More MS news articles for Aug 2001

Calif. Marijuana Clubs Uneasy Over Ruling

Patient Centers Fearful of Being Shut Down

Wednesday, August 29, 2001; Page A03
By Jeff Adler
Special to The Washington Post

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Deep within an indoor plantation on Santa Monica Boulevard, the medicine grows tall and smells sweet -- about 400 marijuana plants in different cycles of life, all sprouting steadily under high-powered lights.

Upstairs, patients smoke strains such as "Maude's Mighty Moss" in the comfortable lounge of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center. Over the past five years, the building has become a refuge for people who suffer from cancer, AIDS and other diseases and who say that only marijuana relieves their pain and nausea.

But no one knows how much longer they will find safe harbor here. When the U.S. Supreme Court forced an Oakland cooperative to stop dispensing marijuana in May, many of the 883 patients here feared that federal agents would soon shut down cannabis clubs nationwide, including their own.

That hasn't happened yet. Despite the high court's ruling, federal agencies have taken no action against the nearly 20 large-scale distributors of medical marijuana in California or the clubs in other states.

The movement to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes continues to spread slowly from state to state. Many cannabis centers, like this one, remain open, supported by people who refuse to give up their medicine of choice.

"If they try to close it down, I'm going to be part of a human chain to stop them," said one woman, who said she smokes marijuana to combat nausea brought on by her HIV medication.

Since 1996, the District of Columbia and nine states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington -- have passed laws protecting patient use of marijuana, although Congress prevented D.C.'s initiative from taking effect and Arizona's effort has stalled. Moreover, 73 percent of Americans support the use of marijuana as a physician-prescribed pain reliever, according to a March 1999 Gallup poll.

On July 31, Canada began allowing seriously ill people to buy, cultivate and use marijuana to alleviate their symptoms.

Still, the issue remains highly divisive. Critics argue that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes encourages recreational abuse and sends the wrong message to children.

"If you make drugs more socially acceptable, use starts to rise," said Howard Simon, a spokesman for Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "Kids may be able to make a distinction, but they may not."

Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana is a potentially addictive drug with no medical value. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) wants Congress to reclassify the drug so pharmacies may dispense it by prescription in states with laws that allow its use for medical purposes.

"Marijuana . . . and the people who use it are treated far more harshly than the actual substance justifies," Frank said. "We allow doctors to prescribe substances that are far more damaging."

But Frank expressed little hope that Congress would amend its drug laws after the Supreme Court's decision in May. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas declared that federal laws prohibiting the manufacture and distribution of marijuana take precedence over a patient's medical need for the drug.

While that decision did not overturn California's Proposition 215, which allows the seriously ill to possess and use marijuana with a physician's approval, the court provided federal prosecutors with hefty ammunition against cannabis centers.

"With that ruling in their pocket, they could bring injunctive actions against every club they could find," said Marsha Cohen, a professor who specializes in pharmaceutical law at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

Yet states have held off on closing medical marijuana centers, deferring to federal agencies who have the responsibility for enforcement under the Supreme Court decision.

Asa Hutchinson, the newly appointed head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has said that his agency intends to enforce federal laws on medical marijuana but that "there are a lot of different aspects that we have to consider as we develop that enforcement policy."

Rogene Waite, spokeswoman for the DEA, said "marijuana is illegal, and any place that distributes marijuana, that grows marijuana, is illegal under federal law."

But Scott Imler, the president and executive director of the nonprofit cannabis center here, said he believes the authorities do not want to risk the public relations disaster of shutting down groups that are aiding cancer and AIDS patients. At the same time, he said politicians are eager to appear tough on drug use and distribution.

"It's a political hot potato," Imler said.

Logistics may pose more of a problem for law enforcement than politics. Even if the DEA were to shut down large-scale distributors of medical marijuana, it lacks the manpower to stop smaller operations, contended Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Even states that allow the distribution of medical marijuana have no established mechanism for enabling patients to obtain it. Cannabis distribution centers have popped up to fill the void.

In West Hollywood, a patient needs a recommendation from a physician to become a member of the cannabis cooperative. Before the center gives the patient marijuana, it requires the doctor's certification that there is a legitimate need, and it checks that the physician is licensed by the state.

Five years after California voters approved Proposition 215, the state Senate recently passed a bill that would solve the distribution problem by allowing patient cooperatives to cultivate marijuana under the control of the state Department of Health Services. The proposed law would also create a state registry of medical marijuana patients and their caregivers.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) supports the bill, but it is unclear whether the State Assembly will pass it or whether Gov. Gray Davis (D) will sign it.

Even without such laws, the odds are high that the clubs will persist. Jeff Jones, the president of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative and the defendant in the Supreme Court case, estimates that in addition to the 20 large-scale clubs in California, thousands of low-profile cooperatives exist and grow marijuana for small groups of patients.

From modest beginnings in 1996, Imler's patient-run center has mushroomed and now has nearly 900 members. And it has won the support of numerous local officials, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. The patients here suffer from a wide variety of diseases, including AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy and muscular dystrophy. They use marijuana to alleviate symptoms or to stimulate appetite.

With much of its marijuana now grown on site or by members, the West Hollywood facility offers patients such selections as "Red Rascal, "Sonoma" and "Spring Potpourri." Members pay about $65 to withdraw an eighth of an ounce from the cooperative's supply.

Still, the center turns to other sources when supplies run short. In 2000, for example, Imler's group bought nearly 100 pounds of marijuana from illegal dealers, spending $620,000. The cooperative's goal is to become completely self-sufficient, but Imler said that, as long as marijuana is not available in pharmacies, the center will use every measure to serve the patients who depend on it.

"This isn't the answer," Imler said. "But this is far preferable to [patients] having to go out and find it on the streets."

If federal agents close the cooperative in the near future, many members said that they would turn to the black market for their marijuana. But even if they could locate their own marijuana, they would not find a sanctuary like the cannabis center here.

"For some people, if they didn't have this place to come to, it would be devastating," said Randall Turner, 45, who is HIV-positive and a member. "If they closed it down, I don't know what we would do."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company