After arresting dozens of people at four marijuana dispensaries late last year, a special Santa Clara County drug unit has at least temporarily halted future raids against South Bay pot clubs.
"Unless something is blatant," there will no more raids in order to give prosecutors a chance to review how they will enforce controversial medical marijuana laws, according to Danielle Ayers, commander of the County Special Enforcement Team.
While medicinal marijuana advocates blasted last year's raids as attempts to intimidate legitimate businesses, San Jose's new police chief and many neighborhood activists applauded, worried that the recent boom in pot dispensaries is drawing crime and providing cover for shady operators.
James Sibley, the county's new chief narcotics prosecutor, is on a fact-finding mission that includes speaking with law enforcement and marijuana advocates as well as looking for successful enforcement models throughout the state. Sibley will soon make a recommendation to his boss, District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who took office last month.
"The challenge we will meet is to develop a policy that recognizes a sick person's right to obtain marijuana for medicinal purposes under the law while protecting kids and neighborhoods from the unintended consequences of this law," Rosen said.
Although it remains unclear how much Rosen's philosophy will diverge from the decidedly hard-line approach previously taken by task force members and many police chiefs, the DA's new guidelines could provide some legal clarity on the issue of medicinal marijuana in the South Bay. What Rosen decides may have to do until the state attorney general or the courts further clarify the muddy issue.
State voters in 1993 passed Prop. 215, decriminalizing marijuana for the treatment of medical conditions with a doctor's recommendation. But pot advocates and foes alike say the law is the vaguest of any medicinal marijuana statute in the country. The law's lack of clarity has helped pot dispensaries to proliferate, but also made it difficult to determine how to operate legally.
Last year, the local narcotics task force launched a series of raids on the dispensaries, largely operating under the theory that they are making a profit and are therefore illegal under California law. State guidelines and some legal precedent suggest that medical marijuana distribution must be nonprofit, but what exactly constitutes "profit" remains highly debatable.
Meanwhile, the city of San Jose voted to levy a tax on the dispensaries, as though they were legitimate businesses. That tax will go into effect next month.
Sibley said he has not yet concluded exactly what he will suggest to Rosen. But he vowed that his office would "narrow what seems to be gray area'' and is mulling posting the guidelines on the DA's website and distributing the written policy to every known dispensary.
"We are in a flexible period where it will be tough dealing with everybody's mind-set on this,'' Sibley said. "Our obligation is to preserve the intent of the voters and the Legislature and still provide direction for law enforcement to deal with public safety concerns.'' He added: "And do it openly.''
Sibley and Rosen are not the only new public safety decision-makers.
Since the last law enforcement raid on a medicinal marijuana clinic in San Jose late last year, there is now also a new state attorney general, Kamala Harris. and a newly appointed San Jose police chief, Chris Moore.
With all the new faces, is there a new perspective on pot?
Harris has been mostly quiet on the issue so far. But pot advocates like to point to her tenure as district attorney in San Francisco as being mostly friendly to medicinal pot dispensaries. She is expected to offer a revised set of state guidelines in coming months. She declined an interview request this week.
Moore said he is looking forward to Rosen's guidelines. However, he voiced great concern about the dispensaries, citing their unrestricted proliferation and their penchant for attracting violent criminals. He pointed to several takeover robberies and a man who was shot in the head when the private marijuana stash at his home was raided by robbers.
"My concern is that unless we take some type of action, then somebody is going to get killed,'' Moore said. "It's the Wild West, and that has to come to an end. We are clearly out of hand, and it has had violent consequences. We need to get our arms around it in San Jose. ''
Dispensary owners interviewed this week said despite the respite from raids, they feared that law enforcement resistance would not stop.
Daniel Hovland, a local medical marijuana advocate who opened his own popular dispensary, said he quit after being arrested by the task force during a sting last year on marijuana delivery services. His case is still pending.
"I'm not sure if I'm willing to spend my life behind bars to pursue the better good of the people,'' said Hovland, who was once the president of a local group espousing best practices among the marijuana clubs. "So I went from being the leader to being just another pawn.
"(The narcotics task force) did their job by scaring a quite a number of people, me included.''
Hovland said he signed over the Med-Ex Collective + Deliveries to his brother and was going back to college to get a degree in game design.
"Due to the fact that our laws are so gray, it leaves so much for interpretation,'' he said. "I hope that Rosen will shed a better light."
Contact Sean Webby at 408-920-5003.
How new officials could alter the way in which California's pot laws are interpreted:
Jeff Rosen: Santa Clara County's new district attorney could clarify local marijuana guidelines based on a fact-finding mission by his chief narcotics prosecutor.
Kamala HARRIS: The new state attorney general has kept quiet on the issue, but pot advocates say her tenure as San Francisco's district attorney was friendly to medicinal pot dispensaries.