The years-long legal battle following a highly controversial medical marijuana operation by the county’s now-defunct Narcotics Task Force could possibly end up before the state Supreme Court following a recent appellate court ruling.
In January 2012, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office admitted it couldn’t proceed in its prosecution of a group of county residents formerly operating medical marijuana delivery services—locally known as the Doobie Dozen—because a judge’s instructions for a possible jury would make their case un-winnable.
The District Attorney’s Office immediately held up the white flag to SLO Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera, who then dismissed the cases outright. The district attorney appealed those dismissals to the state appellate court, where the case has lingered since.
Deputy District Attorney Craig Van Rooyen previously told New Times the prosecutors had made the decision to send the cases to state appellate court when it appeared the local court wasn’t receptive to their interpretation of state medical marijuana laws. His office hoped the state could provide clarity on the law, he said.
But on Oct. 16, the Second District Court of Appeals interpreted LaBarbera’s jury instructions as an interpretation of state medical marijuana laws that would allow retail sales.
“The People declared they could not proceed under instruction. No wonder,” the ruling reads. “Any money received must be no more than a cooperative or collective member’s proportionate share of the actual cost of cultivating and distributing marijuana.”
At issue was LaBarbera’s instruction that read: “Providing money in exchange for harvested marijuana may, in itself, constitute ‘associating for the purpose of collectively cultivating marijuana.’ Associating for the purpose of collectively cultivating marijuana does not require any prior relationship between the parties.”
Despite local law enforcement’s assertion to New Times that each of the defendants would be fully convicted of violating state Compassionate Use laws, only six of the 12 residents originally on the hook remain in legal limbo.
The District Attorney’s Office ultimately didn’t file charges against three of the arrested, and then made a filing error in its attempt to appeal the dismissal of two others. A case against the last defendant was dismissed in August 2012, and prosecutors declined to file an appeal.
Attorneys for the remaining half-dozen—Ventura-based appellate attorneys Laura Kelly and James Devine—declined to comment on the cases. District Attorney’s Office Spokesman Jerret Gran told New Times the appellate ruling sends the six cases back to local court.
“It becomes just like any other case, but now we have clarification from the court of appeals on which jury instructions are valid,” Gran said, adding that he anticipates the defendants’ counsel to request a stay and to take the cases to the state Supreme Court, where they may or may not be lumped in with similar cases making their way through the system.
Chris Austin, one of the remaining defendants, told New Times that he’d still like to see a definitive ruling, primarily because he had a sales permit and never profited from providing patients with cannabis.
“I don’t see this [appellate decision] as a bad thing,” Austin said. “Would I like it over with? Sure. But I also didn’t like the dismissal process. I don’t want people to think we just got off on a technicality.”
As of press time, the cases hadn’t yet appeared on the SLO County court calendar.