Last week was a bad week for marijuana lovers in California. It ended with a large raid in one county that netted 850 pounds of dried marijuana, 400 growing plants, $200,000, a cache of firearms and the arrest of two Czechs, three Thais, a Bulgarian, a Ukrainian, and a German. The week began with city councils and county boards of supervisors pondering the stiff letters they had just received from U.S. Attorneys' offices around the state.
The letters put local officials on notice that marijuana remains a prohibited drug under federal law and therefore those officials could be held liable if they were to allow medical marijuana dispensaries within their borders.
Many cities in the state have been wrestling for several years over ordinances to govern such dispensaries. When medical evidence showed that the use of marijuana by terminally ill patients could ease their pain, pro-legalization forces got enough signatures to put an initiative on the 1996 ballot to allow the use of it for medical purposes if recommended by a physician. Most voters took it at face value and, after a campaign generously funded by the well-known currency leftist George Soros, passed the measure.
Passage raised new questions. Would patients need a prescription from their physician? Where would they get the marijuana? Physicians could not write prescriptions for it because that would violate federal law. Instead, they wrote letters of recommendation. As for sources, presumably a patient could grow a small amount, but that was impractical. Thus, dispensaries began to pop up all over the state (Los Angeles had several hundred within a few years). While some of these operated carefully within the framework of the new state law, labeling each patient's "grow" with his or her name, it was widely believed that others were obtaining it in large quantities and selling with a wink and a nod -- becoming marijuana retailers for regular users who had obtained "recommendations" from doctors sympathetic with the legalization movement.
As the years rolled on, law enforcement agencies tended to ignore people who had very small amounts of marijuana for their own use, but the dispensaries were another matter. A cottage industry of growers developed to furnish inventory to many of them. In some cities (Arcata on the north coast, for example) neighbors complained about a large number of rental houses that had been converted to indoor "grows." The smell was overpowering and the heavy use of electricity resulted in many fires. Citizens demanded more restrictive ordinances.
To make matters worse for marijuana growers, an environmental expert says indoor "grows" cause harmful carbon emissions and use enormous amounts of electricity. Peter Lehman of the Schatz Energy Research Center and Environmental Resources Engineering Department at Humboldt State University presented his findings two weeks ago to the county's board of supervisors. "Two percent of our entire national electric grid is used to grow a plant. It's nuts," he said.
Speaking of that one north costal county, he said that indoor marijuana "grows" used enough electricity to power 13,000 homes and added 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
What's a liberal pro-marijuana environmentalist to do? What a dilemma.
What city and county elected officials are doing in many parts of the state is taking those U.S. Attorney letters seriously by putting a moratorium on permits for marijuana dispensaries, closing many and severely restricting their size. In other places, such as Los Angeles, they are shutting down many that had already received permits.
Last November, California voters turned down a ballot proposition intended to semi-legalize marijuana in the state, despite the federal law. So, things remain status quo. Pro-legalization supporters claim marijuana is a harmless recreational drug and that legalization will reduce the crime rate. Many medical professionals believe it may have long-term negative consequences for users. Most law enforcement agents think it is an abomination.
One thing is certain. In the city where this writer lives, scarcely a week goes by without a police raid on a drug house. The newspaper reportage is so predictable it could fit a fill-in-the-blanks form: packaged marijuana ready to sell is seized, along with crack cocaine, methamphetamine, others drugs, some cash, a ledger book of customer names and firearms. The two or three occupants are hauled off to jail, awaiting trial.
Mr. Hannaford lives on the Northern California coast.
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