LA County District Attorney vows to continue to prosecute medical marijuana dispensary operators

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Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley announces his office will prosecute dispensaries that sell medical marijuana even if the Los Angeles City Council adopts an ordinance that does not ban such sales, during a news conference at his office in Los Angeles on Tueday, Nov. 17, 2009.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said today he will continue prosecuting operators of dispensaries that sell medical marijuana, regardless of a proposed city ordinance that would allow cash ``transactions'' between patients and those cultivating the drug.

``Any proposed ordinance allowing for the sales of marijuana is in direct conflict with California's Compassionate Use Act and Medical Marijuana Program,'' according to a statement from the District Attorney's office.

``The City Council has no authority to amend state law or Prop 215,'' according to the statement. ``Such authority is solely possessed by California voters. They voted for and passed the Compassionate Use Act, which only authorizes the possession, use and cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The sale of marijuana is illegal under state law.''

The City Council's Public Safety and Planning and Land Use Management committees on Monday watered down a proposed ordinance crafted by the City Attorney's Office, with the revised version stating, ``cash contributions, reimbursements and compensations shall be allowed, provided it's in compliance with state law.''

The full City Council will discuss the issue Wednesday.

Before the amendments, the proposed ordinance allowed only collectives -- not dispensaries -- to grow marijuana for patients. It defined collectives as groups of people with severe medical problems, their primary caregivers, and people they authorize to cultivate marijuana for them.

The proposed ordinance barred collectives from deriving any profit, allowing them only to recoup ``out-of-pocket costs of (medical marijuana's) collective cultivation.''

Several committee members raised concerns that such provisions would virtually eliminate access to a drug that helps relieve chronic pain.

``This is not about creating the Starbucks of marijuana sales,'' Councilman Ed Reyes said. ``This is about creating access for people who really need it and to do that, there has to be some form of transaction because it costs money to cultivate, it costs money to have a facility, it costs money to have a staff, so they should be reimbursed for that.''

David Berger, a special assistant to City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, likened the amendments to ``putting lipstick on a pig.''

``You're just going to call it something else,'' he said Monday. ``It is for all intents and purposes a sale -- you're just going to take away the profit element by hiking up the costs of operation.''

Despite his reservations, Trutanich said today his office will ``provide an ordinance that comports with the committee's wishes.''

However, he added, ``I think (the City Council is) bound by state law as we are, and the law appears to be pretty clear that sales are banned.''

``I think at this point, we want to be clear that we don't pass something that's going to subject those that are truly collectives to prosecution by another authority.''

California voters legalized medical marijuana when they approved Proposition 215 in 1996, but there has been little agreement about regulating dispensaries. Initially, only individuals were allowed to grow pot, but the law was amended in 2003 to allow collectives to do it as well.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown has said medical marijuana outlets are supposed to operate as nonprofit groups, but few do.

Los Angeles alone has about 1,000 medical marijuana dispensaries, many of which opened during a moratorium by using a legal loophole in a city ordinance.

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