Fear of Feds Keeps Users Quiet in Bay Area

When federal officials shut down the Oakland Cannabis Buyers'
Cooperative in 1998, Angel McClary Raich faced what she considered a
"life-threatening situation."

"I could die in 45 days without medical marijuana. It literally keeps
me alive," said Raich, 37, an Oakland resident who suffers from an
inoperable brain tumor, seizures, wasting syndrome and chronic pain.

For Raich, it wasn't difficult to find another source for the
marijuana she relies on daily to quiet her pain and seizures and
stimulate her appetite. What was harder, she said, was to quell the
fear that federal agents would break down her door, seize her stash
and even jail her.

Such is the state of Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative
passed by California voters in 1996.

A high-profile federal crackdown on medical marijuana has resulted in
the closure of clubs throughout the state, raids on growers and
arrests of activists including Ed Rosenthal, who was convicted of
cultivating marijuana but spared a prison sentence last week.

But activists say the crackdown has not curtailed access to medical
marijuana in the Bay Area, and the number of cannabis clubs and other
providers is growing to meet the needs of thousands of patients.

Still, many providers and patients alike live in fear of federal
prosecution and so have kept their activities under the radar.

"It seems the more the federal government puts pressure on
dispensaries, the more that pop up," said Don Duncan, director of the
Berkeley Patients Group, one of many innocuously named medical
marijuana providers. But "it's a good idea not to provoke a lot of
attention. We're worried all the time the (Drug Enforcement
Administration) could come crashing into Berkeley."

"There's a risk involved, but it's important to take that risk," he

There are at least 35 medical pot clubs in the state, nearly all of
them in Northern California and more than half in the Bay Area, said
Dale Gieringer, coordinator of the California chapter of the National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"Hardly a month goes by that I don't hear of another dispensary
opening up, " he said.

Wayne Justmann, chairman of San Francisco's medical cannabis task
force, said the number of clubs in the city has grown from just two
five years ago to 11 today.

"We haven't missed a step in providing services for people who qualify
under 215 irregardless of what's happening in the courts or Washington
or Sacramento," said Justmann, 58, who uses medical marijuana to treat
symptoms of HIV.

While one large provider, Cannabis Helping to Alleviate Medical
Problems, closed a year ago because it feared it was about to be
raided, another organization has since opened in the same spot,
Justmann said.

Activists say the local situation is in stark contrast to Southern
California, where the number of clubs may be down to just one. Many of
those patients are making their way to the Bay Area to obtain the drug.

Supportive local governments have allowed networks to grow in the Bay
Area, they say.

San Francisco and Marin County's public health departments provide
medical marijuana ID cards to patients who provide documentation from
a doctor that can be verified. San Francisco has handed out some 5,000
cards since July 2000.

The Oakland cannabis cooperative, which no longer dispenses the drug,
also distributes ID cards, which clubs typically require even to allow
someone in the door.

Gieringer of NORML estimates that 40,000 Californians are using
medical marijuana, the majority of them in Northern California.

"In the Bay Area, Proposition 215 is definitely a daily reality," said
Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a
Berkeley-based national advocacy group.

But Sherer and others say that reality is not worry-free.

"I do talk to a lot of people who are so afraid of the federal
government crackdown that they're afraid to get an ID card and be out
on some list because they're afraid they'll be followed home and
busted," she said. "I've had hundreds of patients tell me they'd
rather try to find it illicitly than go to a dispensary because
they're afraid of being targeted."

While clubs remain plentiful, some advocates say the supply of safe,
quality marijuana has been hampered by the federal government, which
maintains marijuana is an illegal drug with no legitimate medical use.

Rosenthal, arrested in February 2002, was the major provider for the
Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, the only dispensary in that county.

"He was the only legitimate guy we could go to. Our patients lost a
tremendous amount of medicine," said Lynnette Shaw, alliance founder.
Now, the alliance relies on patients who grow their own marijuana to
provide extra for those who don't.

The Marin group was one of six -- including the Oakland Cannabis
Buyers' Cooperative and Dennis Peron's Cannabis Cultivators Club in
San Francisco -- ordered to stop dispensing marijuana by a 1998
federal injunction, but Shaw has been fighting the injunction in court
and has ignored the order, so far without repercussions.

Raich also has taken her fight to the courts, going on the offensive
and seeking an injunction that would prevent the federal government
from prosecuting her for using a drug she deems life-saving. While she
lost the case in March, she is appealing.

The federal crackdown, she said, "has bonded the patients, caregivers
and providers. Even though our bodies are weak, our minds and spirits
are stronger than ever."

Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jun 2003
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: A - 23
Copyright: 2003 Hearst Communications Inc.
Contact: letters@sfchronicle.com
Website: http://www.sfgate.com/chronicle/