Interview: Alan Bock on Medical Marijuana in California 3/30/01

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Alan Bock, author of Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana, came to Washington this week to cover the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the Oakland Cannabis Co-op case. Bock, who is also an editorial page writer for the Orange County Register, spoke with us in the DRCNet offices. Excerpts from that discussion follow:
 

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 houses?

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 Court like?

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.

-- END --
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Issue #179, 3/30/01 Editorial: Medical Marijuana Patients Shouldn't Have to Go to the Supreme Court | Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-op Case, State Medical Marijuana Laws Will Stand Regardless | Interview: Alan Bock on Medical Marijuana in California | Eyes on the Prize: European Drug Reformers Call for Legalization, Target Global Prohibition Regime -- Brussels Confab Focuses on UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs | Mexico: Chihuahua Governor Adds Voice to Legalization Chorus, Extends Rhetorical Hand Across Border to Gov. Johnson | In California, the Medical Marijuana Struggle Grinds On | DEA Denies Marijuana Rescheduling Petition -- Petitioners Promise Appeal, Question Timing | Kampia vs. the Inquisition: House Republicans Rake Reformer Over the Coals | High School Drug Tests Barred Again, This Time in Oklahoma -- Divided US Circuit Court Decisions Herald Eventual Supreme Court Resolution | OpenTheCan.org: November Coalition Label Campaign | Kentucky Governor Signs Industrial Hemp Bill | Hemp and Medical Marijuana Initiatives Gear-Up in South Dakota, State Legislature is Hopeless | Calling All Spanish Speakers: Volunteers Needed to Proof "DRCNet en Español" | Harm Reduction Coalition's Latest Communication Now Available, Newsletter Provides Insights, Questions | The Reformer's Calendar | Errata
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