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Debating San Diego’s ‘Hard Line’ On Medical Marijuana

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Suspects arrested in last week's raid on medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego are expected to make their first court appearance today. San Diego has developed a reputation as a place that's not friendly to the legal sale of marijuana. The crackdown on 14 local dispensaries has been called yet another example of the county's hard-line approach. But was it?

— Suspects arrested in last week's raid on medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego are expected to make their first court appearance today. San Diego has developed a reputation as a place that's not friendly to the legal sale of marijuana. The crackdown on 14 local dispensaries has been called yet another example of the county's hard-line approach. But was it?

The 14 dispensaries were closed because they're accused of operating outside the law that allows the sale and use of medicinal marijuana. The district attorney said police raids turned up guns, $70,000 in cash and evidence that the shops were making a profit and selling to anyone off the street.

Attorney Patrick Dudley has represented people accused of illegal use of medical marijuana. He said the raid showed him evidence of a different kind.

"Most people would say that the last battleground for medical marijuana is San Diego," he said.

San Diego County supervisors have been stalwart opponents of the legal sale of marijuana. The county board sued to block the law's requirement that they issue ID cards to medical marijuana users, and they took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last May, the Supreme Court refused to hear their case. Dudley says San Diego law enforcement has shown no inclination to help dispensaries with code compliance. Their approach, he says, is to arrest first and ask questions later.

"In San Francisco and Los Angeles, other jurisdictions, there have definitely been some guidelines and approaches as to what's going to be allowed and what's not allowed," said Dudley. "In San Diego, from the county government to the district attorney's office, there has definitely been a zero-tolerance approach."

District attorneys must determine whether the sale of marijuana follows the state attorney general's legal guidelines. Those guidelines require dispensaries to be run as collectives whose marijuana is grown by members of the collective and sold only to members.

Joseph Esposito manages drug cases for the district attorney of Los Angeles. He says he disagrees with those who say the San Diego DA has been overly-aggressive in going after marijuana dispensaries.

"We concur with San Diego's assessment that these storefronts that open up, that do nothing more than act as a 31 flavors of pot essentially. That's not what's authorized by the health and safety code of California," said Esposito.

He adds that local officials in Los Angeles have raided and closed dispensaries.

"There have been approximately 40 dispensaries that have been shut down. But you've got to keep in mind we have a lot of dispensaries here. I think San Diego has a total of about 60. And we have somewhere between 800 and 1,000," said Esposito.

Most people agree the laws governing medical marijuana are vague and confusing. What is a cooperative, and who qualifies as a member? San Diego attorney Robert Grimes is representing the manager of Total Herbal Care, a dispensary that was closed down in Pacific Beach. He says it's debatable whether the law forbids the making of any profit on medical marijuana. He says dispensary operators face great uncertainty in dealing with a an extremely complex set of laws.

"There's been no realistic practical way for medical marijuana users to have a reliable, non-controversial way of filling their doctor's recommendations," he said.

One San Diego marijuana dispensary manager, who didn't want to be identified, said he believes he understands the law. He just doesn't understand how District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis interprets it. When asked how patients should get their marijuana if so many dispensaries are illegal, Dumanis said legitimate patients do have another option.

"They can grow it," she said. "They can grow it in their backyard. You know, plants. That's what it calls for."

Attorney Patrick Dudley responds by saying an individual growing their own is also taking a chance with laws that leave a lot of discretion up to local law enforcement.

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