Medical marijuana bills moving forward

UPDATE: On Thursday, AB 2743 passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee by a 9-7 vote.

California’s ongoing revolt against the federal ban on medical marijuana is moving forward with a pair of bills from Assembly Democrats.

AB 2743 from Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, now sits in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. It would instruct local governments and law enforcement agencies to “not assist in federal raids, arrests, investigations, or prosecutions” of medical marijuana patients or providers.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, pulled his AB 2279 from a floor vote on Monday due to absence of a pair of key Democratic supporters. This bill would bar employers from firing workers for valid use of medical marijuana under state law. Leno said he would bring the bill back to the floor in the next few days.

Both bills are strongly opposed by several law enforcement agencies. Lobbyist and attorney John Lovell represents the California Narcotics Officers, Peace Officers and Police Chiefs Associations. He characterized these agencies as being in opposition not only to these particular bills but the entire system of pot clubs and dispensaries created when voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996.
“It’s not clear to what extent the clubs are legal under state law, not just federal law,” Lovell said.

Lovell said both bills are broadly written and ignored the blurred supply chains between medical marijuana and regular drug dealing. He said that AB 2743 would prevent local law enforcement from alerting the feds to particular clubs that were large amounts of negative secondary effects, such as people reselling pot they bought at clubs or committing thefts and robberies in order to be able to buy at clubs.

“Anytime you have a location that has dope and cash, you’re going to attract criminal elements,” Lovell said. When asked if there was research showing these effects, he said, “There haven’t been studies done. Who would do the studies?”

Lovell pointed to information gathered at the California Police Chiefs Association website. The site includes numerous documents from local law enforcement agencies citing anecdotal evidence of criminal activities in and around dispensaries. The site also includes links to a white paper from the Riverside County District Attorney’s office alleging numerous problems with California’s medical marijuana law and claims from an Australian doctor claiming the pot can cause psychosis.

Leno characterized Lovell’s comments and those by several Republican opponents during Monday’s floor debate as “hyperbole.”
“I couldn’t believe the comments that came out of my Republican colleagues mouths because it was complete misinformation,” Leno said.

He noted that his bill cites particular legal code stating that the law would not apply to workers in many sensitive jobs, such as driving heavy equipment, nor would it protect people who attempt to use pot while on the job. Despite claims that his bill would lead to massive increases in worker compensation costs, Leno said his opponents could not come up with any examples of medical marijuana patients causing workplace accidents due to off-hours use.

Leno said that he got to 39 votes on Monday. He pulled the bill due to the excused absences of a pair of Democrats who had indicated they will vote for it, Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, and Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena. The bill came in response to the Raging Wire case, in which the California Supreme Court declined to reinstate a computer technician who had been fired for using medical marijuana on the written advice of a doctor.

Leno and Saldana are hardly alone among California Democrats in carrying medical marijuana measures. Senator Carole Migden, San Francisco, has a pair of live measures seeking to protect medical marijuana patients. This includes SJR 20, which asks the Bush administration back off pot club raids. Numerous other Democrats have carried similar measures in past sessions. 
The emergence of medical marijuana as a mainstream issue among California Democrats highlights a potential crossroads facing opponents of Proposition 215. Leading Democratic presidential candidate Barrack Obama recently came under fire for saying her would curtail federal raids against pot clubs in California and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, support for the practice appears to be growing steadily. Eight years after 56 percent of California voters approved the measure, a 2004 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) survey found that 74 percent of Californians were in favor fully implementing Prop. 215. This included smaller majorities of Republicans and older voters, two of the groups generally considered most hostile to medical pot.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the voters of California really don’t want the feds coming in a doing this sort of thing, and don’t want our tax dollars being spent to help them,” said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Mirken pointed to other polls that showed the support of three-quarters of voters was fairly consistent nationwide. A 2005 national Gallup poll showed 78 percent support for medical marijuana. Even a 2004 poll in conservative Alabama commission by the Mobile Register showed 75 percent support.

Lovell dismissed PPIC poll, saying it had mainly to do with how the question was phrased, and that respondents were not told about how easy it is for non-patients to get “medical” pot. He went on to compare medical marijuana to “turn of the century snake oil.” He said that the legal argument in support was flawed, and compared the “state’s rights” argument to Virginia’s defense of segregation in the 1950s and John C. Calhoun’s attempt to defend South Carolina’s tariff system just before the Civil War.

“This kind of nullification legislation has a long and inglorious history,” Lovell said. He said there will likely be legal challenges to these bills if they become law. He also cited the threat of medical malpractice claims coming from patients who suffered “serious side effects” after being advised by their doctors to use marijuana.

In response, Leno asked: “Just like all the ones that didn’t happen in the last 12 years?”

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