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Why is L.A.'s District Attorney Helping Mexican Drug Cartels?

Last Thursday, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley announced a sweeping new plan to boost the profits of Mexican drug cartels, a plan almost certain to increase the slaughter these vicious gangs are perpetrating on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Of course, Cooley didn't call it that. He claimed, on dubious legal grounds, that all medical marijuana dispensaries in the county are illegal and announced plans to crack down on them. While no one denies that L.A.'s attempts - or, more accurately, nonattempts - to regulate these operations have been a mess, Cooley's crackdown is guaranteed to make a bad situation worse.

While state law is not as precise as it might be in setting legal parameters for dispensing medical marijuana, guidelines issued last year by state Attorney General Jerry Brown make clear that dispensing collectives are legal and can include storefront operations.

"It is the opinion of this Office that a properly organized and operated collective or cooperative that dispenses medical marijuana through a storefront may be lawful under California law," the guidelines state, so long as other requirements are met.

It may well be that some are operating outside these guidelines, but until and unless Cooley closely inspects their operations, he is simply making things up. That's not how law enforcement should operate.

But even if Cooley were right on legal grounds, as policy his stand borders on the insane.

California law unmistakably gives patients the right to use and possess marijuana for medical purposes when recommended by their physician. And a flood of medical research over the last several years - much of it conducted by the University of California - has confirmed that marijuana can indeed provide safe, effective relief for a number of conditions, including certain hard-to-treat types of excruciating nerve pain.

So the question facing local leaders is not whether patients can have medical marijuana, but how they will obtain it. Will it be from licensed businesses operating under appropriate rules and regulations, or from drug dealers on the streets? Does Cooley really believe it's better for either patients or communities to have the state's medical marijuana patients - who number more than 200,000 by most estimates - getting their medicine from street dealers?

Sending patients to the streets for their medicine is clearly dangerous, subjecting sick people to risky transactions in order to purchase medicine of unknown quality, purity and origin. But it's the question of origin that should alarm all of us.

We know that a significant amount of street marijuana can be traced to the murderous Mexican cartels - vicious gangs who make around two-thirds of their profits from the illicit marijuana trade, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. We know that these gangs are operating in at least 230 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Hacienda Heights and Garden Grove.

A mass shutdown of medical marijuana dispensaries will simply hand these thugs a massive new pool of customers and millions of dollars in extra profits. There is a better way.

The experience of other cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, has shown that well-crafted regulations can allow medical marijuana patients to access their medicine safely, from well-run organizations that follow the law and respect their neighborhoods.

In San Francisco, medical marijuana dispensaries have simply ceased being controversial, as explained last year by C.W. Nevius, arguably the San Francisco Chronicle's most conservative local columnist:

"Quietly, with little fanfare, San Francisco is on the way to becoming a model for medical marijuana clubs done the right way. Exploitative, profit-hungry drug clubs are being forced out and community-based, patient-friendly ones are becoming the norm. Neighbors have shut down dispensaries in school zones, and patient services have been increased."

It's long past time for California's legislature to set clear, statewide standards and licensing rules for medical marijuana providers. But until then, local officials like Cooley need to use common sense and not pursue policies that will simply enrich murderous thugs.


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