California's Coming Crackdown on Pot: What Do You Do if You Need It?

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Jebb Harris / The Orange County Register / Zumapress / Corbis

Four California-based U.S. attorneys are targeting medical-marijuana dispensaries, growers and delivery services that they say are breaking state and federal laws

When Richard Kearns wakes up each morning, he vomits. A former university professor who was diagnosed with AIDS 30 years ago, Kearns, 60, resides in a Los Angeles assisted-living facility and relies on marijuana, which he gets from local dispensaries, to manage the pain, anxiety and intense nausea that would otherwise prevent him from being able to keep down the pills he also takes daily. Now those dispensaries are in danger of being shut down.

Before 1996, Kearns used to buy the drug off the streets. That year, California voters passed Proposition 215, making it the first state in the U.S. to effectively legalize the medicinal use of marijuana. Now, however, four California-based U.S. attorneys have announced their intent to prosecute the medical-marijuana dispensaries, growers and delivery services that are breaking state and federal laws. What constitutes violations of law, however, is murky — and may put the very existence of the dispensaries at risk.

According to Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney in the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside County and the Inland Empire, all dispensaries in the state are illegal. "California law says that it's essentially O.K. to grow, have and transport marijuana if you're a patient authorized by a doctor or if you're the patient's primary caregiver and if you're providing the marijuana not for profit," Mrozek says. "Stores are violating California law because they're operating at a profit and they're not a primary caregiver. It's very clearly laid out."

But what about patients who can't grow marijuana and don't have caregivers who can grow the plant — people like Kearns? How they are supposed to get the substance isn't clear at all. The law doesn't say, and it's largely been up to local municipalities in California to govern the issue. This has resulted in a patchwork of different approaches across the state and general confusion over what's legal and what's not.

The California Medical Association (CMA) has weighed in, seeking both clarity and protection for doctors. On Monday, Oct. 17, it called for the legalization and regulation of marijuana. "[California] decriminalized medical use, yet if a physician recommends it to a patient, we are violating federal law," Dr. James Hay, president-elect of the CMA told ABC News. The group wants legalization so that more research can be done on marijuana's health effects. "If we don't know what's in it, we can't do any kind of scientific evaluation," Hay said.

President Obama pledged not to go after medical-marijuana growers and dispensers when he took office in 2009. So there is some consternation over why the federal government is now seriously targeting them. Indeed, the U.S. attorneys have threatened to seize the assets of some landlords who rent to for-profit dispensaries. "The government is broke and they're scrambling for money," speculates a Los Angeles dispensary manager, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on behalf of his employer. "[Medical marijuana] has been an untapped source of money for them. Now they're coming to get their cut." Two weeks ago, Harborside Health Center, an Oakland-based dispensary said it was told it wouldn't be allowed to deduct business expenses like rent, interest, insurance and payroll and that it owed $2.5 million in back taxes to the IRS.

All of this leaves medical-marijuana users uneasy about the future. "They offer clean medicine," Kearns says of the dispensaries he visits. "If I had to go to the street, I'm in a situation where I'm completely vulnerable to impure medicine." The Drug Policy Alliance, a national marijuana-legalization advocacy group, is also concerned. "You can't say that medical marijuana is legal in general but not provide the legal means to access it," says Stephen Gutwillig, who oversees the organization's work in California. "There's supposed to be a statewide access system, but there isn't one."

Sensible regulation of medical-marijuana access is the key to maintaining harmony between patients who rely on the drug and the rest of society, according to Gutwillig. "It's not rocket science," he says, pointing to Northern California's Mendocino County as a success story. "Every plant is tagged and zip-tied and tracked," he says of the procedure in place in Mendocino. "They make sure every plant has some relationship to a particular dispensary to make sure the cultivator is producing for the medical-marijuana system and not for the underground recreational market."

However, step foot in certain neighborhoods of Los Angeles and it's a very different scene. In touristy parts of Venice Beach, medical marijuana is hawked with as much vigor as tattoos, sunglasses and services like Botox. In fact, one storefront offers medical-marijuana evaluations by doctors and "Botox by the Beach" under the same roof.

"I was walking on the [Venice Beach] boardwalk and I was approached by a guy in a white coat who said, 'Get your medical-marijuana card,'" says Justin (not his real name). "Within 30 minutes, I got a document that says I can buy from dispensaries. I don't have a California ID. I live in Florida." The college student was standing on the sidewalk holding a bag of so-called edibles — lollipops, brownies and the like — items he says may help with the back pain he suffers as a result of being hit by a car.

Yet Justin admits the pain wasn't his only reason for making his purchase. "I spent $40 and I got 80% edibles. That's going to get me really, really high," the 20-year-old says, adding that he's ambivalent about his own marijuana use. "It's really a love-hate relationship with marijuana," he says. "In a lot of different ways, I'm still figuring it out."