More MS news articles for Dec 2001

One Toke Over the Line

The feds vs. medical marijuana

December 14, 2001
By Sara Rimensnyder

Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously to let the feds shut down six California co-ops that distribute medical marijuana in strict accordance with state law. Back in 1996, Golden State voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 215, allowing doctors to prescribe pot to patients with severe, chronic pain. In effect, the nation's highest court decided that state laws legalizing cannabis for medical use weren't worth a dime bag.

In the aftermath of the May ruling, patrons and proprietors of California's 50-odd medical marijuana clinics waited anxiously to see whether the federal government would aggressively crack down. In October, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration began to answer that question. Agents surveilled or busted several co-ops, finishing their tour with the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, a West Hollywood clinic that provided pot on site to 960 patients suffering from AIDS, epilepsy, cancer, glaucoma, and other painful illnesses. Thirty armed federal agents seized 400 marijuana plants, computers, financial documents, and medical records.

On December 10, authorities informed Scott Imler, the co-op's director and founder, that he would face a grand jury on December 20. That court will decide whether to indict him for defying the Supreme Court ruling, a charge for which he could face hard time.

"I don't want to whine or duck here," says 43-year-old Imler, his voice suggesting the bemusement of someone who's facing up to 10 years in prison for helping sick people. "I knew what I was getting into, and I'm prepared to take whatever responsibility comes my way. But I would imagine…they're focusing on me because the minute they raise the issue of conspirators, it would be a whole different kettle of fish."

Imler is referring to the co-op's wide swath of supporters. In addition to employing several staff members, the Cannabis Resource Center was created with the close cooperation of the city council and local law enforcement agencies. If the federal government tries to hone in on "co-conspirators," it may well have to indict the entire paid staff of the city of West Hollywood. (West Hollywood is an independent city surrounded by Los Angeles.)

When I talk to Councilman Jeffrey Prang on the phone, he's clearly exasperated. "Instead of contributing to the war on terrorism, someone in Washington, D.C., thought it was a good idea to send someone to raid the Cannabis Resource club. It defies any sense of propriety—or priority."

Prang and the rest of the city council have now passed a resolution stating that West Hollywood is a "sanctuary" for medical marijuana. I ask Prang whether the move is purely symbolic. "To the degree that local authority has any authority, people can count on West Hollywood as a sanctuary. However, if the federal government chose to come in, we are in no position to stand in their way."

The clash between federal and state authorities is particularly irritating to Prang and other West Hollywood residents. Until recently, residents of this liberal, trendy enclave primarily understood the concept of "states' rights" as a concern of the extreme right and kooky Confederate racists. Now the concept has new relevance. But at the same time, the rhetoric of anti-drug right-wingers is seen as even more vividly hypocritical than before.

"We have expressed our will" through state and local laws, says Prang. "Yet the federal government believes it's extremely important to spend time and money cracking down on sick people."

Elsewhere in California, co-ops continue to treat the patients who depend on them amid growing uncertainty. Says Reverend Lynnette Shaw, founder of the Marin County Alliance of Medical Marijuana, "Mostly, we're all very worried on behalf of the patients. If the DEA closes everybody, it will throw all those patients back into the arms of the gangsters. And that's exactly what the gangsters want. So in a sense, the DEA is working for the gangsters."

Sara Rimensnyder is Reason's assistant editor.