerance for illegal drugs, and the Sheriff’s office will continue efforts against criminal activities.
You might think, What does he mean, “Marijuana is still illegal both within the state and federally”? If marijuana is still illegal, how could over twenty medical marijuana facilities operate in Redding? Proposition 215 made marijuana legal for people holding a doctor’s recommendation, right?
Well, not exactly. Marijuana is still illegal by federal and state law. Proposition 215 didn’t make marijuana legal for anyone. Instead, it granted immunity from prosecution for qualified patients, their caregivers, and for people who associate with the purpose of providing marijuana to those who qualify. That immunity from prosecution comes with conditions, such as limits on quantities and the requirement that the user get a doctor’s authorization once a year.
The battle between opponents of medical cannabis and its advocates is far from over.
Next: A Talk with Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project.
Hal Johnson escaped from southern California 16 years ago and lives in Shasta County with his wife and son. He’s an offshore helicopter pilot who often finds writing more frightening than flying.