More MS news articles for July 1999

Balancing medicine with the law

July 21, 1999

Simon Avery
National Post
SAN FRANCISCO - California voters ignored politicians when they chose to decriminalize possession and cultivation of medicinal marijuana in a 1996 referendum.

But the referendum failed to address who can supply the drug.

Scott Imler, president and executive director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Research Center, smells one of the female marijuana plant buds in the Flowering Room of the centre in West Hollywood, Calif. Imler uses high-pressure sodium lights to provide artificial sunlight for the plants.
In a nondescript suite above an auto-parts shop in West Hollywood, Scott Imler cultivates several hundred marijuana plants and buys more than 20 kilograms of the drug off the street each year to supply clients.

The rules at the Los Angeles Cannabis Research Center are simple: Don't smoke in public, don't share the joint, don't take more than 27 grams a week -- and bring a note from your doctor.

His organization charges its 630 or so customers whatever they can afford for the weed. About 30% pay nothing at all.

The centre is the primary distributor of medicinal marijuana in the city -- and in a unique position in the U.S. legal system.

California voters ignored politicians when they chose to decriminalize possession and cultivation of medicinal marijuana in a 1996 referendum. (A few other states, including Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Colorado, have followed suit.)

But the referendum did not address important related issues, such as who can supply the drug.

Last week, the state assembly approved a measure to introduce a registry of users, which would shield patients from $450 (US) fines for possession.

However, governor Gray Davis has already let it be known he won't support the bill.

"The governor is against the use of drugs," a spokesman from his office said flatly.

Meanwhile, federal officials resist making distribution of marijuana to patients legal as the U.S. continues to wage an all-out war on drugs of all kinds. This is even though research commissioned by the White House shows the positive medicinal effects of pot.

In the past year, federal and state authorities have closed the handful of well-known distribution sites in northern California, forcing patients and distributors to set up surreptitious dispensaries. Only about four are now operating, health officials say.

"Patients are not discussing this above board because the feds will just shut them down," said Jeff Jones, 24, whose Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-operative was closed by U.S. marshals last October.

In southern California, the L.A. centre has had its share of difficulties, but has managed to stay open by walking a fine line between openness and discretion.
"We don't want to rub it in anyone's face," said Mr. Imler, founder and president of the centre, which does not advertise.

Undercover agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency have visited his operation, posing as patients and bringing bogus doctors' letters.

Mr. Imler said they were sent away when their documentation didn't check out.

The organization maintains good relations with the nearby sheriff's office, and belongs to the local chamber of commerce and better business bureau. It also claims charitable status each year when it files a tax return.

"We have a serious drug problem in this country," Mr. Imler said. "But it's wrong to put it on the backs of sick people."

The 41-year-old has suffered from seizures all his life. Unable to tolerate the heavy side effects from medicine traditionally prescribed for epilepsy, he smokes two to three joints a day instead.

He says he hasn't had a seizure in more than two years, but he does get very hungry and likes to take a nap in the afternoon.

"I don't think I'd want to go and fly an airplane or anything," he admitted.

A scientific study into the medicinal uses of marijuana commissioned by the White House concluded earlier this year that cannabinoids in the drug offer a "modest" way to treat pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and poor appetite and wasting caused by AIDS.

"We believe that cannabinoids are an underutilized source of new drugs," Dr. John Benson, a principal investigator for the Institute of Medicine, said in March when he released the study's results.

Dr. Herminia Palacio, a policy advisor to San Francisco's director of health and a physician who has treated AIDS patients for the past decade, wants the government to fund further research.

"The federal government's battle cry is that there's not enough scientific proof, but it won't support the research," she said. In Canada, Ottawa has announced it will fund clinical trials for medicinal marijuana. Two AIDS research groups in Toronto are in the preliminary stages of protocol development. In the meantime, Health Canada is taking applications for legal exemptions allowing patients to grow and possess -- but not purchase or supply -- medicinal marijuana. To date, only two people have won such exemptions in Canada, said spokeswoman Reva Berman.

Besides finding the money to fund their work, researchers in the U.S. and Canada face an additional hurdle -- how do they get their marijuana? The only legal supplier in North America is the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Scientists and physicians are also nervous about their own legal position when it comes to marijuana, said Dr. Palacio, who is a firm believer in what the drug can do for her patients.

She chooses her words very carefully when discussing her role in the distribution of the drug.

"We're not allowed to prescribe," she explained. "I discuss with my patients the possible benefits to them as well as the possible risks of marijuana. I do have patients that I know are smoking marijuana, and I manage them and their marijuana as providing part of their clinical care."

Mr. Jones started the Oakland co-operative in 1997. Although his business lasted only a year, it was serving about 2,000 patients by the time it was closed down.

He said he became an advocate of the medicinal use of pot after watching his father suffer an agonizing death from cancer, which he believes the drug could have eased.

These days, he is concerned by the legal situation, and restricts his work to selling hemp products and sponsoring seminars on medicinal marijuana.

"I don't want to be locked up," he explained.

For the moment, there is a delicate balance between patients and the law.

Federal drug agents are too busy to pay much attention to the medicinal shops and California's new attorney-general, Bill Lockyer, is more supportive of the voters' 1996 proposition than his predecessor. "The police chief has assured me that the last thing they want to do is bust sick people," said Tom Ammiano, president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and an advocate of medicinal pot.

He blames some of the early clubs that have been closed for being too loose in their practices -- courting too much media attention and not policing themselves strictly enough.

But more than anything, he blames Bill Clinton, the U.S. president, and the federal government for their hypocrisy.

"Clinton has been a tremendous disappointment -- Mr. I Didn't Inhale. Where is he for the people who really need it?"

Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the special interest group Americans for Medical Rights, is under no illusions. Despite his support of medicinal marijuana, he admits all aspects of the matter violate federal law.

To make real progress the first step must be to depoliticize the issue, he explained.

As a member of a state-appointed task force established to try to resolve the contradictions in laws, Mr. Zimmerman helped draft the user registry proposal now before the California Assembly.

But without strong leadership from the governor, the present system will continue to limp along with all its inconsistencies.

"Unfortunately, anything that has to do with drugs is seen as a criminal justice matter. The governor sees this not in terms of compassion for the sick, but rather as a simplistic law and order matter on which he has to look tough to the public," he said. Mr. Imler agrees it is a huge mistake to mix the issue of decriminalizing medicinal marijuana with wholesale decriminalization -- something he doesn't support.

"We've never tried to be anything but a group of patients growing their own marijuana," he said.