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Medical Marijuana Lawsuit Is Not Just Smoke

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge denied most of a Northern California county's challenge to a lawsuit from medical marijuana patients angered by the seizures of their plants last year.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson on Monday tossed the patients' state constitutional claims for money damages, but upheld most of their claims against Lake County.

Lake County is north of the Bay Area, just south of the Mendocino National Forest. Its county seat is Lakeport.

The county argued, unsuccessfully, that because marijuana requires a lot of water, officers should be allowed to enter private property without a warrant and cut down plants during California's drought.

In July 2014, Lake County passed an ordinance prohibiting medical marijuana from being grown on vacant parcels of land, and using more than 100 square feet to grow marijuana indoors, among other things.

The next month, Lake County Sheriff's officers searched the homes of at least seven medical marijuana patients, allegedly without warrants, and seized marijuana plants.

Several of the patients and the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws sued the county, members of its sheriff's department and the state's Fish and Wildlife Department, in Federal Court.

They sought a temporary restraining order, which the court denied in September. They then filed a supplemental brief for a preliminary injunction against the county.

Judge Henderson entered an injunction against the county in October 2014 after finding the marijuana patients are "vulnerable to future seizures of their medicine."

"The need to reduce water use, even during a drought, falls below the level of urgency associated with emergencies justifying a warrantless search in existing case law," Henderson wrote in an Oct. 14 ruling.

"The Court is utterly unpersuaded by defendants' claim at oral argument that Lake County should not be required to get a warrant for these abatement actions because it has not fully developed the institutional process required to do so," Henderson wrote.

The patients filed a second amended complaint in December, which the county moved to dismiss.

The county raised 13 arguments against the complaint. Henderson on Monday denied all but two of them.

Henderson found that the plaintiffs presented enough evidence that the individual employees who worked for the county sheriff's department were involved in seizing the marijuana, and denied the defendants' motion to dismiss the individual-capacity claims.

However, because the patients are suing Lake County, the judge found that "allowing the official-capacity suits to proceed creates a risk of confusing the jury," and granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the claims against the defendants in their official capacities.

Henderson also found that the marijuana patients had shown evidence sufficient to state a claim for conspiracy. In May 2014, Defendant Sheriff Francisco Rivero announced that the county ordinance would "provide a good tool for the Lake County Sheriff's Office to eradicate medical marijuana cultivation in populated areas."

Because California law does not allow freestanding causes of action for monetary damages that allege constitutional violations, Henderson granted the county's motion to dismiss those claims for damages.

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