|Week Online: How long have you been covering
medical marijuana issues in California, and what prompted you to write
a book about it?
Alan Bock: Well, at least since 1988. I
heard about Jack Herer and checked him out and wrote a column about Herer
and hemp. That was one of the earliest mainstream media discussions of
hemp. Then, in 1992, I was on a NORML panel in San Francisco that was oriented
toward medical marijuana; they asked me to come because I was a media person
sympathetic to the movement. I told them about strategies for coping with
the media. I made covering medical marijuana a sort of crusade, but as
an editorial writer, I can't concentrate on one topic for too long. Still,
it was something I kept coming back to throughout the 1990s. I did about
33 Sunday commentary stories on the implementation of Prop. 215 in 1997
through 1999. In many of those, I was basically lamenting the fact that
outside of a few places in Northern California, most officials were doing
the passive-aggressive thing -- trying to prove it couldn't work instead
of making it work.
Naturally, I ended up with a whole lot
more information than I could put in the columns, so I just kept compiling
more material. I approached the publisher of Seven Locks Press at a conference
in 1999, and he thought a medical marijuana book might have a market and
that it had a marginal chance of breaking big.
WOL: Working with a small publisher means
you don't necessarily get the promotional support or access to mass media
attention. Has that been the case for you? Did you approach the major publishing
Bock: Not with this book. I've sent countless
proposals to the big publishers, but never got a contract. But in this
case, I liked the publishers, I liked working with the guy, so I signed
with him. As for promotion, Seven Locks has made a good effort to get me
on network TV, but with little success so far. I've been on the radio in
the Bay Area and expect to do more radio interviews as the word gets out.
I go out and do book signings; I had a particularly well-attended one at
Midnight Special in Santa Monica. I find that I sell more books if the
audience gets to hear me read instead of just having a signing. And the
trip to DC was designed in part to elicit some publicity for the book.
WOL: You're here in DC to cover the Supreme
Court arguments on the Oakland Co-op case. What was covering the Supreme
Bock: It's like some sort of religious
ritual in there. I can see why Rehnquist doesn't want to televise hearings;
it would reduce the mystique. You'd think in a democratic country it would
be the other way around, but here mysterious institutions seem to have
more credibility than open institutions. It's as if we were listening to
the Delphic oracles.
WOL: Any prediction on the ruling?
Bock: My only prediction is that it will
be a very narrow ruling, concerned more with procedural issues than the
grand constitutional issues that the Oakland brief invited them to consider.
The Oakland brief talked about the 9th and 10th Amendments, a federal government
of enumerated and thus limited powers, and it talked about the interstate
commerce clause, which allows the federal government to insert itself in
numerous issues. But with medical marijuana in California, they grow it
in California, they smoke it in California, there is no interstate nexus.
The Oakland briefs provided the court with the opportunity to either cut
back or invalidate all together the drug war at the federal, but I saw
no evidence that the court is ready to do so. The court has created a handful
of precedents that restrain federal power, and I think perhaps Chief Justice
Rehnquist wants to leave a legacy of slightly scaling back federal power
vis a vis the states, but the justices didn't really talk about those issues.
What the justices wanted to talk about was really narrow procedural things
such as what is the precise wording of the Controlled Substances Act and
does it establish a basis for medical necessity defense? And if there is
a medical necessity defense, does it apply to an organization that distributes
medical marijuana to patients or just to patients themselves? The justices
were concerned that this could establish a broad blanket exception to the
CSA. Rehnquist in particular seemed to be on the opinion that Congress
wrote this law and hasn't amended, pot is still Schedule 1, end of discussion.
WOL: It seems that no matter how the court
rules, what's really important is what is going on within California.
Bock: You're right. I think the key thing
is that while this case has gotten all the attention, the fact that the
state law is not under challenge has been lost. On the ground in California,
patients are fairly well protected. Even in the event that the court ruled
against the Oakland co-op, it would be up to the federal government, not
California authorities, to enforce the federal law. It's not their burden.
Patients could theoretically be at some risk of federal prosecution, but
the chances of that are pretty low. The feds have never gone after individual
patients and they didn't even use the criminal law to go after the clubs,
they used civil injunctions. They are not eager to arrest that 90-year-old
grandma in a wheel chair who uses medical marijuana for MS. And the informal
DEA rule in Northern California, anyway, is that they won't bother with
less than a thousand plants. Meanwhile, state and local officials in California
are increasingly reluctant to harass medical marijuana patients. Increasingly,
state and local officials don't even mess with them.
WOL: What lessons can medical marijuana
supporters draw from California's experience?
Bock: First, that it shouldn't be that
difficult for police to figure out if someone is a legitimate medical marijuana
user. If the person has a card and a signed recommendation from a doctor,
you leave him alone, unless he's got 3,000 plants. If there is no documentation,
then you treat him as a recreational user. It's not that tough a burden
for police to exercise that discretion. In California, the cops are increasingly
coming around, even in places like Orange County, where they had previously
cracked down on medical marijuana. Even prosecutors are recognizing that
medical marijuana patients have the right to smoke, grow and possess their
medicine. In five years, the controversy will have faded away.
Second, it takes a certain amount of serious
money to mount a political campaign.
And third, it requires follow-up. I think
Americans for Medical Rights [sponsors of both Prop. 215 and last year's
Prop. 36 sentencing reforms] has learned that lesson. We're seeing that
in the way they are really working hard with officials to make sure Prop.
36 gets properly implemented. And don't be surprised if you're successful
and the authorities drag their feet. But compared to the atmosphere after
Prop. 215, I'm really pretty optimistic for the long term.
WOL: What's the biggest problem now?
Bock: Right now, the biggest impediment
patients face is getting legitimate access to marijuana because of the
reluctance of doctors to issue recommendations. The California Medical
Association has always erred on the side of caution, reminding its members
that prescribing marijuana is still against federal law, for instance.
And doctors didn't learn about pot in medical school, so there is a learning
curve going on here. Patients have to educate the doctors. One resulting
danger is the growth of what are essentially medical marijuana prescription
mills, where doctors see a profit and churn out the recommendations for
a steep fee. There are maybe a half-dozen doctors behaving like that; there's
one in Orange County who started off writing recommendations and charging
a $75 consultation fee. Now he's up to $250. The way to undercut that is
to have more doctors doing it legitimately and properly.