RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here in California, police in Santa Rosa find themselves in an odd position. They'll be in front of a superior court judge today defending themselves on contempt of court charges. It stems from the department's refusal to give up 19 pounds of confiscated marijuana, and it highlights an interesting question: What are police supposed to do when the California Medicinal Marijuana Law conflicts with federal drug law?
David Gorn reports.
DAVID GORN: Shashon Jenkins is walking around outside his old apartment building.
Mr. SHASHON JENKINS: This is the complex. My apartment was this one - number 88.
GORN: He points out where he was standing on his back balcony when the calm and quiet of one morning in suburban Santa Rosa was harshly interrupted.
Mr. JENKINS: When I looked over and peered over the balcony, there's officers running up here into the next-door apartment, guns drawn. Officers ordered me back inside my house.
GORN: Police were raiding Jenkins' neighbor for narcotics. They caught sight of Jenkins on the balcony holding a stem of marijuana in his hand. So after their raid next door, the officers crowded onto the stairwell outside Jenkins' apartment and came knocking loudly.
Mr. JENKINS: It was very tense. You know, seven firearms, very intense.
GORN: The police raided Jenkins' home, arrested him, seized 45 full-grown plants, a bunch of grow-lights, and a total of just over 19 pounds of pot. Later at Jenkins' hearing, he produced witnesses and paperwork to confirm that he legally uses medicinal marijuana to treat chronic back pain. He also has caregiver status, that means he grows medicinal marijuana for those patients unable to grow it for themselves.
And so the district attorney dropped the case. The judge ordered the police to return Jenkins' belongings, including the armload of marijuana, and police said no.
One of these policemen is Sergeant Eric Litchfield. Out on the streets of Santa Rosa, Litchfield says it's galling to hand back such a large supply of illicit pot.
Sergeant Eric Litchfield (Santa Rosa Police Department) We need to function as law enforcement in these cases, and go out and try to enforce a law that's vague and poorly written at best and is in complete conflict with federal law, which we're also bound to uphold and maintain as well.
GORN: Under federal law, marijuana is illegal to possess under any circumstances. But in California and 10 other states it's legal for some medical patients to smoke it. But keeping a controlled substance controlled is not that big a problem, says Kris Hermes of the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
Mr. KRIS HERMES (Americans for Safe Access): Marijuana is illegal under federal law to possess or cultivate. But you can also have simultaneously a state law that wants to respect the health and welfare of its citizens by legalizing medical marijuana. Those two laws can coexist, and they do.
GORN: Still, Marsha Cohen, a law professor at University of California Hastings Law School, says the one big uncertainty in California's measure is that it's unclear on the economics of medical marijuana. Who can possess large quantities of marijuana, how large those quantities can be, and all the details of how pot should be bought and sold.
Professor MARSHA COHEN (Law, University of California Hastings): So instead of dealing with the question of where this marijuana would magically come from, they simply finessed that and did not provide for either the purchase or the sale of marijuana in the original proposition.
GORN: That's the sticking point for law enforcement and for the courts. No one is supposed to profit from medicinal marijuana sales and the fear is that ignoring large growers of pot is tacitly condoning drug trafficking.
So it looks like it's going to be up to the courts to workout the details and limits of marijuana enforcement, beginning this afternoon in Sonoma County.
For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.