Police in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa will find themselves in an odd position Tuesday — in front of a Superior Court judge, defending themselves on contempt of court charges.
It all stems from the police 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 laws?
The case started when Shashon Jenkins was standing one day on the back balcony at his old apartment building, when the calm and quiet of one morning in suburban Santa Rosa was harshly interrupted.
"When I looked over, and peered over the balcony, officers were running into the next apartment, guns drawn," he said. "Officers ordered me back inside my house."
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.
"It was very tense, seven firearms, very intense," Jenkins said.
Police raided Jenkins' home, arrested him, seized a number of lights for growing plants and 45 full-grown plants. In all, it was more than 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 medical marijuana for those patients unable to grow it themselves — and so the district attorney dropped the case.
The judge ordered police to return Jenkins' belongings, including the armload of marijuana. Police said no.
One of these policemen is Sgt. Eric Litchfield. Litchfield said it's galling to hand back such a large supply of pot. He said the medical marijuana law is "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."
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.
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.
"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," she said.
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.
The court will try to work out the details and limits of marijuana enforcement, beginning Tuesday afternoon in Sonoma County.