By Todd Zwillich
Two people were arrested Monday after handcuffing themselves to the White House fence to protest recent federal government raids on "medical marijuana" cooperatives in California.
The arrests occurred after about two dozen demonstrators gathered in front of the White House, holding signs and chanting slogans demanding an end to what they see as Bush administration interference with state laws governing marijuana use. About an hour after the protests began, US Park Police took a pair of protesters into custody who had bound themselves to the iron barricade separating the White House lawn from Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Stop the war on patients. Support the patients by any nonviolent means necessary," protester Charles Thomas said through a bullhorn before being removed and handcuffed by police.
Marijuana has become popular with some severely ill patients because of its apparent ability to ease pain and nausea. Some people with AIDS use the drug to help stimulate appetite and fight wasting. Cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis patients may also use marijuana to treat various symptoms.
A 1996 state ballot initiative legalized some marijuana use by ill patients in California, as long as they used the drug under the supervision of a doctor who could vouch it was for medically legitimate purposes. Since then, eight other states, including Nevada and Arizona, have passed similar initiatives through legislation or ballot actions.
But the Bush administration remains opposed to the measures, saying that federal laws criminalizing marijuana use and distribution supersede individual states' efforts to legalize it in certain circumstances. The US Supreme Court upheld that view in a ruling last year.
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has raided several California marijuana pharmacies since 1996, the most recent on September 5, when armed agents raided a medical marijuana collective in Santa Cruz, California. The move sparked protests from patients, activists and local government authorities.
Protesters on Monday also held up banners in support of Bryan Epis, a Chico, California marijuana collective operator and patient who was convicted in June of federal felony drug trafficking charges. Epis is due to be sentenced in October and faces a mandatory prison term of at least 10 years.
"These raids are unconstitutional. The marijuana is grown in California, it is distributed by Californians and used by California patients," said Eric Sterling, an activist with Washington-based Americans for Safe Access.
A 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine found limited evidence that marijuana's active ingredients may be "moderately well suited" to ease chemotherapy and AIDS symptoms, but that smoking marijuana was an unreliable and potentially harmful way of administering the drug.
White House officials backed the raids, saying that medical marijuana initiatives constitute both bad medical practice and an unsafe tolerance of illegal drugs.
"We have medications on formulary, approved by the Food and Drug Administration that are effective" for AIDS symptoms or chemotherapy side effects, said Dr. Andrea G. Barthwell, the deputy director for demand reduction at the White House Office for National Drug Control Policy.
Barthwell maintained that efforts to legalize marijuana for medical purposes also undermine campaigns to stem adolescent recreational marijuana use. A federal survey released earlier this month showed that first-time marijuana use among American teens was at or near its highest levels in 20 years.
"If you give them mixed signals such as, 'marijuana is a drug, marijuana is a medicine,' they don't know what to do with that," she said in an interview.
Last Thursday, a federal appeals court blocked an attempt to place a medical marijuana initiative on voters' ballots in the District of Columbia. Nearly 70% of voters approved a measure allowing medical marijuana in 1998, but the US Congress prevented it from taking effect.
Last week's ruling overturned a lower court decision allowing the new initiative to go forward.
"They have to circumvent democracy in this country to protect a failed
war on drugs," said demonstrator Adam Eidinger.
Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited