Tuesday, November 13, 2001
San Francisco Chronicle
Mark Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Days after federal drug agents burst into a well-known Los Angeles cannabis club to snatch up the medical records of 960 people who bought marijuana there, Lynette Shaw made sure her clients' paperwork wouldn't be so easy to seize.
Shaw, founder of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, moved records from her Fairfax office to another site -- she is not telling where -- as she braced for a visit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Two recent raids by the DEA at California medical marijuana operations have intensified the 5-year-old conflict between the state's voter-approved legalization of the drug for medicinal purposes and federal prohibition. As U. S. attorneys threaten criminal prosecution, Bay Area clubs that distribute cannabis to the sick are worried they will be next.
Many California officials have blasted the DEA's crackdown, but it is little consolation to those in the middle of one of the drug war's most confusing fronts.
"Everyone is gravely concerned," Shaw said. "There are 1,000 people in Los Angeles who are getting sick and wasting away because of the DEA raid. We don't want that to happen here."
In the past two months, the DEA has shut down the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood and confiscated thousands of records from a doctor in El Dorado County who gave medical marijuana referrals to patients. In addition, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan says several Bay Area clubs have been the targets of DEA surveillance.
Shaw and directors of other area cannabis clubs are moving to protect their clients' privacy and urging patients to grow marijuana at home or be prepared to find another source if they are busted.
At the Berkeley Patients Group, flyers alerting clients to the Los Angeles raid are being passed out to all clients, said Don Duncan, the group's founder.
"We're on a heightened state of alert," Duncan said. "We're in full compliance with California laws, but the federal government doesn't seem to care about that."
The recent federal action is in part a result of a unanimous Supreme Court decision in May. The high court ruled that federal drug laws make no exception for seriously ill patients who smoke marijuana for health reasons, essentially clearing the way for law enforcement officials to close organized co-ops that distribute marijuana.
The ruling stemmed from a civil lawsuit filed against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative and five other Northern California cannabis clubs. Now federal authorities say they have the right to break up the 50 or so clubs that have opened storefronts since California became the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana in 1996.
"They know they're breaking the federal law," said Richard Meyer, spokesman for the DEA's San Francisco office. "Our job is to enforce the federal drug laws, and that's what we plan to do."
Meyer would not say whether agents planned to go after any Bay Area organizations.
Two major medicinal marijuana operations have been targets so far.
In El Dorado County, the DEA took thousands of records from the California Medical Research Center, which provides doctors' referrals to people if they qualify to use medicinal marijuana. The U.S. attorney's office hasn't yet announced charges.
In West Hollywood, about 30 armed DEA agents entered the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center on Oct. 23 to uproot marijuana plants and seize computer records for clients, most of whom use marijuana to counter the effects of drugs they take to combat AIDS. The DEA and the U.S. attorney's office have threatened to criminally prosecute the club, although charges haven't been filed in that case either.
Cannabis activists say the Southern California raid is particularly troubling because the club has gone out of its way to conduct business in the open and has the backing of city officials and the Sheriff's Department.
"We applied for every business license, filled out every piece of paper we could," Imler said. "We've walked through all this bureaucracy for the last five years exactly to prevent this. Now I have to tell the people here I may not be able to help them because I'll be in federal prison."
The California Medical Association has denounced the seizures of patient records, saying the DEA is interfering with the doctor-patient relationship.
San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno announced legislation last week that would make the city a symbolic medical marijuana "sanctuary," and Hallinan held a press conference to deliver a blunt warning to the DEA: Stay out of San Francisco.
"All we can do is send a message to the federal government that they will not get any support from San Francisco officials," Hallinan said.
Activists are working on strategies to counter the new crackdown, and some have suggested that states should be involved in distributing the drug to further stymie federal attempts to stop medical marijuana. But that idea hasn't been seriously studied in California.
"This is now a matter to be decided in federal courts or Congress," said Gina Palencaer, a spokeswoman for Santa Monica-based Americans for Medical Rights, which wrote Proposition 215.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.,
is sponsoring a bill that would allow physicians to prescribe marijuana
in states that have legalized the drug as a medicine. And lawyers for the
Oakland cannabis club have filed new briefs in their case, asking a federal
appeals court to recognize a state's right to determine the issue.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle