It's been a heady week for medical marijuana supporters in California, where the city of San Francisco and a federal judge took substantive actions that should make it easier for seriously ill people to use marijuana.
In San Francisco, District Attorney Terence Hallinan announced on July 14 that the city will issue ID cards for medical marijuana users that will free card-holders from fear of local prosecution. Three days later, US District Judge Charles R. Breyer ruled that the Oakland Cannabis' Buyers Cooperative could reopen and again begin serving its roughly 5,000 registered members.
The San Francisco program will require a doctor's signed agreement to monitor the patient's medical condition. The cards cost $25 and are good for two years. The cards, which include the patient's photograph, card number and issue date, will also be issued to minors who have their parents' or guardians' permission.
"This represents another stone in the foundation we're building to make people recognize that cannabis is a legitimate medicinal agent," San Francisco DA Hallinan told the San Jose Mercury News. "I'm not really worried we won't be able to work things out with the federal government."
Jane Weirick uses marijuana to help alleviate pain from a back ailment. She told the Mercury News that the ID cards will "finally give us legitimacy."
"I was taking prescription opiates and was stuck in bed all the time," Weirick said. "When I started taking cannabis, I was finally able to function. It was like night and day."
Across the bay from San Francisco, Judge Breyer modified an injunction he had issued in September 1998 in US v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative that shut down the club and four others. The newly modified injunction effectively exempts the clubs from prosecution under federal marijuana possession, cultivation, distribution and conspiracy statutes.
Judge Breyer spelled out stringent criteria for patients who seek such an exemption. In addition to suffering from a serious medical condition and facing imminent harm without access to cannabis, patients are required to have no reasonable legal alternative to cannabis for treating or alleviating their condition or symptoms.
Breyer's original injunction was undone by the US Ninth District Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The appeals court ordered Judge Breyer to revisit his earlier order and consider an exemption for patients who faced imminent harm and who had no effective alternative to marijuana. The Court of Appeals ruled that Judge Breyer should consider an exemption since the government had failed to rebut evidence that cannabis is the only effective source of relief for a large group of seriously ill patients.
In his July 17th ruling, Judge Breyer said the government had failed to make any new arguments against medical marijuana, instead repeating arguments already rejected by the Court of Appeals.
Patients and supporters of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative were ecstatic. "It's an historic day," Jeff Jones, executive director of the co-op, told the Mercury News. "For the first time in our nation's history, the Controlled Substances Act has been pierced in a way that allows a controlled substance to be given out in a federally exempt way."
Not everyone was so enthused. Some activists condemned the eligibility restrictions Judge Breyer placed on patients, particularly the provision requiring that patients try "all legal alternatives to cannabis" in order to qualify. Others worried that the ruling could be the preamble to a government appeal to an unfriendly Supreme Court.
But most observers, while conceding that the ruling had its flaws, contended that it constituted an overall victory for the medical marijuana movement.
After the ruling was announced, Jones called on the federal government to take the next step and reclassify marijuana as "an accepted therapeutic plant," the New York Times reported. "The medicinal properties have already been accepted at the local and state levels," he said. "We're waiting for the federal government to catch up."
Jones told the Times that the Oakland club, which was the only one of the five to appeal the 1998 ruling that shut it down, could reopen during the week of July 24th. He said his club was working with attorneys to devise the best way to reopen. "We're going to proceed cautiously," he added.