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SD Board of Supervisors to Sue State Over Med. Marijuana Law

As required by state law, counties throughout California have begun issuing ID cards to medical marijuana patients. But the board of supervisors in San Diego County has refused to take part in the pro

As required by state law, counties throughout California have begun issuing ID cards to medical marijuana patients. But the board of supervisors in San Diego County has refused to take part in the program. And they're taking things one step further. Later today, San Diego County will sue the state in federal court, in an effort to overturn California's medical marijuana law.KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is made up of five members, all Republicans. The board has a history of fiscal conservatism, and has often challenged the state over what it calls unfunded mandates.

It's also taken conservative stands on other issues. For example, the board has rejected the idea of launching a clean needle exchange program saying it would condone illegal drug use.


But when it comes to medical marijuana, San Diego supervisors are going on the offensive. They're challenging the legality of California's medical marijuana law in federal court.

Board member Dianne Jacob represents East San Diego County.

Dianne Jacob: "San Diego County has a reputation of making bold decisions. We have stood alone on some of the issues that we have tackled. And sometimes you need to stand up for what you believe in, and what you think is right."

Jacob admits she's against the use of marijuana for any reason.

Jacob: "However, in this case, I set my personal opinions aside. We have a legal dispute between state law and federal law that needs to get resolved."


San Diego County Counsel John Sansone says the case is pretty straightforward. He argues it's a matter of federal preemption.

John Sansone: "According to our principals of democratic government here in our country federal law is supreme. So we're gonna be asking a court to review this and to determine whether or not in fact the federal law that makes the use of marijuana a crime, preempts the California state law."

California voters gave the green light to medical marijuana in 1996, when they approved Prop 215. The measure allows patients to use and grow the drug for medicinal purposes with a doctor's permission.

Sansone concedes he had some reservations about challenging the law when the board first suggested it.

Sansone: "I did not advise that it would be impossible, that we would lose, but that it would be a difficult undertaking. The more that we have conducted our research, the more confident I'm growing, frankly, with respect to our chances."

But critics don't see things that way.

Dan Abrahamson: "I think the county counsel's blowing a lot of steam, and I think the more interesting question is gonna be whether the federal court might actually sanction the county's attorneys for bringing a frivolous lawsuit."

Dan Abrahamson is the director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates alternatives to the war on drugs.

Abrahamson contends San Diego County's legal position is flawed. He says even justice department attorneys have determined there's no federal preemption issue when it comes to state medical marijuana laws.

What's more, Abrahamson can't understand the county's refusal to comply with California's law requiring the issue of ID cards to medical marijuana patients. He says 15 counties, including conservative-leaning Riverside and Kern, are taking part in the program.

Abrahamson: "And then San Diego is not just simply dragging its feet, it's erecting obstacles in the way of the program. And it's a tragedy from the perspective of the medical marijuana patients, who really could benefit from such a program, and it's a shame for the taxpayers of San Diego who have to foot the bill for this nonsense."

The San Diego County grand jury has also been critical of the board's position. In a report issued last year, the civil grand jury said the supervisors should take all possible action to promote access to marijuana for patients.

That's also the view of Dion Markgraaf. He opened San Diego County's first medical marijuana dispensary in 1997. He uses the drug to relieve chronic pain.

Markgraaf points out a majority of San Diego County residents voted for Prop 215. He says the Board of Supervisors is making a mockery of that vote.

Dion Markgraaf:"Society says go to the polls, vote, and we have done that. And for five people to decide they're more powerful than the whole state, I mean it's just ridiculous."

But County Supervisor Dianne Jacob says critics are off base.

Dianne Jacob:"This is not about popular opinion, this is not about a majority of San Diegans or a majority of Californians. It's about the law, and it's about resolving a clash between state and federal laws. And that's all we're trying to accomplish here."

The legal challenge will pit San Diego County against the State of California.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer has been a strong supporter of Prop 215, and his office is expected to vigorously defend it.
Supervisor Jacob says if the County loses, it will comply with the court's ruling.

In the meantime, some disgruntled medical marijuana users have launched a drive to put a term limits measure on the County ballot. The initiative would restrict San Diego County supervisors to two consecutive four year terms. It would be applied retroactively to current office holders all of whom have served for more than a decade.
Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.