More MS news articles for September 2000

Striking down medical marijuana

San Francisco's pro-pot district attorney discusses the long-term implications of the Supreme Court's ruling.

By David Tuller
Aug. 31, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tuesday's Supreme Court decision temporarily barring the distribution of marijuana for medical purposes by an Oakland, Calif., cannabis club was just the latest twist in a long-running legal battle between pot supporters in California and the federal government. The conflict stems from the state's passage in 1996 of Proposition 215, a ballot initiative that permitted patients with AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and other illnesses to use marijuana with a doctor's approval. In the wake of the initiative's passage, pot dispensaries sprang up throughout the state, although federal authorities forced some of them to close up shop.

Several other states have passed similar measures. Advocates say the drug relieves pain, helps patients keep medications down and maintains their strength by boosting their appetite. But marijuana is classified under U.S. law as a drug that offers no medical benefits. And federal authorities, led by drug czar Barry McCaffrey, have aggressively opposed the measures, arguing that loosening the laws on pot will weaken the country's efforts to fight drug abuse.

The decision Tuesday arose out of the federal government's efforts to shut down the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, along with several other clubs. After the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that medical necessity could be a valid defense for the use of marijuana, a lower-court judge determined in July that the Oakland club could once again dispense marijuana to seriously ill patients. The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to issue a stay of that ruling until the case is heard again on appeal before the 9th Circuit -- after which it will likely end up right back in front of the justices in Washington.

In a parallel development Tuesday, the University of California announced that it was launching the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research to conduct studies on the efficacy and safety of the drug. The center is a joint project of the university's San Diego and San Francisco campuses. The state has allocated $3 million for the center's first year of operation. The funds stem from a bill sponsored by state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, who is a longtime proponent of the use of medical marijuana.

Like Vasconcellos, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan has also been supportive of the issue. He has worked closely with local health and law enforcement authorities to keep the city's cannabis clubs open so they can distribute pot to those with a doctor's letter or prescription. In an interview with Salon Tuesday, he said that he hopes the federal government will eventually reclassify marijuana as a drug with medical potential.

What exactly does this decision mean?

Hopefully it's just a bump in the road, but it seems like a bad omen. They granted a stay pending a hearing at the Court of Appeals to see where we go from here. They grant those stays when they feel that something will end up being decided that way. So it seems that they might reverse the 9th Circuit and rule that medical necessity is not a defense.

Do you think the federal authorities will now move to shut down the clubs currently dispensing marijuana?

In the long run this might be tough on the dispensaries you're talking about. But I think it's premature for the federal government to take some steps to get them to close down because this is all in process. Hopefully, everybody will just defer until we get a final decision out of the Supreme Court. I assume that will take more than a year.

Why do you think the administration is so aggressively opposed to the use of medical marijuana?

Well, I've tried to talk to [drug czar Barry] McCaffrey about it a couple of times, and he doesn't even want to hear about it. They just seem adamant to maintain the status quo in the drug war. And medical marijuana is a serious challenge to the status quo, in that maybe things are not just black and white, maybe this is really a medical issue and not a legal issue. I just think there's a mind-set, the "just-say-no" mentality. And when you begin to say "maybe," it gets much more complex.

What role, if any, do you see this issue playing in the presidential campaign?

I guess I'll have to wait and see what Gore is going to say, but as far as anything I've seen, both the Democrats and the Republicans agree with the present classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug (a drug that has no medical value). I don't think Gore has made any statements about it. He has a background. He inhaled, right? Hopefully, he will take a more enlightened view and position, but of course it's kind of a hot potato, and politicians don't like hot potatoes. Perhaps he'll avoid making it an issue during the campaign, but of course it's in the nature of campaigns that they make people take positions. So keep your fingers crossed.

You've had a good reputation with the advocates of medical marijuana. You even recently received an award from some of them for your support.

I believe in this. Marijuana has medical properties. I think just about anybody in San Francisco knows somebody who swears that it has alleviated their suffering. When I was a member of the Board of Supervisors, I passed legislation making medical marijuana very low as a priority for law enforcement, so police officers could turn their back on it when it was a clear medical case. The local police are well aware of my position and I think for the most part are in agreement, or at least defer to my position on it.

Have you received much support from other district attorneys around the state?

Not a lot of support. I think basically people have spent so many years treating marijuana as a criminal drug that it's difficult for them to switch their view of it and see that it might have a medical purpose. They'd have to look back at all the people they've arrested and put in prison and wonder if they did the right thing. So it's a Catch-22 for most police officers and prosecutors. If they say now it's legitimate, how do they justify what they've done in the past?

What about critics who argue that medical marijuana is just a stalking horse for attempts to legalize it completely?

I don't see it that way. You could say that of any prescribed drug. Medical marijuana is about making marijuana available to people who have legitimate medical conditions that a doctor says are alleviated by use of marijuana. The concern is that the clubs don't just dispense it to people to make money or for recreational purposes, but that they're doing it on the basis of a doctor's recommendations. I try my best to encourage them to run the clubs carefully, and most of them do run it pretty strictly. They're not a bunch of hippies smoking marijuana. Anytime I have been in one of those clubs, there's no question in my mind that those are sick people.

Have you found the constituency for medical marijuana to be broader than just young people?

It's a constituency of sick people. I would say when I visit any of these clubs to determine how they're operating, it's basically people who have AIDS and old people who have arthritis or cancer or glaucoma. I've had numerous people in their 70s and in their 80s say that this works, that it alleviates the pain. These are people who are certainly not potheads and would not be expected to use it. To my mind that's the best argument for it.

The University of California on Tuesday announced the creation of a new research center for studying the effects of medical marijuana. Some advocates say that there's already enough evidence of its usefulness. What's your position?

I think more study is needed, because most of the indications now are aphoristic -- people saying, "It helps me." We don't know medically how that works. Although I know there are numerous doctors and scientists and research people who say that it does have these medical qualities, I don't think they understand exactly what they are yet. And to have a legitimate medical usage, you should understand how it works. If it alleviates suffering for people who are seriously ill, with the minimal side effects that it has, and a doctor supervising it, I think that's fine. But I also encourage more study. | Aug. 31, 2000