San Bernardino City Councilman Chas Kelley is unambiguous about his opposition to allowing medical marijuana to be distributed in his city.

"I just don't want to be a regional magnet," said Kelley, noting that nearby cities had prohibitions on the books before San Bernardino followed their lead last month.

The nearly 13 years since California voters asked their government to legalize medical marijuana has not been enough time to settle debate on the proper use of the much loved and hated herb.

In 2009, Inland Empire- based cannabis providers continue to exist in a kind of legal haze, where state law appears to sanction their activities while federal law makes marijuana as illegal as heroin.

Tim Dameron, 22, of Riverside measures out medical marijuana this month at the InlandEmpire Patient Group, a medical-marijuana collective in Bloomington.
Tim Dameron, 22, of Riverside measures out medical marijuana this month at the Inland Empire Patient Group, a medical-marijuana collective in Bloomington. (LaFonzo Carter/Staff Photographer)

California voters cleared the path for medical marijuana in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 215. But voters up and down the state have also put into office politicians with very different views on medical cannabis.

In San Bernardino County, the response to medical marijuana has generally been to just say "no" - or at least "not yet." Officials in several local cities have adopted bans or moratoriums aimed at keeping cannabis providers out of some towns.

Other California cities have had different experiences, permitting marijuana providers or - as is the case in Oakland - creating a new business license tax intended to use medical marijuana as a means to balance the city's budget.

Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan touts her city's regulatory process as a tool to keep dispensaries safe for patients whose doctors recommend marijuana for their ailments.

Her city's new tax, Kaplan said, was passed in a July special election that was called to address Oakland's budget crisis. Oakland officials expect to take in about $1 million in new revenue after the tax goes into effect in 2010.

The political controversies that continue to surround medical marijuana, are in Kaplan's view, foolish.

"It's a conflict that's hurting everybody, as well as being a waste of time, money and energy," she said.

But Kaplan's views are at odds with a number of Inland Empire public officials and California law-enforcement leaders.

A California Police Chiefs Association report on medicinal marijuana is but one voice of skepticism. The paper argues that federal law trumps Proposition 215 and that dispensaries, which should be deemed illegal, are likely targets for criminals looking to score pot or cash.

"Marijuana dispensaries are commonly large money-making enterprises who will sell marijuana to most anyone who produces a physician's written recommendation for its medical use," the report reads. "These recommendations can be had by paying unscrupulous physicians a fee and claiming to have most any malady, even headaches."

Kelley, the San Bernardino councilman, referred to the report in late September when he won his colleagues' approval to ban dispensaries from the city.

He echoed concerns that cannabis can be prescribed for trivial problems and that without a ban, San Bernardino could become a place where the sight of people "puffing away on weed" becomes a new obstacle to business development.

Redlands and Yucaipa have already banned dispensaries, and Rialto is moving in that direction.

Other inland jurisdictions have adopted temporary bans that block cannabis providers until more detailed policies can be crafted.

Loma Linda, Montclair and Yucca Valley are among the cities that have moratoriums. County government also has a moratorium.

San Bernardino County extended its temporary ban in August, but some providers who set up operations before county officials acted are still dispensing marijuana.

These facilities include the Inland Empire Patient Group in Bloomington and the San Bernardino Patients Association near Chino.

"As long as the rules are abided by and people say this is a medical facility, not a head shop, we don't have any problems," said a man at San Bernardino Patients Association, who identified himself only as Anthony and said his family owns the facility. 

Anthony said most of their patients are fighting cancer or have had tragic accidents. Proposition 215's language recognizes marijuana as a legitimate medicine for people suffering from diseases including AIDS, cancer, arthritis, glaucoma or "any other illness for which marijuana provides relief."

Medical-marijuana providers say the herb is less addictive or dangerous than prescription drugs.

Ryan Michaels and Jan Werner of Inland Empire Patient Group want to be treated as any other law-abiding enterprise.

Michaels discusses marijuana policy with a libertarian's respect for old-fashioned federalism. To him, it makes no sense for government officials in California to bow down to federal law.

"We have states that are allowed to try their own methods of solving their own problems," he said.

He also contends that without a legal option, patients will buy from street dealers.

Werner and Michaels said their operation is not a dispensary but a collective that allows marijuana patients to share crops that they cultivate.

They provide marijuana on site but said they do not technically sell marijuana. Instead, they collect donations or contributions to cover production costs.

Werner said they also pay $8,000 to $10,000 per month in taxes to the California Board of Equalization.

Elsewhere in Southern California, Palm Springs and Los Angeles have tried to find their own answers to the medical- marijuana question.

Palm Springs law allows for as many as two dispensaries in the city. Associate planner Ken Lyon said the town has received 11 applications from prospective providers.

"Our City Council is trying to move slowly ... without opening the floodgates, so to speak," Lyons said.

In Los Angeles County, where hundreds of dispensaries are in operation, District Attorney Steve Cooley last week announced plans to step up prosecutions of providers that sell marijuana at a profit.

"Any medical-marijuana dispensary that is selling over the counter for a profit is allegedly violating the law as written," said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office in the Los Angeles Daily News.

"Now if there are collectives or people getting compassionate marijuana in the proper way as outlined in the law, then that is fine. It's the ones that are operating outside the law that are being targeted," Gibbons added.

Dennis Christy, assistant district attorney for San Bernardino County, said his office seeks to follow the law regarding the use of medical marijuana. They also plan to keep a close eye to protect restrictions that require people distributing marijuana through collectives to either be actual caregivers or patients whose physicians recommend marijuana, and to avoid selling to nonmembers.

Either way, Christy said Monday that his office is not planning the kinds of prosecutions being discussed in Los Angeles County.

"We don't have the same number as L.A. does. That's one of the big differences," he said.