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California Locale to Sue Feds Over Medical Marijuana

Apr 22, 2003
San Francisco

A California county and its major city plan to sue the federal government on Wednesday to allow the use of medical marijuana in a lawsuit they said will mark the first legal challenge over the issue brought by a local government.

Plaintiffs, who include the city and county of Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco, said on Monday they will seek a preliminary injunction in federal court to allow a medical marijuana farm raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Santa Cruz last year to reopen and permit sick patients to obtain the drug. Use of marijuana for medical purposes is legal under state law but illegal under federal law.

"It is pretty clear that the people in the state of California support the use of medical marijuana," said Mardi Wormhoudt, a Santa Cruz County Supervisor. "It is disturbing when the people in the state have overwhelmingly expressed their support at the ballot and the federal government feels no right to uphold that."

Federal officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuit plaintiffs plan to file in federal court in San Jose, California later this week.

The lawsuit, which will name Attorney General John Ashcroft, Acting DEA Administrator John Brown and Drug Czar John Walters, marks the latest battle between California and the federal government over medical marijuana.

California is one of nine US states where voters have passed laws allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana to patients with diseases ranging from AIDS and cancer to glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. Medical marijuana proponents say the drug can help alleviate symptoms such as pain and nausea for some patients.

But federal law enforcement authorities, bolstered by a 2001 US Supreme Court decision upholding the federal ban on medical marijuana, have taken a far more severe view than their local counterparts in California and have been cracking down on patient clubs centered around medicinal use of the herb.

Plaintiffs say they hope their lawsuit also sparks a flood of similar litigation in the medical marijuana movement, which gained strength in California during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

"This issue will be fought out in the courts," Wormhoudt said. "If this happens in many places, I believe it will begin to have a cumulative effect."

The lawsuit revolves around a September raid in Santa Cruz where federal authorities closed down a medical marijuana cooperative and arrested the farm's owners. One of the owners was the woman who helped write the trailblazing state law that legalized medicinal use of the drug.

That raid outraged many in the liberal beach community located about 72 miles (116 km) south of San Francisco and spurred some local leaders to join a protest on the steps of City Hall where sick patients received free medical marijuana.

In another high-profile fight showing the split over medical marijuana, federal prosecutors recently won a conviction on drug charges against national medical marijuana movement guru Ed Rosenthal.

They did so even though state law deems Rosenthal's actions legal and the city of Oakland had certified him to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes. Jurors in the case said later they would not have convicted Rosenthal, who is appealing, if they had known he was growing medical marijuana.

© 2003 Reuters Ltd.