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California Counties Target Pot Growers Despite Rising Talk of Legalization

SAN FRANCISCO — While top U.S. and California officials have recently signaled more lenience toward marijuana users, many local authorities are relying on U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency grants to fund raids on pot growers.

At least seven California counties, from Del Norte on the Oregon border to Riverside in the south, have approved the use of grants — some as high as $275,000 — from the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. California’s state and local agencies here typically receive about a quarter of the program’s annual budget, which is tens of millions of dollars, said DEA program manager Scott Hoernke.

cannabis growers san franciscoU.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in February that the federal government would curb raids on medical-pot sellers. This week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said “it’s time for a debate” on legalizing recreational pot use after a Field Poll found a majority of Californians, for the first time, support legalizing and taxing the drug.

The federal grants point to one of many contradictions surrounding pot policy in California. While pot remains illegal under federal law, state law has approved medical use since 1996. Regulation of medical-marijuana sales is left to cities and counties under a state law that allows just about any adult with a physician’s note to buy and use high-grade marijuana.

“It’s a conundrum,” said Liz Kniss, a supervisor in Santa Clara County, which provides identification cards to people whose doctors prescribe marijuana.

The Santa Clara County board of supervisors last month unanimously approved a $110,000 federal pot-busting grant. Ms. Kniss, who support marijuana for medical purposes, said the sheriff in Santa Clara, which encompasses the Silicon Valley, feels obligated to break up big growing operations to comply with federal law.

The federal prohibition “almost forces us to take the money” from the DEA, said David Cortese, another Santa Clara supervisor, even though pot eradication isn’t one of his big priorities.

California’s cash-strapped counties are generally reluctant to turn down any source of funding. Last month, Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Riverside, Solano, Tehama, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties renewed their DEA grants. The process generally wasn’t controversial, although two former Humboldt supervisors urged the board to refuse funding. Humboldt is known as one of California’s top marijuana-producers.

Mr. Hoernke, who has run the 30-year-old eradication program since last year, said it targets pot growers, with an emphasis on eliminating cultivation on public lands. The program disburses grants only to state and local agencies that carry out raids.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the marijuana-advocacy group NORML, said he isn’t surprised counties are continuing to accept the money despite political shifts away from pot prohibition around the U.S. In recent weeks, the state senates of New Hampshire and Rhode Island passed bills legalizing medical pot.



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