More MS news articles for March 1999

State reversing on medicinal pot

Lockyer tells police officers, advocates to make law work

Sections Published Wednesday, March 10, News 1999, in the San Jose Mercury
Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO -- Reversing his predecessor's approach to the medicinal-marijuana initiative passed in 1996, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has told law enforcement officials and marijuana advocates who have fought each other for years to make the law.

Since February, police chiefs, sheriffs, narcotics officers and district attorneys have been discussing with cannabis center operators and medicinal-marijuana advocates the fine points of how best to distribute marijuana and protect users from prosecution.

To nearly everyone's surprise, the longtime opponents have found common ground.

"There's kind of an armistice," said Scott Imler, director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood, the largest marijuana center in the state that is still functioning. "Everybody seems genuinely interested in trying to implement Proposition 215 in a responsible way. It is an exciting and vital process."

Christy McCampbell, president of the California Narcotics Officers Association, echoed Imler's assessment.

"We are all just trying to reach common ground on how to deal with an extremely complex issue," said McCampbell, whose organization represents 7,000 narcotics officers across the state and came out against Proposition 215 during the 1996 campaign.

Difficult task ahead

What remains to be seen is whether the task force formed by Lockyer can devise ways to make the law work that will win Gov. Gray Davis' support and not bring down the wrath of the federal government.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department won a court order shutting most of the state's cannabis clubs on the basis that federal law -- which says it is illegal to possess, sell or distribute marijuana -- supersedes state law.

It could not immediately be determined whether officials in San Jose, Oakland and other Bay Area cities are having similar conversations with medicinal-marijuana proponents.

The Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative was shut down in October by a federal judge. The Santa Clara County Medical Cannabis Center in San Jose was closed after police raided the center seeking information against Peter Baez, one of its founders. Baez is awaiting trial on charges he sold marijuana to people without doctors' consent, among other charges.

The Justice Department is skeptical of the work Lockyer's medicinal-marijuana task force is doing but, for now, has no comment on its efforts.

"They are trying to implement a marijuana statute that the Department of Justice and the federal government believes to be illegal and unconstitutional," said one department source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lockyer himself concedes that whatever recommendations his committee comes up with may not be fully implemented unless and until the federal government reclassifies marijuana as a drug with some therapeutic use.

"There are those who believe that the federal government will ignore a well-regulated state system," Lockyer said in an interview, "but I haven't seen any evidence of that yet."

Davis has said that he voted against Proposition 215, but so far, he has made no public comment on Lockyer's efforts. The attorney general said he doesn't know whether the governor will support the task force's recommendations. A Davis spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Marijuana is smoked or ingested by people suffering a variety of illnesses, including cancer, AIDS and spastic muscle conditions. Some doctors and patients say the drug quells nausea, eases pain and restores appetite.

Among the options the committee is considering is a proposal for a statewide registry of medicinal-marijuana patients. The state Department of Health Services would create the registry and issue identification cards to medicinal-marijuana users. The cards would indicate to local law enforcement officials that the bearer was using medicinal marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

Photo ID system

The Northern California town of Arcata employs such a system. Police Chief Mel Brown has issued about 100 identification cards to city residents who have met with him and given him their doctors' names. After checking with the doctors, Brown said, he issued
photo-identification cards bearing his signature.

"It keeps me from paying my officers overtime to show up in court, it keeps these people from being arrested, it keeps patients and doctors from being dragged into court," said Brown, who also is serving on Lockyer's task force.

Proposition 215 allows patients who need marijuana to treat pain or ease other symptoms of a variety of illnesses to use it, with a doctor's recommendation. But then-Attorney General Dan Lungren and the federal government took a dim view of the law when it passed three years ago, charging that it was a ploy to legalize a federally banned substance.

Attorney general's 'duty'

Lockyer said the policy change is a priority because "the attorney general has a duty to try to effectuate the people's will. And I voted for Prop. 215.

"Having watched my mom die of leukemia when she was 50 and a little sister die of leukemia when she was 39, it just always seemed odd to me that a doctor could give them morphine but couldn't give them marijuana."

Lockyer said he also will lobby the federal government to reclassify the drug so that physicians can legally prescribe it. He is scheduled to attend a national conference of attorneys general in Washington this month.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Steel said he had no comment on Lockyer's new approach. He said the
department currently is reviewing medicinal-marijuana laws passed in November in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona.

The federal government is due to release a report next Wednesday by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences on whether there is any medicinal value to smoking or ingesting marijuana.

©1999 Mercury Center.