(renamed "Drug War Chronicle" effective issue #300, August 2003)
Issue #73, 1/8/99
"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"
NOTES TO OUR READERS!!! An important action alert will be going out to the list this weekend, probably Sunday. Please stay tuned and check in early next week. Note also that this issue includes a letter-writing alert, responding to Ann Landers' very positive columns of recent weeks.
If you've requested tickets from us to the Digital Be-In, taking place in San Francisco this Saturday night, 7:00pm to 2:00am, your name should be on the DRCNet admit list at the door. If you are paying by check or cash, please visit the DRCNet table after you are admitted. If you are paying by credit card, you should be all set. If your request doesn't reach us on time, and your name isn't on the list, you'll need to pay the full door price of $20. (It's $15 reserving with us in advance.) Find out more information about the Be-In online at http://www.be-in.com, call (415) 777-9199, or review our bulletin of earlier this week, at http://www.drcnet.org/rapid/1999/1-4.html#be-in.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The backlog that exists in Baltimore's Circuit Courts, due mainly to thousands of drug cases, resulted in the dismissal of murder charges against four individuals this week (1/6) who had waited more than 13 months for a trial. Felony trials are supposed to begin no later than six months following arraignment, but the city has neither enough judges, courtrooms, nor prosecutors nor public defenders to handle the caseload.
Michael N. Gambrill, District Public Defender for Baltimore told The Week Online that more than 80% of the cases in the district court are drug cases.
"The police might arrest one junkie for passing a small amount of something to another junkie. Now, technically, they're distributing, but the reality is that it's just people who are addicted who are feeding their habits," Gambrill said. But they're being brought into the system as felonies, which is overloading the system."
The by-product, says Gambrill, is a lack of justice. "It's not uncommon for people to sit in jail for six to eight months, and sometimes longer before trial. These people haven't been found guilty of anything. They lose their homes, they lose their jobs, they lose contact with their families and loved ones based simply on the fact that they have been charged. That is not justice."
In the case of the dropped murder charges, the four defendants had been waiting more than three years for a trial. In that case, the normal delays were compounded by the difficulties of finding dates on which the four separate defense attorneys (none of those defendants were represented by the public defender), the prosecutor, the judge and a courtroom were all available.
On New Year's Eve day, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court William Rehnquist delivered his annual end-of-year report on the judiciary to Congress. His message to legislators, spoken in blunt terms, was to stop making a federal case out of every crime that hits the headlines, overburdening the federal judiciary in the process.
Rehnquist cited "the pressure on Congress to appear responsive to every highly publicized societal ill or sensational crime" as a driving force behind the fact that the federal criminal caseload increased by 15% in 1998 alone. "The trend to federalize crimes that have traditionally been handled in state courts... threatens to change entirely the nature of our federal system" he added. The increased federal workload involving criminal matters, with their constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial, has wreaked havoc with the opportunity for civil litigants to be heard. There is often a three to five year wait for civil trials.
Drug offenses are one category of crime that have been largely federalized, giving prosecutors the option of bringing charges in either federal or state court. And since federal mandatory minimum sentences tend to be draconian, they are able to use the threat of federal prosecution to force people to become informants.
The number of drug offenses tried in federal court each year has risen from just over 12,000 in 1992 to more than 16,000 in 1998.
Scott Wallace, Director of defender legal services for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association told The Week Online that the problem stems from the desire of politicians to make a name for themselves.
"This trend (the federalization of crime) arose from Congress' frustration with its traditional role of simply funding innovation. There weren't many headlines to be had for being thoughtful. There was far more glamour in actually toughening sentences.
"Members of Congress, even the attorneys among them are not particularly knowledgeable about -- or if they are they are not very concerned with -- the traditional separation of powers between the states and the federal government. Not nearly as concerned as they are about getting their name on a new law."
But according to Wallace, there is a cost.
"First, the federal sentences are almost always far harsher than state sentences, which creates enormous disparities in the way similar defendants are treated for the same offense. In addition, when we look at the criminal law in its traditional role, it is the most serious way in which a community can express its varying degrees of disapproval of specified behaviors. By taking that power and placing it in the hands of federal bureaucrats, who are wholly unaccountable to the people of any particular city or state, the connection between community values and that statement of disapproval is lost. Therefore, if the people of Iowa think that its okay to carry a weapon, or else if the people of Oregon don't think that the possession of marijuana is a criminal act, it's irrelevant to a one size fits all federal approach."
Rehnquist argued that before creating new federal criminal legislation, legislators should consider whether there has been a "demonstrated state failure" to deal with a particular matter, and "whether we want most of our legal relationships decided at the national rather than the local level."
This issue has long been on Rehnquist's agenda. In 1995, he wrote the majority opinion in the Lopez case which struck down the Gun Free School Zone Act, which had made it a federal crime to possess a gun within a thousand yards of any school. Rehnquist reasoned that there was no credible argument that the Act fell under Congress' powers to regulate interstate commerce.
NOTE TO OUR READERS: This first-person account from Don Wirthshafter of the Ohio Hempery reached our desk today. We present it here in its entirety. The Week Online will cover this international story as it unfolds.
A story is breaking in Nicaragua that should reach the world stage soon. I just returned from trying to turn around an ugly situation, but left without visible results. I hope some fair treatment in the U.S. and Canadian media can do some good.
The story starts with a group of Canadian investors who wanted to do some good for Nicaragua. Bankers, builders and merchants got together and incorporated Hemp Agro International with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Managua. Their website (http://www.hempagro.com) describes their project and development they hoped to bring to the tropics.
Nicaragua stagnates in the aftermath of series of natural disasters and a U.S. financed civil war. If there was ever a place to demonstrate industrial hemp's utility for sustainable economic development, Nicaragua is it. Hemp Agro planted 100 acres of Chinese hempseed and hired a full-time professional botanist to supervise a crop improvement program. The company envisioned growing a series of hempseed crops, pressing the seeds for oil, making products from hemp oil and utilizing the stalks for particleboard. The project was dependent on their developing an improved tropical variety of seed hemp, something not being attempted anywhere else in the world.
The project took on additional significance in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. Tens of thousands of homes need to be replaced. The relief agencies had a choice, cut down thousands of acres of trees for building materials or accelerate the building of the hempstalk particleboard mill. Most of the traditional crops suffered heavy damage during the storm, Hemp Agro's crop withstood the winds and rain. Fifty employees were busy harvesting bags full of hemp seed and building a mountain of hemp stalks.
That's when a U.S. DEA agent went ballistic. One day before Christmas, he caused an army of black hooded soldiers to move in and occupy the field. Each posed for their picture in front of the large signboard that marked the "Hemp Agro Nicaragua, S.A. Research and Development Site" (see http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/archivo/1998/diciembre/24-diciembre-1998/nacional/nacional10.html). (This and the following links are in Spanish. For those who do not speak Spanish, paste these URL's into http://babelfish.altavista.com/cgi-bin/translate? for a rough translation into English.) Then they began the long task of gathering the crop in piles and setting them on fire (http://www.elnuevodiaro.com.ni/archivo/1998/diciembre/26-diciembre-1998/).
Dr. Paul Wylie, the Canadian horticulturist who was hired by the group to supervise the project, was feeling pretty satisfied with his work in Nicaragua. His employees were busy harvesting their first crop of seeds. He had learned quite a bit about growing hemp in the tropics. Christmas was approaching and the harvesting would have to stop for the holidays. Dr. Wylie was in a taxi on his way back from the bank with the payroll for his 50 workers. A black car tried to force them off the road. A couple of motorcycles approached. Both Wylie and his driver thought they were being robbed. The driver started to head up on the curb to get away when bullets began tearing up the cab. Wylie and the driver were terrified until their attackers finally identified themselves as police. Wylie thought his troubles were over, but they were just beginning.
Wylie was arrested and taken to the brig. The same prison that former dictator, Anastasio Somoza, used for his worst political enemies. A perfect movie set for an 1850's western, except it's an historic military base. Perched on the rim of the volcano, it's got an incredible view. Only the prisoners can't see a thing, they are kept in dungeons underground.
In Nicaragua, you are considered guilty until proven innocent. Forget the right to counsel, forget the right to remain silent, this is not America. In the aftermath of his arrest, ten days of hearings took place on the case, only Wylie had no right to attend or help his attorneys prepare. He was locked up tight. Bail or bond were not available. Without an explanation of the charges, Wylie could not even figure out what he was being accused of. Thankfully, his wife was able to bring him food every day. Without family support like this, prisoners starve.
Because of my expertise in hemp and my legal credentials, I was asked to hurry down to Nicaragua and help the local attorneys the investors hired to bring reason to the situation. I was determined to prove to myself and the court that this really was industrial hemp and not marijuana that was being grown. I also wanted to visit Dr. Wylie and see if I could raise his spirits.
It took a court order to visit a prisoner in the brig, even for attorneys and translators. Armed with a court order that took days to obtain, the guards still only allowed us a short, 15-minute visit. It was barely enough time for introductions, and no time to get to the details of the case. Still, Wylie was able to briefly describe his research methodology.
Dr. Wylie described it as the George Washington Carver method of crop improvement. Start with seeds from as close to the original source as possible. (Hemp originated in southeast Asia.) This way you get the most genetic diversity. Plant a million plants. From these, find the thousand specimens that best match your breeding objectives. From these prime plants, plant a million seeds. Plant the seeds from the best 1000 plants for five years and you will see spectacular improvements in the breeding of that crop.
It was an ambitious attempt to create a tropical variety of low THC industrial hemp, but the U.S. DEA got in the way. Our drug warriors refuse to recognize a difference between hemp and marijuana. This is why the DEA is being sued by a group of Kentucky farmers (see http://www.drcnet.org/wol/042.html#kentucky and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/048.html#ky-hemp). The U.S. employed DEA agent looked at the plant in a microscope and saw the glandular trichromes characteristic of Cannabis. He concluded therefore it must be marijuana, never considering that legal industrial hemp also has these characteristic parts.
Nicaragua is in a vulnerable position. It needs a massive influx of foreign aid to begin its recovery from the civil war and Hurricane Mitch. Pressure from the U.S. diplomats orced the government to act quickly. One government minister after another came to court to kowtow to the foreign imperialists. Politicians who praised the project a week before began denying that they gave approval or claimed that the investors lied to get their permits. Ten days of hearings were held over the New Year's holiday. The tide turned from whether a crime had been committed to which government heads would roll for allowing this scandal to develop.
The scandal has occupied the front page in Managua's three papers since it broke the day before Christmas. As the tide turned against the defendants, the papers got more vicious. See the following articles:
http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/archivo/1998/diciembre/30-diciembre-1998/nacional/nacional10.htmlMonday's paper featured one story about the trial (http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/archivo/1999/enero/04-enero-1999/nacional/nacional7.html) and another entitled "They Sell Crack in the Schools" about a government report that ended up describing the 100 acre bust (http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/archivo/1999/enero/04-enero-1999/nacional/nacional1.html).
Each of the Canadians investors in the project are now charged with major drug crimes. They are subject to arrest in Canada and extradition to Nicaragua under the reciprocal provisions of the treaties intended to bring narcotraficantes north for trial in the U.S. or Canada. We are not describing a typical bunch of criminals. Hemp Agro International was founded by established Canadian citizens who wanted to do some good for the world. As part of their many applications for permits from various Nicaragua Agencies, the group provided the authorities with paperwork certifying they each had clean criminal records in Canada. Most had never thought about ever finding themselves in a criminal court.
One problem confuses the issue for all involved. For the position of local manager, the investors chose to hire an historic figure, Oscar Danilo Blandón. Blandón is a central character in the C.I.A. drug running scandal exposed by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News and his recent book Dark Alliance (see http://www.drcnet.org/wol/043.html#garywebb). Blandón was one of the founders of the Contra party and remains well connected with the power structure in Nicaragua. But to finance the contra armies in the Reagan 1980's, Blandón helped import tons of cocaine into America. He served almost two years in a federal prison. Blandón holds an MBA, is bilingual and became quite excited by the potential of what hemp can do for his country. He proved a natural choice for project manager. But the tide turned. When the government and media branded this research plot as the "largest marijuana bust in the history of Central America," Blandón's checkered history seemed to be as proof that these gringos were up to no good.
Hemp Agro had obtained more than twenty licenses for conducting business in Nicaragua. The Agricultural Ministry was informed as to their plans and had issued licenses for the importation of Chinese seed. Nothing was hidden here, the company was doing all it could to enlist government support for the planned particleboard mill and oil crushing mill. The government ministers were invited to see the field. A large sign marked its location. The paperwork filed in Nicaragua gave the names of all of the investors. Would these steps be taken for a field of marijuana?
The defense lawyers decided to put me on the stand to give expert testimony about hemp. It was a frustrating experience. "We call it 'going to Vietnam,'" the attorneys told me in an effort to prepare me for the hearing. "It's brutal, ugly and take no prisoners." They were right. The usual civil behavior of attorneys that I am used to was not present there at all. It was war.
We prepared more than 100 pages of journal articles translated into Spanish for the court. But because these were not originals, they were not admissible. Court was held in a cramped office lined by desks with old manual typewriters. It proceeded slowly because a secretary needed type a live transcript. In my case, since my Spanish was not up to speed, a translator did his best to make meaning of my technical presentation, phrase by phrase. It crawled slowly. When a question was posed to me, the transcript would be made, the secretary would read it back as my translator put it in English, I would answer pausing for the translation and the typing. It dragged on until 7:00 pm on New Year's Day.
The courtroom was crowed with newspaper reporters and photographers who would crowded in to snap close-ups of my face. Nobody was introduced and I was not allowed to ask any questions. When I was done the lawyers commenced arcane legal arguments centering on why I did not present an embossed identification of myself as an attorney and botanist. The judge kept my bar card. I am used to court, but this was something else. It was an ambush.
I was able to describe for the court the differences between hemp and marijuana. I explained the difference in the way the crop was grown and harvested. The evidence was that the employees were beating the harvested plants on a rail "like beans." This was clearly grown and harvested seed hemp and was totally inconsistent with the methods of planting and harvesting marijuana. I explained that contrary to the assertion of the DEA, that international law gave Nicaragua sovereignty to decide the question for itself. "Cannabis grown for the purpose of industrial use" was excepted from the treaty provisions. A limit on the level of THC in the crop was up to Nicaragua to define. Switzerland, for example, has not set a limit.
I described the market for the seeds and why the oil was so special. I explained that the test performed by the DEA is incapable of discriminating hemp and marijuana. DEA agents were not violating the sovereignty of Canada or Switzerland, yet they felt at home running roughshod over our Central American neighbor. I explained why the researchers had to go to China for their seed, nothing close was available in Europe or America. The low-THC European varieties were for a far different latitude and climate and would not work in Nicaragua. Besides, they are all so protected by plant patents, registrations and restrictive contracts that the seeds would have to be bought every year. This means they would never acclimate to the Nicaraguan growing conditions and would be too unreliable to anchor an industry. China has grown hemp for seed for thousands of years. The people of the region where the seeds originated do not even have a concept of the use of the hemp plant as a drug.
I told the judge of the 22 web sites I found that sold marijuana seeds. The minimum price offered was $5 per seed. At 60,000 seeds per kilogram, a kilo of seeds would be worth $300,000. The 15,000-kilogram container shipment from China would be 4.5 billion dollars if it were marijuana. I said it was impossible and crazy to assume that this much seed could be marijuana. Besides, I told the court, this particular shipment of seeds was examined by the U.S. Customs while the container was being transshipped in Long Beach, California. The container was emptied for a DEA inspection. Only hempseeds were found. They released the shipment to go forward to its destination in Nicaragua.
I described what a hemp economy could do for Nicaragua in terms of employment and self-sufficiency. I gave good references for the Canadian defendants whom I had met. I tried to help, but it felt like I was talking to air. Yesterday, the judge found probable cause to hold the defendants up for charges. Dr. Wylie will have to languish in jail while the government works to extradite the other defendants from Canada and the U.S. Once arrested and returned "to the scene of the crime", the defendants will have no more rights than Dr. Wylie did upon his arrest. Most of the defendants were only inactive investors in the project. They have never set foot in Nicaragua. Now they will have to hire attorneys, fight extradition and suffer having their reputations smeared around the world.
Nicaragua seems adept at shooting itself in the foot on a regular basis. What started out as an exciting project to bring a new industry to a place it was truly needed, has now turned into an international scandal. It's not just the investors who are affected. For Nicaragua to progress it will need help from foreign industries and industrialists, foreign technology and technologists. When the story of how Dr. Paul Wylie was treated for his efforts in Nicaragua is spread in the international community, it will be hard to get others to commit to even visiting the country. The real losers are the local compesinos who stood to gain steady employment in the project. As it is, the government agents kept the $5000 payroll they seized from Dr. Wylie. The workers missed their Christmas pay.
There are no winners in this story. The toll will continue as long as our government obscures the difference between hemp and marijuana and its agents run roughshod over the rights of the people of Central America.
I am trying to get some help spreading the word on this story. If the government spreads it, it will be all about marijuana. The word hemp will not make it into the story. I have to come out aggressively to get the word to the media that there is a lot more behind this "bust" than meets the eye. Anyone with suggestions is welcome to write or call.
For more information, please contact Don Wirtshafter at (740) 662-4367 or [email protected], or Grant Sanders, Hemp Agro International, (905) 681-1110.
Ann Landers, who, along with her sister "Dear Abby" is one of the two most popular advice columnists in North America, had a holiday season to be proud of this year as she addressed our nation's failing drug war not once but twice. On Christmas, Ms. Landers published a holiday message which included the following two paragraphs:
"Unfortunately, the "war on drugs" has turned out to be a colossal failure. The increase in the number of homicides is staggering, and most of it is drug-related. Guns and knives are standard equipment among teenagers. It is not uncommon for a teenager to get shot or stabbed for his jacket or his shoes. Metal detectors in schools help some, but not enough.
While alcohol is still the most abused drug of all, marijuana and stronger substances like crack cocaine are commonplace in junior and senior high schools. The dropout rate is appalling. Why should a kid stay in school when he can get rich dealing drugs? This is the message too many young people are getting."
Not all of the nation was able to read her words of wisdom, however, as many newspapers across the country edited out that part of the message.
Then, on Monday (1/5), Ms. Landers published a letter from a distraught mother in Virginia whose eighteen year-old son had been arrested on marijuana charges. The mother argued that while she disapproved of marijuana use, along with alcohol and tobacco use, her son had never hurt anyone, had possessed the marijuana for his personal use, and had "never had so much as a parking ticket," and yet was facing a long prison term, which she thought was an injustice as well as a waste of state resources.
Ann agreed, saying: "I have long believed that the laws regarding marijuana are too harsh. Those who keep pot for their own use should not be treated as criminals. Thirty years in prison makes no sense whatsoever. I'm with you."
YOU CAN HELP! It is important that Ms. Landers, who has taken previous, cautious steps in the direction of reform advocacy, gets plenty of letters of support, or even personal stories from people whose lives and families have been damaged by the Drug War. Write to her at:
Ann Landers, P.O. Box 11562, Chicago, IL, 60611-0562If your local paper runs Ann Landers but cut the above columns or edited out the above-cited material, send them a letter of complaint.
On Tuesday, January 12, at twelve noon, citizens of New Jersey and surrounding regions will gather on the steps of the State House in Trenton to protest Governor Christine Whitman's intractability on the issue of syringe exchange. The protest will coincide with Whitman's State of the State address and will be sponsored by the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, the New Jersey chapters of the National Organization for Women and American Civil Liberties Union, the New Jersey Collegiate Consortium for Health in Education, ACT-UP Philadelphia, and ACT-UP New York, among others.
New Jersey has the nation's third-highest rate of injection-related AIDS.
If you are in the area, please make an effort to attend this one-hour demonstration. Donations to defray transportation and other expenses are welcome. Checks can be made out the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition and sent to NJHRC, P.O. Box 1459, New Brunswick, NJ 08903. For further information, call NJHRC at (732) 247-3242.
(Read the Health Emergency 1999 report by Dr. Dawn Day of the Dogwood Center -- http://www.drcnet.org/healthemergency/ -- for much more information on the impact of injection-related AIDS, particularly as it impacts minority communities.)
Don Topping, President, Drug Policy Forum of Hawai'i, http://www.drugsense.org/dpfhi
In early December 1998, Governor Benjamin Cayetano, recently re-elected by a slender margin of 5,000 votes, announced that he intended to introduce legislation on three highly controversial issues in Hawai'i: domestic partnerships, euthanasia, and medicinal marijuana.
Following this announcement, the Governor met with Pam Lichty and Don Topping of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai'i, and Chuck Thomas of the Marijuana Policy Project. During this meeting, the Governor appeared determined to follow through, asked very good questions, and requested that DPFH work with his Attorney General and Director of Health to work on draft legislation.
While Chuck Thomas was in Honolulu, he joined Lichty and Topping at meetings with key legislators, i.e. Chairs of the Health Committees for the House and Senate; Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and key staffers of the co-chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The chairs of both health committees said that they would introduce a bill on medicinal marijuana in their respective houses. The judiciary committees took a more restrained, although somewhat supportive position.
On December 17, board members of DPFH met with the AG's representative and Director of Health, during which the AG's rep made it clear that his boss opposed the idea regardless of the Governor's position, claiming that she (the AG) "served the people, not the governor." It was also hinted at the meeting that the head of the State Narcotics Control Division would authorize his officers to make arrests under federal law should such legislation pass the state legislature.
An independent poll taken in Hawai'i in September shows that 63% of Hawaii's voters support medicinal marijuana.
DPFH has already received commitments from several patients and physicians who will testify in favor of the bill. DPFH is also working with MPP and others in the reform movement on this issue. DPFH expects opposition to this bill from city, state and federal law enforcement groups, and various other groups who support current drug policy.
The coming session of the Hawai'i State Legislature marks the beginning of a two-year legislative period. Thus, even if the proposed bill for medicinal marijuana fails to make it through both houses, it will still be alive for the session that begins in January, 2000.
from the NORML Weekly News, courtesy the NORML Foundation, http://www.norml.org
January 7, 1999, Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Americans consume marijuana at rates more than double those of their Dutch counterparts, according to a study published Tuesday by the Center for Drug Research (CEDRO) of the University of Amsterdam.
"These findings illustrate that criminalizing marijuana does little, if anything, to discourage use," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of The NORML Foundation. He noted that Dutch law allows citizens over 18 to buy and consume marijuana in government-regulated coffeeshops.
The study found that 15.6 percent of Dutch persons aged 12 and over had tried marijuana. Of these, 4.5 percent reported using marijuana in the past year, and 2.5 percent said they used the drug during the past month. By contrast, 32.9 percent of Americans admit trying marijuana, and nine percent report using the drug in the past year. Slightly more than five percent of Americans say they use the drug monthly.
The study's authors concluded that "a repressive [marijuana] policy as in the U.S. does not necessarily result in less drug use. The availability of drugs is no determining factor for levels of drug use in a country."
The study, financed by the health ministry and conducted by Amsterdam University and the Central Bureau of Statistics, is the first to document national marijuana use rates.
Data previously compiled by the Dutch National Institute of Health and Addiction (NIHA) determined that Dutch adolescents use marijuana at significantly lower rates than Americans. The agency reported that 21 percent of Dutch adolescents admit trying the drug compared to 45 percent of American high school seniors.
For more information, please contact either Allen St. Pierre or Paul Armentano of The NORML Foundation at (202) 483-8751. To view a summary of the CEDRO report online, please visit http://www.frw.uva.nl/cedro/.
On Tuesday, January 12 at 9pm (check local listings), PBS will air "Snitch," a 90 minute feature exposing the use and misuse of confidential informants by the U.S. government. Frontline will examine how mandatory minimum sentencing legislation turned the use of informants into the lynchpin of prosecutorial strategy in the Drug War. Producer Ofra Bikel takes viewers inside the mind of the informant and profiles some unsettling cases in which the most minor offenders are serving harsh prison sentences on the word of a snitch, while higher-ups, with information to trade, walk free.
(See our story on a Tenth Circuit Case which could end the trading of leniency for "the right testimony," at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/068.html#testimony. Also, see related articles and editorial in Issue #35, at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/035.html.)
Adam J. Smith, DRCNet Associate Director
In California this week, Bill Lockyer, the state's new Attorney General, will begin the process of trying to figure out how to implement Proposition 215. Prop. 215 was passed by the voters of California in 1996, and was supposed legalize the possession and use of marijuana by patients in need. The intent of the law has been frustrated, however, by a combination of the federal government and the former Attorney General of California, Dan Lungren.
Lungren was an opponent of Prop. 215 even before its passage. At one point during the campaign, when the popular comic strip Doonesbury ran a week-long series in support of the initiative, Lungren used state money to hold a press conference denouncing the comic and its creator, and urging the state's newspapers to refuse to run the strip.
In the two years that he held his post after the initiative was passed, Lungren showed himself willing to go back on his oath to "uphold the laws of the State of California" by openly proclaiming and acting upon his intent to interpret the law "as narrowly as possible." This led to numerous arrests of legitimate patients and the seizure of their medicine.
The federal government, for its part, having been thwarted in its efforts in urging the initiative's defeat, opened hostilities on December 30, 1996, with a press conference at which Attorney General Janet Reno threatened to prosecute and or rescind the prescription privileges of any doctor who so much as discussed the use of marijuana with his or her patients. When that threat was deemed to be in violation of the First Amendment in federal court, a legal assault was undertaken by the federal government against various dispensaries of medical marijuana throughout the state.
But now there is Bill Lockyer. Lockyer has been an open proponent of the right of Californians to access marijuana for medicinal use. He made no secret of this during his campaign, and has since reiterated his desire to oversee the creation and implementation of a system of distribution, most likely in cooperation with local governments, which will finally give life to the initiative's 1996 victory.
Whatever the ultimate plan, it is likely to face federal opposition, and it could very well get ugly. Keep in mind that the federal government came into Oakland last year and shut down that city's Cannabis Buyers' Club over the strong objections of the Mayor and the city council, who had gone so far as to deputize the club's employees in an effort to fit them into a loophole in the federal Controlled Substances Act. Bill Lockyer most assuredly has his work cut out for him.
One can hope that the victories this past November of medical marijuana on the ballots of four other states might temper the feds' enthusiasm for arresting the sick and the dying, their doctors and their caretakers. But don't bet on it. The federal government has a lot invested in its unyielding stance on medicinal marijuana, and it openly fears that capitulation on this issue will open the door to reforms in other areas of its cash cow drug war. What we can legitimately hope is that Bill Lockyer is a man who will not be easily intimidated, and that California's new governor, Gray Davis, will stand behind him. We can also hope that local governments across the state, as well as the state's legislators, have the stomach to stand up to an overbearing and overzealous federal government on behalf of California's voters, or at least for those whose suffering the federal government would have them ignore.
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