SAN FRANCISCO — Police officers are conflicted about whether to return marijuana to someone who’s legally entitled to use the drug for medical reasons.
Under federal law, marijuana use for any reason is illegal, but under state law, growing and using pot with a doctor’s recommendation is legal.
In at least three cases in Northern California, police have balked at returning marijuana to people who successfully pleaded that they shouldn’t be prosecuted because their pot use is covered under Proposition 215. Police argue that giving back the pot could leave them liable to prosecution under federal law against distributing illegal drugs.
“There is no legal answer to this conundrum,” said Rory Little, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and a former federal prosecutor.
In Yuba County, Sheriff Virginia Black defied an order by a judge last week to return 37 medicinal marijuana plants to Doyle and Belinda Satterfield, who were arrested in August but later had marijuana charges against them dismissed.
“If I deliver marijuana to the Satterfields, technically I place myself in violation of federal law, and I’m not inclined to do that,” Black said. “So I find myself in a Catch-22.”
Jesse Choper, a constitutional law professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, agreed with the sheriff. “I think it’s pretty clear to me that they could be charged under federal law,” Choper said. “It’s unlikely, but technically it’s possible.”
That leaves the Satterfields wondering whether they’ll get their marijuana back. Doyle Satterfield, 52, said he uses marijuana for insomnia and arthritis, and his wife has used it for chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer.
Under state law, controlled substances are usually destroyed after trial, or if charges are dismissed, unless they were found to be “lawfully possessed” by the defendant.
That supports the return of medicinal marijuana. And, in fact, onetime defendants in Ventura, Placer, San Bernardino, Sonoma, Mendocino and San Joaquin counties have all gotten their pot back, according to Justin Scott, Satterfield’s lawyer.