In California this week, a summit was convened by State Senator John Vasconcellos in an attempt to figure out a way to implement Proposition 215, the 1996 medical marijuana initiative which passed with 56% of the popular vote. Prop 215 gave Californians in medical need and their appointed caretakers the option of growing and possessing marijuana for medicinal use. But for all of the doomsday prognostications by opponents, and for all of the cheering of advocates upon its passage, there were two things that Prop 215 didn't do. First, the initiative (now the law) did not provide for a method of distribution to those who could not feasibly grow their own pot. This was due to an oversight in the construction of the language. Second, the initiative did not anticipate the cruel and hyperbolic response of the federal government to its passage. This was due to an underestimation of just how important the "fail at any cost" drug war is to the Washington elite, and to what lengths they will go to beat back any measure which will take the power to prosecute it out of their hands.
Since the emergence of 215 late in the campaign season of 1996, the federal government has used taxpayers' money to campaign against it, convened three former presidents to warn of its dire implications for the future of the nation, held senate hearings to belittle the voters who passed it, threatened the careers, and implicitly the freedom of doctors who so much as discussed the use of marijuana with their patients, raided medical marijuana dispensaries over the objections of local communities, sued in federal court in an effort to close down still more dispensaries, ignored repeated communications from local officials pleading for cooperation, or at least a ceasing of aggressions in its implementation, and spent more taxpayer money on literature and public forums designed to outline the threat -- and call for the defeat of -- "the forces of legalization."
All of this because AIDS, Cancer and Glaucoma patients, as well as others who daily face the horrors of chronic or terminal illness, have found that there is a plant which, when smoked, eaten or made into a tea eases their suffering, enhances their appetite, clears their vision or calms their spasms. This is a plant, mind you, which has been used medicinally for five thousand years, one which has never killed a single human being through its physiological effects, which has virtually no negative interactivity with other, more dangerous but legal drugs, and to which almost no one is seriously allergic.
Not surprisingly, the federal government was just about the only significant party that refused to participate in the California summit. If they had, however, they would have seen for themselves that neither their steadfast opposition to allowing patients to choose their own medicines, nor their heavy-handed tactics in imposing their will are much appreciated by either the people of California or their elected officials. Terence Hallinan, the District Attorney for San Francisco -- a city where AIDS has taken a tremendous toll and the home of 215 sponsor and former cannabis cultivators' club impresario Denis Peron -- suggested that local governments pass laws allowing their health departments to cultivate and distribute marijuana to those in medical need. San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, among others, agreed.
But the feds didn't need to show up to hear what many in the California state government felt about their intrusion into local health issues. To make sure that the administration in Washington was aware of their discontent, a letter was sent to President Clinton, signed by approximately two dozen members of the state assembly and senate, including Vasconcellos and Senate president Pro Tem John Burton, which said in part: "Mr. President, we can't ignore this issue. It won't go away, so long as human beings believe they have the right to attend to their own illness, as their doctor recommends, rather than as government dictates." The letter also took a shot at the popular approval of 215 in a state which was important to the president's election. "It's ironic you question our people's judgment about proposition 215 while not questioning the wisdom of our returning you to office."
But proponents of medical marijuana have, to a large degree, misunderstood the forces they are fighting. They believe, and rightly so, that they are trying to allow suffering people to choose their own treatment regimen. The government, however, sees the issue far differently. To them, this is not about people with AIDS, or glaucoma, or cancer, this is about their Drug War, that cash cow which continuously accrues more power, both domestically and internationally, to Washington DC. It is about protecting a morally and intellectually indefensible policy against the slightest reform. Reform, you see, can only lead to further examination, and to more reform, until the raging torrent of money and power which flows from this war is reduced to a trickle. And the feds admit as much, albeit in a misleading and disingenuous way, when they say, over and over again, 'medical marijuana is not about the sick and dying, it is about legalization of drugs.' And to them, at least, it is.
To Senator Vasconcellos, however, along with the millions of other Californians disgusted by the federal government's sledgehammer approach, Prop. 215 always was about sick people. But now, in the face of that federal approach, it is becoming an issue of local versus federal control, and freedom, and the basic human right to tend to ones own body as one sees fit. And, even more ominously for the feds, it is making an issue of the drug war itself. For just as proponents of syringe exchange, and of Latin American sovereignty and rights, and of access to pain medication, and of asset forfeiture reform, and of sentencing reform, and of police practice reform, and of racial justice, and of smaller government, and of violence reduction, and of civil liberties are discovering, it is impossible to advocate for rational changes in one part of Prohibition without feeling the full weight of an opposition dedicated to the maintenance of the illusion that it can work. Because when as great a structure as the Drug War machine has been constructed on a foundation of thin air, akin to an overfilled balloon, it is the unassuming man with the pin in his hand who must be silenced and defeated.
So the feds are right. Medical marijuana is not about the sick and the dying. It is about Lockheed Martin and the defense industry. It is about the private prison industry, and the companies who build them, and the unions of the men and women who staff them. It is about textile and petrochemical companies. It is about an excuse to deploy our military forces in Latin America. It is about the seizing and conversion of assets into the treasuries of governments. It is about the perpetuity of bureaucratic careers and bureaucratic agencies. It is about the stick which is used in controlling poor and minority communities. And it is about federal power over the lives of every single American in every state of the union. It is not about the sick. Or the dying. Or the children. Or even marijuana. It is about the Drug War itself.
So the time is upon us. The time for all of those advocates of all of those rational reforms to arrive together at the inescapable conclusion that the feds, in their own deceitful way, have been right all along. To paraphrase President Clinton's own campaign theme, "It's the Drug War, stupid." And it is time, through the prism of caring for the sick, or
Adam J. Smith