Hedges ponders appeal of Tangemans medical pot order as state high court considers deeper debate
March 18, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
A battle of Titans unfolds: In one corner, a gaggle of California cities, counties, and law enforcement agencies; in the other, the state Supreme Court. In the middle of the ring is a small baggie of medical marijuana which now has become enveloped in an ever-widening philosophical rift. Should California law enforcement personnel be required to return to an owner confiscated marijuana that is legally possessed and medically prescribed, an apparent conflict with federal prohibitions?
A pending high court decision soon will seek to answer this perplexing question. In the meantime, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges has inserted himself into the mix by generating a more local court confrontation, one with its own little confiscated baggie of pot and the same bottomless pool of unanswered questions, by asserting that he is ultimately bound by federal drug laws.
And even as California’s legal contradictions surrounding the use of medical pot intensify, the American College of Physicians has issued a major position paper endorsing medical marijuana’s use, calling for its reclassification under federal law, and advocating an end to criminal and civil prosecution for lawful cannabis patients.
California’s Supreme Court could decide at any time if it agrees with a November appellate opinion regarding the fate of marijuana seized from a qualified medical marijuana patient. In that case, the city of Garden Grove is defending its actions in denying return of about a third of an ounce of pot taken from Felix Kha during a routine traffic stop. The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled against the petitioner’s allegation that federal pot prohibitions transcend California’s “compassionate use” law. In that decision, the court said Kah “was entitled under state law to return of his property” and that return of Kah’s pot “was not precluded by principles of federal preemption” and was “compelled by principles of due process.”
At about the same time the appeals court reached its decision, D. Craig Steffens, an Arroyo Grande resident, was stopped by county law enforcement officers for a routine traffic violation and a small quantity of pot was confiscated. The marijuana was determined to be medically prescribed, and on February 26, 2007, San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Martin J. Tangeman ordered Hedges to return the pot to Steffens.
Hedges has not complied and now is considering an appeal of Tangeman’s order while awaiting the state high court decision. That in turn has caused Steffens’ attorney, Louis Koory of James McKiernan Lawyers, to ask Tangeman to order Hedges to show cause why he shouldn’t be held in contempt of court.
Koory seeks contempt sanctions against Hedges and his department, the county, and County Attorney Ann Duggan, for what he called in court papers “their willful failure to comply with the order for return of property signed by the court.” Koory told the judge that “any appeal filed by the sheriff will be opposed and attorney’s fees and sanctions sought against the sheriff and his counsel.
“A number of courts have already decided this issue,” said Koory. “The sheriff has no right to keep Mr. Steffens’ property.”
Tangeman has set a May 1 hearing on the matter.
Hedges, in a lengthy e-mail to CalCoastNews.com, suggested he has “heard the argument that I am not required to enforce federal law. I would simply ask if I am required to comply with federal law. My opinion is that I am. I would hope that you would agree.”
Hedges wrote, “As sheriff, I retain all options that any other individual has as far as exercising my right to appeal.” He wondered “what law authorizes me to engage in the distribution of a controlled substance? It is my opinion that the legal system should be given an opportunity to answer the issues as they deal with distribution.”
The appeal court saw the matter through a different lens: “We confront here (in the Garden Grove v. Superior Court and Kah case) the facially anomalous request that we approve state confiscation of a substance which is legal in the circumstances under which it was possessed. This request is terra incognita (unknown territory), as will be most of the many confusing aspects of the current tension between California marijuana laws and those of the federal government.”
In its position paper, the American College of Physicians asked for increased research into the medical attributes of marijuana, and a relaxation of prosecution for medical possession.