SACRAMENTO -- Stung by a federal crackdown on medical marijuana in
California, activists are pushing toward a new ballot measure to test
a state's right to distribute pot as medicine.

Americans for Medical Rights, the Santa Monica-based group that
promoted California's landmark medical marijuana initiative in 1996,
is eyeing such a test in one of three smaller Western states--Arizona,
Washington or Oregon--that already have "medpot" laws.

As now conceived, the measure would formalize a network under state
government control to distribute medical marijuana instead of leaving
to patients the job of acquiring the drug.

Americans for Medical Rights chief Bill Zimmerman said the group hopes
to get a proposition on the November 2002 ballot, largely to set up an
almost certain battle in the Supreme Court over states' rights in such

California and seven other states have legalized medical marijuana,
putting them in conflict with federal statutes that make pot illegal
for cultivation, sales and use of any sort.

That dispute has escalated this year with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling
that shot holes in efforts to distribute the drug under California's
landmark Proposition 215, the nation's first medical marijuana
initiative. In recent weeks, federal agents have shut down a West
Hollywood cannabis club endorsed by city officials, raided a Ventura
County garden operated by patients and seized medical records from a
prominent medpot doctor in Northern California.

The raids, all conducted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, have
prompted criticism in California of U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and
Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson.

Peter Warren, a California Medical Assn. spokesman, said federal
priorities seem "wildly out of step" with the American public in the
aftermath of the terror attacks. With a recent poll showing three of
four Americans supporting medical marijuana, the average citizen is
far more concerned about airline safety and bioterrorism, Warren said,
"than they are about sick people using marijuana."

Warren and others worry that the raids could again send a chill
through California's doctors, who have been concerned about running
into legal difficulties if they recommend pot for a patient. The
medical association supports use of the drug only as a last resort.

Sue North, chief of staff for state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa
Clara), said the ultimate victims are patients who have come to rely
on marijuana to ease pain or to help with nausea caused by
chemotherapy or AIDS.

"The target here isn't dope dealers on the school grounds," said
North, who is shepherding a Vasconcellos bill that would provide photo
registration cards for pot patients. "This is about stopping people
with serious medical conditions from getting access to something that
helps them."

Federal Drug Laws Are Enforced

U.S. Justice Department officials did not respond to requests for
comment, but a DEA spokesman in San Francisco said drug agents are
compelled to enforce existing federal law allowing no leeway for
medical use.

"Personally, my heart goes out to those who are sick," said Richard
Meyer, a DEA spokesman. "But I don't believe marijuana is the answer.
I believe it's more harmful than beneficial."

Since voters approved California's medical marijuana law, many
patients have turned to cannabis clubs to fill their needs. Early on,
federal drug agents busted several clubs, but an uneasy detente had
reigned in recent years as those cases wound through the courts.

The Supreme Court's unanimous decision in May shook the landscape.
Cannabis club operators up and down the state--about 50 are still
running in California, most of them in the San Francisco Bay Area--are
living in fear they could be next.

Many have moved patient records out of the clubs in case of federal
raids, and some have even taken to encrypting e-mail messages.

"We're all scared," said Lynnette Shaw, founder of a medical marijuana
club in Marin County. "Everybody is scared."

Some advocates are now openly suggesting that the roots of the current
dilemma is the free-form style of the cannabis clubs.

"The movement has wanted it both ways," said Jay Cavanaugh, national
director of American Alliance for Medical Cannabis, an advocacy and
education group. "They've wanted cannabis as a medicine, but they
haven't wanted to treat it like a medicine."

Efforts to Make Pot a Prescription Drug

Cavanaugh and many others in the debate have longed to see medical pot
distributed through traditional pharmacies, but that is impossible
under current drug rules. Marijuana is considered unsuitable for
medical use.

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has for several years pushed to make
pot a prescription drug, but such efforts have been roundly blocked in
Congress. His current bill is considered by most beltway
prognosticators to be dead on arrival.

Zimmerman said the next best step is to test the states' rights issue
on medical pot.

A state-sponsored distribution system would present a provocative
legal challenge to the federal government, Zimmerman said. "We want to
test whether federal courts have the power to overrule states in these

Such a challenge could take years to resolve.

Although no final decision has been made about which state should be
the target of the advocates' efforts, Zimmerman said California has
been ruled out because of the costs of a campaign in the sprawling
Golden State.

Such fiscal constraints are something new, given the deep pockets
behind Americans for Medical Rights. The group, which pushed medical
marijuana initiatives in a variety of states during the late 1990s, is
financed largely by George Soros, a billionaire New York financier,
and several other wealthy benefactors.

"The one thing you can predict is [that] patients won't stop using a
medicine that alleviates their pain and suffering," Zimmerman said. If
they can't get it from cannabis clubs, "they'll get it from the street."

Newshawk: Terry Liittschwager
Pubdate: Sun, 25 Nov 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Author: Eric Bailey, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)