Medical Marijuana Tug of War

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The420Guy

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Operators of a West Hollywood cannabis club, let off recently without jail
sentences by a federal judge, say they see the light sentences as
bittersweet victories in the fight to safeguard California's legal right to
smoke marijuana for medical purposes.

Their battle is with the federal government and they have a lot of
supporters on their side -- including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, state
Attorney General Bill Lockyer and local law enforcement officials.

The problem is that the federal government refuses to recognize the state's
1996 voter-approved law allowing doctor-prescribed marijuana use for
patients suffering from cancer, HIV and other chronic diseases. And with no
immediate plans by the state to take on the federal government, experts say
the issue will remain in a legal limbo -- leaving patients, doctors,
prosecutors and law enforcement officers scratching their heads.

The clubs, like West Hollywood's Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center,
which served 960 patients, are being closed and their clients are turning
to the black market to buy marijuana.

"It's a sad statement about our times when people whose only goal is to
help others are caught up in a political backlash," said Ron Kaye, the
attorney who represented LACRC operators Scott Imler, Jeff Yablan and
Jeffrey Farrington.

Even U.S. District Judge Howard Matz, who sentenced the three men to a year
of probation, scolded prosecut! ors for bringing the case to trial and
called their work "admirable." He gave them the most lenient sentence under
the law.

"Despite the fact that our program is destroyed, we couldn't have asked for
a better outcome in court," said Imler, a cancer sufferer who co-authored
Proposition 215, the ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana use.

"We tried very hard to change the law using the mechanisms we learned in
civics class. It was very hard to view ourselves -- and be seen -- as
criminals."

The case was the latest high-profile showdown between California and the
federal government and continues a bizarre legal pattern that has developed
since Prop. 215 took effect. Typically, federal prosecutors bring the cases
to trial, win a conviction and then federal judges hand down light
sentences, infuriating the Justice Department.

In July, the Justice Department appealed the sentence of San Francisco
activist Ed Rosenthal for growing marijuana for patients in Northern Ca!
lifornia. Rosenthal was sentenced to just one day in jail. The! appeal is
still pending.

Eight other states have medical marijuana laws similar to California's. The
Justice Department says it will continue to raid marijuana centers and
farms because the state laws conflict with federal law banning the
cultivation, possession and use of marijuana, even for medical purposes.

"We don't contest the sincerity and good faith of these defendants,"
federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told Matz last week. "But we do have
a legal regime in which a law was passed by Congress and I think ... all of
us, whether we agree with those rules or not, need to abide by them."

Ultimately, medical marijuana advocates say, the states will have to
pressure the federal government to change the law.

"We have thousands of Americans who need this, and we have judges who are
refusing to put people in jail. The last logical step is to change federal
policy," said Stef Sherer, executive director and founder of Americans for
Safe Access, an advocacy group based in No! rthern California.

Until then, a kind of don't ask, don't tell system -- where doctors
recommend the drug but can't prescribe it, where patients are safe from
local prosecution but risk federal charges -- is emerging.

"The greatest impact is on the patients who had come to rely upon us,"
Imler said. "They've been driven back into the streets, alleys and parks,
and giving their money to people who do not have their best interests in mind."

Imler's cannabis resource center was operated with the blessing of the
Sheriff's Department and the city of West Hollywood, which helped purchase
the building it operated from. The city is in litigation over the building
with the federal government, which seized it in 2001 and sold it for $1.2
million.

In the short to medium run, legal observers say, clubs can exist as long as
they keep a low profile and do not acquire any assets, like property, which
can be seized.

"Smaller, less-visible ... word-of-mouth places are going to be ! the ones
that stay off the federal radar," said Mitchell Earleywine, a n associate
professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and an
expert on the legal and ethical issues surrounding its use.

"As the clubs get bigger, those are the ones the federal government goes
crazy over."

While Schwarzenegger is a supporter of medical marijuana use and has
pledged to support the state law, a spokesman said he doesn't intend to
press the issue in Washington anytime soon.

So advocates intend to press on with legal challenges and legislative
proposals.

Two are advancing in Congress, both supported by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a
Huntington Beach Republican whose mother died of cancer.

Also, a new state law that will go into effect Jan. 1 limits caregivers or
patients to six mature or a dozen immature plants per patient and creates a
state registry that identifies users of medical marijuana. It also creates
a 24-hour hotline for law enforcement officials to verify that someone
they've detained is a registered user of medicinal mari! juana.

The law is the result of a task force assembled by state Attorney General
Bill Lockyer, who has loudly criticized the federal government for raiding
medical marijuana clubs in California.

Americans for Safe Access has started a telephone campaign to the
constituents of four California congressmen who voted against a proposal
that would have stopped federal medical marijuana raids. The four, two
Democrats and two Republicans, represent districts where the raids occurred.

"There's a lot of fear -- justified fear -- among patients. But I think
there's a lot of brave, compassionate people who will continue to do what
they know is right, and federal policy will just have to catch up," Sherer
said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Note: Lenient sentences underscore conflicting state and federal pot laws.


Source: Daily News of Los Angeles (CA)
Author: Michael Gougis, Staff Writer
Published: Friday, December 12, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Dail! y News of Los Angeles