California Supreme Court Lets Collective Marijuana Cultivation Continue

Rural sheriff’s departments in California may have to find a new pastime to replace bullying medical marijuana growers. In a major victory for pot advocates, the California Supreme Court — right around harvest time! — has refused to review a landmark appellate court ruling protecting the right of medical marijuana patients and their caregivers to collectively grow weed.

The 2-1 ruling by California’s Third Appellate District Court also affirmed patients’ ability to take civil action when their right to collectively cultivate marijuana is violated by law enforcement. The case, County of Butte v. Superior Court, involved a private seven-patient medical marijuana collective in Paradise, California (oh! the delicious irony — props to God or whomever is responsible).

Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a nationwide medical marijuana advocacy group, filed a May 2006 lawsuit on behalf David Williams, 56, and half a dozen other collective members after the Butte County Sheriff’s Department conducted a warrantless search of Williams’ home in 2005. The officers forced Williams to uproot more than two dozen plants, threatening him with arrest and prosecution if he didn’t comply.

Williams was incorrectly told by Deputy Jacob Hancock that his collectively cultivated marijuana was illegal. California state law, in fact, does allow for collective cultivation.

Butte County Sheriff/Coroner Perry Reniff and his department were attempting to impose a de facto ban on medical marijuana patient collectives, according to ASA.

“By refusing to review this case, the California Supreme Court sends a strong message that local law enforcement must uphold the medical marijuana laws of the state and not competing federal laws,” said Joe Elford, ASA chief counsel, who litigated the case for Williams. According to the July 2009 appellate court ruling, the “deputy was acting under color of California law, not federal law. Accordingly, the propriety of his conduct is measured by California law.”

The court went further, stating that to deny medical marijuana patients protection from warrantless intrusions and seizures by law enforcement “would surely shock the sensibilities of the voters who approved [Proposition 215].”

The landmark decision said that the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 is not simply an affirmative defense to criminal sanctions, holding that it consisted of “…an opportunity for an individual to request the same constitutional guarantee of due process available to all individuals, no matter what their status, under state state Constitution. The fact that this case involves medical marijuana and a qualified medial marijuana patient does not change these fundamental constitutional rights or an individual’s right to assert them.”

The appellate court ruling upheld Butte County Superior Court Judge Barbara Roberts’ ruling from September 2007, in which she stated that seriously ill patients cultivating marijuana collectively “should not be required to risk criminal penalties and the stress and expense of a criminal trial in order to assert their rights. Roberts’ ruling also rejected Butte County’s policy of requiring all members to physically participate in the cultivation, thereby allowing collective members to “contribute financially” rather than with sweat equity.

The Butte County Sheriff’s Department was already known for its zealous anti-marijuana enforcement. The first medical marijuana supplier in the state to be prosecuted in federal court after the passage of Proposition 215 was originally arrested by Butte County officers. Chico resident Bryan Epis received a 10-year sentence in federal court in 2002 for medical marijuana cultivation after Butte County officers raided his home in 1997 and seized 458 plants.

Observers of the medical marijuana scene say the court decision could have repercussions statewide in other (predominantly rural) counties with pot-phobic local law enforcement. Elford said he has received hundreds of complaints from medical marijuana patients about local anti-pot cops seizing their drugs on the logic that “we’ll take it from you and let the courts sort it out.”

Repeated reports of problematic behavior by Butte County law enforcement, as well as other police agencies throughout the state, resulted in the filing of the Williams lawsuit, according to ASA.

“After uncovering Butte County’s de facto ban on medical marijuana patient collectives, ASA decided to pursue the case to show that collectives and cooperatives are protected under state law,” said ASA media liaison Kris Hermes.

“In addition to protecting patients’ rights to collectively cultivate, the Court has reaffirmed that medical marijuana patients enjoy the same constitutional rights as everyone else,” said Elford, “including the ability to file civil rights actions when those rights are violated.”

– Article from SF Weekly on September 24, 2009.