In the wake of the Justice Department's and the DEA's offensive against medical marijuana in California, activists there and around the country are preparing to go on the offensive. Meanwhile, medical marijuana distribution co-ops in California are taking measures to protect themselves, their medical supplies and their patient records. But even as reformers gear up for a fight, they remain divided on which strategies to pursue.
Three years of relative peace between the federal government and California medical marijuana providers ended last month, when in three separate raids, DEA agents swooped down on one of the state's leading marijuana-recommending physicians, tore from the ground a legitimate medical marijuana garden in Ventura County and effectively shut down the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, leaving nearly a thousand patients in the lurch.
One line of attack for reformers is to push H.R. 2592, the States' Right to Medical Marijuana Act, sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), which would create an exception to the Controlled Substances Act and the Food Drug and Cosmetics Act allowing states to operate medical marijuana programs without federal interference. The bill would also reschedule marijuana from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2, allowing it to be prescribed by doctors.
"We are using these incidents in California as a means to promote the Frank bill," said Chris Hammond, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org). "We think the DEA raids highlight the necessity of changing federal law so the DEA and Justice Department cannot undertake these kinds of actions," he told DRCNet. "We're still strategizing as to how to promote this," said Hammond, "but the big push is to mobilize people to contact their representatives and ask them to cosponsor the bill. We've been working with DRCNet and other groups to ensure that Congress brings an end to these atrocious actions by the federal government."
The bill currently has only nine cosponsors, with only two members of the California congressional delegation, Reps. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), having signed on to protect the decision of California voters to allow medical marijuana. Waxman, ranking minority member of the House Government Operations Committee, has loudly denounced the DEA actions, especially the raid against the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood, part of Waxman's district.
"The DEA's raid on the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center was an outrage," said Waxman in a statement read at a November 6 protest rally on Santa Monica Boulevard. "People who are suffering from from terminal diseases like cancer and AIDS should receive compassionate pain relief, including medical marijuana. The voters made this decision five years ago, and the Supreme Court should not have overruled us," said Waxman.
Dale Gieringer, head of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.canorml.org), was also pushing for movement on the Frank bill. "We've been urging people to call Congress to support the Frank bill," Gieringer told DRCNet, "but because of the terrorist attacks and the anthrax scare, we haven't seen any movement. In reality, no one expects the legislation to pass anytime soon," Gieringer admitted.
National NORML (http://www.norml.org) executive director Keith Stroup was even more blunt. "Let's be realistic," he told DRCNet. "This bill is not going anywhere in this Congress. Right-wing Republicans still control the House, and they will not allow medical marijuana to happen while they're in charge," said Stroup. "We should have no false hope that we can move this bill, not until the Democrats get control of the House. At least then we would be able to get hearings."
For Stroup, the important thing is working at the state and local level. "Congress won't act until there is a critical mass of states that have medical marijuana," he argued. "We have eight now, but we need 20 or so. If we continue to add states, Congress could act within two or three years."
MPP's Hammond remained undeterred. "Whatever the bill's immediate prospects, H.R. 2592 is the biggest thing we need to accomplish right now," he told DRCNet.
Long-time hemp activist Chris Conrad sees deep political change as a prerequisite for protecting medical marijuana in California. "The real answer has to do with elections," he told DRCNet. "These guys stole the DC medical marijuana election, they stole the national election, they're trying to overturn state initiatives they don't like. Bush and Ashcroft are hoodlums and thieves with no respect for democracy. These guys are criminal," said Conrad, who nonetheless saw an up side: "Ashcroft will build us a vast national coalition against him."
Whatever the prospects for the Frank bill, reformers are not sitting back and waiting for action on Capitol Hill. San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, a strong supporter of medical marijuana, has effectively told the DEA to butt out of his city. "I urge administrator Hutchinson to respect our city's approach to medical marijuana, which has reduced crime, saved money and contributed to public well-being," said Hallinan last week. "Any move to close the dispensaries will result in sick people trying to get marijuana from street vendors, whose products may or may not be safe."
City Supervisor Mark Leno has also introduced legislation making San Francisco "a sanctuary for medical cannabis use, cultivation, and distribution" and calling on state and local authorities not to participate in a federal crackdown.
But Hallinan's and Leno's support was not enough for one medical marijuana provider in the city, Cannabis Healing Californians on 10th Street. That club closed early this month, with its owners citing fears that the Los Angeles raid was only the opening shot in the DEA's war on medical marijuana.
Activists are also spoiling for a criminal charge to be filed in any of the recent raids. "If Ashcroft decides to go after clubs in the Bay area, where would he try the cases?" asked Conrad. "They can't get a conviction around here."
NORML's Stroup was not certain the federal government would move to bring charges against anyone. "They fear public opposition in California," said Stroup, "and they are getting a lot of what they want already. They are effectively shutting down the most visible clubs and bankrupting the people who run them. That may be all they need. If they actually indict any of the principals, then we'll have a legal battle on our hands and we'll do everything possible to defend those folks, but that's not what I expect to happen," he said.
Dale Gieringer sees another front as well. "We have to destroy that poisonous relationship that exists between the feds and certain recalcitrant elements in California law enforcement," he explained. "We are considering another initiative, one that would set a baseline of acceptable amounts of marijuana for medical use based on federal guidelines. The way it is now, you still get arrested and prosecuted, although you have a defense. We're looking at not even getting arrested. This initiative would also include language saying state officials are not to spend any resources working with the feds on this. Right now, some counties turn cases over to the feds, and vice versa. We must destroy that pernicious relationship."
While activists focus on a political and legal response, California medical marijuana providers are hunkering down and taking defensive measures. "People are preparing for the feds to make their next move," said Gieringer. "Clubs are moving their patient lists to other locations or encrypting them. And unlike Los Angeles, where the Cannabis Resource Center grew its own and relied on only one other supplier [who was also raided], in Northern California the distribution system is out in the open, but the supply system is not. If one storefront gets raided, they can open up elsewhere with an assured supply. Unlike the co-ops, the network of medical marijuana growers and providers remains pretty much unpenetrated."
Keith Stroup had a word of warning for people attempting to hide patient information from the feds. "I've seen suggestions that the records be taken off-site or that they be coded, but that information is not so easy to protect. The problem is, if the feds come in with a subpoena for the records, you could be held in contempt if you don't provide them. Club owners should talk to their criminal defense lawyers about what steps might help and what is a waste of time. There may not be an effective way to keep patient lists from the feds."
(Visit http://thomas.loc.gov and search on H.R. 2592 for information on Barney Frank's medical marijuana bill.)