Chronic Chronicles: Weed Wars

Liz Monroy / el Don

Part 2 in a series
Conflicting state and federal regulations lead to some medical marijuana patients being treated like criminals.

By: Katie Porter

Two teenage girls sit on a curb as an Orange County sheriff asks again if there is anything illegal in the car. The driver says no. When a search reveals a small green container, she tells the officer “it’s my friend’s.”

Her stash is confiscated and she’s left with a possession ticket and a court date.

Federally, marijuana is illegal, but almost half of the states allow medicinal use of the plant. Colorado and Washington have legal markets for recreational use, something California, despite trailblazing the cannabis movement, hasn’t approved.

Supporters of the Control, Regulate and Tax Marijuana Act announced in February that they will wait until 2016 to push for the initiative to be on the ballot, citing lack of time and finances.

“We believe the best way to go forward … is to have a strong funding base in place before launching the campaign,” said Graham Boyd, a policy reform advocate.

If passed, the measure would legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana in California, with restrictions similar to alcohol.

A similar initiative, Prop 19, was voted down in 2010.

Current law allows possession of up to a half-pound of weed under the state’s Compassionate Use Act. Patient rights protect them from prosecution, but not understanding all of those rights is why some pot smokers still get in trouble.

“Everyone we come into contact with is using it improperly, otherwise we wouldn’t come into contact with them,” Deputy Brian Fischer of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said. “It’s the people that are doing it at parks or driving and hitting something that are the issue.”

A patient is allowed to use marijuana at home only — they cannot have or take it anywhere else.

Driving with it is called illegal transport and driving high is considered under the influence.

Although smoking pot and driving can constitute a DUI, it is harder to detect than alcohol.

“If they fail [a field sobriety test] but blow zeros on a Breathalyzer, you have to think what else could be influencing them,” said Deputy Sheriff Chris Hayes.

Blood tests can detect THC in the body’s system, but an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that cannabis traces can show up for more than a month, so “their mere presence in body fluids cannot be construed as evidence of impairment.

A 2012 California Roadside Survey of Nighttime Weekend Drivers’ Alcohol and Drug Use found that 14 percent of people reported getting behind the wheel less than two hours after smoking. About 78 percent of those respondents felt that marijuana did not influence their driving abilities at all.

While the effects of driving high are debated, the effect of a DUI charge on someone’s life is clear.

Wolfgang Kovach, a medical marijuana attorney, has had clients lose jobs and student aid money because of their record. He says most people plead guilty because of insurmountable court fees.

“There is a cost to defending yourself and the police know that,” Kovach said.

However, nationally, there are signs of increasing cannabis acceptance.

A recent letter signed by 18 members of Congress urged President Obama to reclassify the drug, which is categorized as more dangerous than methamphetamine in the Federal Controlled Substance Act.

In a major step towards decriminalization, the federal government announced in February that banks can provide financial services to dispensaries without fear of facing laundering charges. Most clinics currently operate on a cash-only basis, a big target for robbery.

As opinion and laws pertaining to marijuana change, so will consumers and the way they use it, Fischer said.

“I think there will be a generally dumber society. But that’s something to deal with when we get to it.”

 Related Stories: Chronic Chronicles Part I