When it comes to legitimate use of medical marijuana, the San Diego Police Department won't be cooperating with the feds, according to a Jan. 28 memo from police chief William Lansdowne. In the memo, sent to Mayor Dick Murphy and the San Diego City Council, Lansdowne says his officers, if asked, will not participate in any federal investigation or drug bust where qualified medical marijuana patients and caregivers are the target.
Lansdowne formerly headed the police department in San Jose, where he pulled his officers from a joint federal-state drug task force after agents targeted members of a Northern California cannabis club. Lansdowne was named San Diego's new chief of police in August after former Chief David Bejarano was appointed U.S. Marshall for Southern California by President Bush.
Since 1996, under the auspices of voter-approved Prop. 215, individuals with a legitimate doctor's recommendation are allowed to possess and use marijuana as an alternative to prescription medication. But the law offered no guidelines as to how much pot a person could possess, and whether, for example, provider organizations like cannabis clubs were legal. Cities and counties have since been left to come up with their own guidelines.
Further complicating things is that the federal government strongly maintains that marijuana for any purpose is illegal. This point was driven home in September 2002 when outspoken medical marijuana activist Steve McWilliams' home raided by Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who seized two-dozen plants belonging to McWilliams and his partner Barbara Mackenzie. Both are qualified medical marijuana patients and caregivers.
McWilliams, who was sentenced to six months in prison by a federal court but remains free pending an appeal, told CityBeat that San Diego police officers participated in the raid. McWilliams and Mackenzie have filed a lawsuit against the city and police department, arguing that officers violated state law by aiding federal officers.
Last September, the San Diego City Council approved a set of guidelines that allow qualified medical marijuana patients to posses up to one pound of dried marijuana and up to 24 indoor plants. Caregivers are allowed to possess twice that of patients. The point of the guidelines is to help police determine legitimate medical marijuana users from those who may be abusing state law. Bejarano expressed opposition to the guidelines when they were being drawn up.
In December, Councilmembers Toni Atkins and Michael Zucchet sent the new police chief a memo asking what his department's policy will be when it comes to city guidelines' conflict with federal law. “Traditionally the San Diego Police Department has worked with federal officers and agencies on the investigations, arrests and prosecutions [of medical marijuana users],” Atkins and Zucchet wrote.
Lansdowne's response was brief and to the point: “Department personnel including those who are assigned to task forces will not knowingly participate in any federal operation or investigation that is in conflict with our established policies and procedures concerning medicinal marijuana.”
Current procedure, the chief wrote, “protects the rights of qualified patients and primary caregivers to have access to legal amounts of marijuana.”
Patrick Dudley, an attorney who represents medical marijuana patients, called Lansdowne's position “courageous” given San Diego County's conservative political environment. Dudley pointed out that other cities in the county have yet to adopt guidelines for medical marijuana use and the county Board of Supervisors has repeatedly expressed opposition to Prop. 215. “I hope it upsets the apple cart a bit,” Dudley said of Lansdowne's position.
Lt. Cesar Solis, who heads the city's narcotics unit, said his officers pursue cases only when it's suspected there's more going on than legitimate marijuana use. “We don't want to take [marijuana] away from anyone who has a legitimate right and need to have it.” Solis added that, regarding a recent, “high profile” raid, officers in his unit “took great steps not to have anybody participate. My guys weren't there.”
When asked whether the chief's position would compromise the department's relationship with federal authorities, Solis said he's not aware, so far, of any fallout. DEA officials, he said, “understand we have a state law and not to cross over and put anybody in a bad position.”
Solis added, “We have bigger things to deal with.”