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One Toke Over the Line 

Is it legal to smoke in public? Theoretically, almost anywhere in S.F., if you have a card. But there are important exceptions.

Wednesday, Dec 15 2010

San Francisco's reputation as a cannabis-friendly city is well-earned. Cannabis clubs operated in public in the 1980s and 1990s in open defiance of the state attorney general, well before the state's medical marijuana laws were birthed here, and marijuana offenses have been the official lowest priority for law enforcement since 2006.

"SFPD does not enforce medical marijuana issues and takes no proactive investigative action in that area," says Capt. Stephen Tacchini, who heads the department's narcotics bureau. The clouds of marijuana smoke that accompany such typical San Francisco fetes as a trip to the ballpark or just the grocery store? They're legally protected: "Persons with medical marijuana cards may use it either in private or public."

That's great — but does that mean that a cardholder can toke openly at work? No: Employers are still free to terminate workers for using marijuana in any form, as a case involving a Michigan cancer patient fired from his Walmart job shows (AB 2279, a bill that would ensure patients such protections in California, was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger).

And surely nobody will care about a joint enjoyed at sunset on Ocean Beach? Wrong again: the city's beaches are federal land, and federal park police will issue tickets to sandy tokers.

Confused? You should be. "There's no law that says you can smoke anywhere," says David Goldman of the San Francisco chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical cannabis patients' advocacy group. "And there's no law that says you cannot."

Instead, patients abide by practice and practicality. "Technically, you're allowed to medicate anywhere you can smoke a cigarette," says Nick Smilgys, the marketing director at Mission Street dispensary SPARC. But that doesn't mean that the smoking patio at Medjool is open season for marijuana, nor does it mean that Zeitgeist is advertising its open space for pot smokers (not that it needs to). Further blurring the line are state liquor laws that prohibit the consumption of "drugs" where alcohol is sold: The Alcoholic Beverage Commission hasn't quite gotten around to recognizing marijuana as medicine, and has the power to revoke a liquor license if publicans allow pot smoking on their premises.

Americans for Safe Access' national chapter produces an extensive legal guide, providing patients with the exact letter of law for medical marijuana use, city by city, county by county. Using that guide as well as testimony from cannabis advocates, the Rolling Paper will break down exactly where it's okay to fire one up:

In public, on the street? YES, as long as it is city and not federal property. If you have your recommendation, medicate with confidence. Police are trained to recognize the cards your provider issues as well as the "official" state ID cards.

At a bar? TECHNICALLY NO, because of the above reasons, but it's unlikely that any action will be taken against someone smoking a joint on a smoking patio.

Near a school? NO. Smoking and consuming alcohol are both forbidden within 1,000 feet of a school (even though you can purchase alcohol within 1,000 feet of a school, but that's a different story). Respect this boundary — and the delicate relationship between patients and parents — and keep the pipe in the pocket when children are around.

On an airplane? YES, in California — and on interstate flights, as long as both states have medical cannabis laws and the patient has recommendations for both. For instance, it's legal to transport pot from Massachusetts to California, if he or she has the proper paperwork. "It's not widely known," Smilgys says. "And if you have a layover in Iowa, you should be fine — as long as you don't leave the airport." Nevertheless, patients traveling with ready-to-smoke cannabis who wish to attract the least amount of attention from TSA workers should exercise caution: "The law says it's up to the discretion of the TSA officers involved." Edibles should pose no problem, but be aware of the marijuana laws at your final destination and act accordingly.

In Golden Gate Park? NO, believe it or not. Cigarette smoking has been banned in public parks, "town squares" such as the plazalike open spaces seen citywide, and city-owned playing fields. That means that combusting of medicine is verboten as well ... technically, anyway. Tacchini says San Francisco police will bust open-air tokers on Hippie Hill only if they receive a citizen complaint, and the odds of that happening? Perhaps not probable, but possible nonetheless, so exercise discretion.

In fact, in the absence of clear statutes on the books, discretion may be the law of the land for cannabis users.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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