The music video for Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “You Could Be Mine” concludes with a classic moment where Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing his Terminator character, considers assassinating singer Axl Rose.
When the Terminator’s computer brain deems Rose a “waste of ammo,” Arnold lowers his weapon and walks away, presumably to engage a more worthy target.
In 2010, employing a similar thought process as governor of California, Schwarzenegger changed small-time possession of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction carrying a $100 fine.
“In this time of drastic budget cuts,” Arnold said in his signing statement, “prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket.”
Arnold, in other words, was acknowledging that marijuana criminalization is a waste of ammo.
The Obama administration originally took the same tack. In 2009, the Justice Department said it wouldn’t waste time and money prosecuting people “whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance” with any given state’s marijuana laws.
Now the feds appear to believe that Californians have gone too far.
This month, federal prosecutors announced they might seize property rented to dispensaries, and that publishers who profit from pot ads could be subject to penalties. The new approach seems to hinge on the premise that too many dispensaries appear to be profit-making organizations, and also that too many Californians without legitimate medical needs are purchasing medical marijuana.
The federal move comes as officials in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles continue to work to limit the proliferation of new dispensaries and shut down existing ones.
“We’re gratified that they see what we see, which is what began as an opportunity to help seriously ill patients has evolved into storefront drug sales and trafficking,” Jane Usher, a Los Angeles city attorney, told the LA Times.
But the feds appear to have different plans for different parts of California. “They want to do a clean sweep in San Diego, whereas in Northern California they can’t possibly do a clean sweep,” said Dale Gieringer, the director of California NORML. “There’s no political support for it. It would be devastating.”
A separate article LA Times article elaborated on the confusion:
Will the federal government target those dispensaries located near schools and parks, as one prosecutor suggested? And if so, does that give a safe harbor to others? Or will prosecutors move against anyone in the marijuana industry who is making a profit, as one U.S. attorney spokesman said they would? Will they go after “large-scale industrial marijuana cultivation centers,” as one Justice Department official said? Can they at least cite a state that they believe does it right and will be left alone?
In San Diego, nine dispensaries closed in October to avoid penalties for operating within 600 feet of a school, which is illegal under state law. A Union-Tribune article on the closures quotes City Attorney Jan Goldsmith staking out an uncompromising position on medicinal weed:
“Marijuana advocates and their lawyers have been wrong to assume that federal and local laws could be ignored and that cities like San Diego could be strong-armed into looking the other way,” [Goldsmith said in a statement]. “Our job is to enforce the law and we will do it.”
None of the city’s different zones allow for marijuana distribution, meaning all dispensaries in the city are illegal, technically — so officials like Goldsmith eventually could try to close them all.
In Los Angeles, a Superior Court judge recently upheld a city ordinance limiting dispensaries. An article describing the decision notes the city attorney’s office “has invested considerable time and expense in defending the law from a phalanx of lawyers working for dispensaries.”
Jane Usher, the attorney for the city of LA, was more blunt about the cost of the ordinance. “We did become a magnet for massive, voluminous litigation,” she said.
Curiously, Usher and a fellow City of Los Angeles lawyer recently demanded the retraction of a RAND Corporation study that found a 59% average increase in crime in L.A. areas vacated by marijuana dispensaries that the city forced out of business. RAND, a non-profit that bills itself as a source of “objective research services and public policy analysis,” pulled the study and says it is being reviewed.
In a separate showdown of law versus science, the California Medical Association, representing 35,000 doctors in the state, announced last week its support for decriminalizing weed.
The group acknowledged that pot presents some health risks but called for more research into the potential medical value of pot, at the same time saying the costs of criminalization don’t justify the benefits to society.
“I wonder what they’re smoking,” responded John Lovell, spokesman for the California Police Chiefs Association, flashing some serious wit. But many cops also support legalization. In 2010, for example, supporters of California’s Proposition 19 included former police chiefs from Los Angeles and San Jose as well as the National Black Police Association, the National Latino Officers Association, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
Only 46.5% of voters supported Proposition 19, however. So California state law still falls well short of full-on decriminalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana, and federal law still bans the stuff outright. Meanwhile, neither supply of nor demand for marijuana seems to pay much attention to its legal status.
All this means Californians — and particularly San Diego residents — probably should expect more confusion, more dispensary closures, more lawsuits, more prosecutions, and more black market marijuana transactions. Because the official view of pot prosecutions seems to have shifted from “waste of ammo” to something more akin to that conversation in the movie “Traffic” between a drug dealer and a DEA agent:
Eduardo Ruiz: Can’t you for a second imagine none of this had happened? That my drugs had gone through. What would have been the harm? A few people get high who are getting high anyway. Your partner is still alive… Don’t you see this means nothing? That your whole life is pointless?
Montel Gordon: You’re breaking my heart.
Eduardo Ruiz: The worst thing about you, Monty, is you realize the futility of what you’re doing and you do it anyway. I wish you could see how transparent you are… You only got to me because you were tipped off by the Juarez Cartel, who’s trying to break into Tijuana. You’re helping them. You work for a drug dealer too, Monty.