Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Court tells Yuma sheriff to return woman's pot

Arizona courts said that, because state law allows people to have marijuana for medicinal purposes, the drugs are not subject to seizure by police and must be returned to a legitimate medical-marijuana card holder. (Cronkite News Service photo by Laura Monte)

By MAURO WHITEMAN Cronkite News Service 

WASHINGTON – Valerie Okun can get her marijuana back. 

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to reconsider Arizona court rulings that said the Yuma County sheriff had to return drugs seized from Okun, who was able to produce a medical marijuana card from California.

Okun, of Encinitas, Calif., was stopped Jan. 28, 2011, at a Border Patrol checkpoint near Yuma, where agents seized her marijuana, hashish and drug paraphernalia.

Although Okun’s drug charges were dropped because of Arizona’s medical marijuana laws, state officials have refused to return the drugs, saying doing so conflicted with federal law and could open the sheriff to legal action.

But courts consistently disagreed. A Yuma County Superior Court ordered the drugs returned, and the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.

The Arizona Supreme Court refused to review the case, sparking the county’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined without comment to take the case Monday.

Phoenix-based attorney Thomas Dean, who focuses on marijuana-related cases, called the latest decision “a very good thing for the medical marijuana community in Arizona and, more broadly, for other states.”

“Now, that’s it. They’re out of options,” Dean said of the sheriff’s office. “They have no choice but to return it.”

Alfonso Zavala, spokesman for the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office, said the sheriff had “not received anything officially or in writing” regarding the Supreme Court’s denial, but that the office would be working with the Yuma County Attorney to decide next steps.

A county spokesman said officials with the county attorney‘s office were not available for comment Monday.

Michael Donovan, the attorney representing Okun, said he expects a written denial from the Supreme Court by the end of the week. At that point, he said he believes the sheriff’s office will have to return the seized marijuana or something comparable to it.

Dean said that raises an interesting question about the return, given that the marijuana was seized in 2011.

“Should they have to return some more-fresh marijuana?” Dean joked, adding that compensation will likely be financial given that the marijuana may have lost some of its potency in the past three years.

Keith Stroup, legal counsel and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said a lot of laws regarding marijuana around the country are changing, so law enforcement officers are “just going to have to get used to that fact.”

While the appeal to the Supreme Court would seem to be the final action for the case, Donovan said he would not be surprised if the state decides to pursue further legal appeals and he will be ready.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if occasionally, in the law, we had an end?” he said.

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