Angered, frustrated and frightened by DEA raids on medical marijuana patients and providers in California in recent weeks, medical marijuana supporters from across the state converged on the state capitol Monday afternoon to demand that the federal government stop its raids and that California officials stand up to defend the state's Compassionate Use Act and the people it is supposed to protect. Hundreds -- perhaps as many as a thousand -- demonstrators braved record-breaking 104 degree heat to hear speaker after speaker deliver impassioned cries for relief from federal harassment and to free imprisoned medical marijuana providers, particularly Bryan Epis of Chico. Epis was supposed to have been sentenced on Monday to a mandatory minimum 10 years in prison, but late last week federal prosecutors postponed the sentencing date.
Following the speech-making, a crowd DRCNet estimates at between 500 and 600 people marched from the capitol to the federal courthouse in downtown Sacramento to take their demands to the local seat of federal power. Bearing banners and huge puppets of President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, DEA head Asa Hutchinson and drug czar John Walters in prison uniforms, the crowd was greeted by numerous honks of approval from passing motorists.
At the courthouse, demonstrators blocked the entrance and refused to move despite repeated warnings from the Federal Protective Police. Police eventually arrested 29 people as the rest of the crowd screamed scorn and abuse at the unfortunate on-duty federal building cops and their distant masters who are much more directly responsible for the medical marijuana crackdown. All 29 of those arrested were released by the end of the afternoon.
In Washington, DC, meanwhile, about 15 people demonstrated in front of the White House in solidarity with the California protestors. Two of them, Doug McVay of Common Sense for Drug Policy and Charles Thomas of Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform, chained themselves to the White House fence and refused to leave. They were arrested and released shortly afterwards.
"We knew that dozens of people would be getting arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience in Sacramento, and we thought it was important to show solidarity here at the White House," said Thomas. "We wanted civil disobedience to take place right at their front gate and not just on the West Coat," he told DRCNet. "We wanted to make sure the White House, the media and therefore the American people would get the message," Thomas said.
"We are here to offer moral support. This reminds me of the example set by Jesus," Thomas continued. "He healed people on the Sabbath in violation of the law of the time. So I asked myself what would Jesus do? I thought it was important that we, as a faith-based group, reflect on that. Jesus would probably do exactly what patients and providers in California are doing," Thomas reasoned. "John Ashcroft, the self-proclaimed Christian, is persecuting patients and providers. It's cruel, it's probably unconstitutional, and it's the exact opposite of what his own self-proclaimed religion would instruct him to do."
The DC demonstration was covered by USA Today, the Washington Post and CNN, and went on the Reuters wire, while the Sacramento protests generated sporadic coverage in media markets across that state. "This is the state capitol," said California NORML head Dale Gieringer. "They're used to protests here. You need 10,000 or 20,000 people to make them really pay attention," he told DRCNet.
But if Monday's protest didn't reach that level of participation, it nevertheless marked the largest mass mobilization yet in support of medical marijuana and against federal intervention in state medical marijuana laws. And it drew passionate, committed people from across the state, as well as a handful of national drug reform figures.
Multiple Sclerosis and emphysema sufferer LaVonne Victor traveled five hours from Temecula in southern California to attend. "I'm not too into the politics," she told DRCNet, "but this feels like the Nazis. We were raided, and now I have to go to the streets to find my medicine. I don't want to have to be afraid of my government," said Victor, who added that marijuana was the only thing that eased her suffering. "They call us child abusers, they call us terrorists, but they're the child abusers, they're the terrorists. The state of California has allowed doctors to treat us with marijuana for our benefit. We are law-abiding Americans. They should let us be. The DEA should get out," she said.
Loomis physician Dr. Philip Denney also attended the Sacramento demonstrations. "I've been writing recommendations for cannabis because I've found that cannabis can help people," he told DRCNet. Denney said he made the trip to the capitol because he is tired of the "threats and intimidation" emanating from the federal government. "The federal government has lied to us about cannabis for 60 years," he said. "What is happening here is a real test of democracy, and if the DEA prevails, we've failed," he said.
"I'm here because they came and robbed me last week," said Chapmantown resident and medical marijuana grower Mike Farrell. According to local press reports, Butte County Sheriff's deputies cut down 11 of Farrell's 17 plants on September 19 as neighbors groaned and yelled at the narcs. "We don't want to be criminals," he told DRCNet. "We want to be farmers. But until we are no longer criminals, we will keep fighting."
The medical marijuana users and growers saw significant support from college students on Monday, with hundreds of students being bussed to Sacramento in an effort organized by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, NORML, Common Sense for Drug Policy and the Libertarian Party. "This is a hot issue among student groups," said UC Berkeley student Abe Gardner, who rode in on one of those buses. "The state government needs to act to protect medical marijuana growers, patients and providers," said Gardner, an SSDP member and vice-president of the UC Berkeley ACLU. "The raids should stop; they are just harassing sick people," he told DRCNet. "Coming to an action like this is much stronger than writing a letter to the feds," he added.
Students, patients and activists alike heard from a lengthy list of speakers denouncing the federal aggression and filled the intervals in between with boisterous chants of "Ashcroft, Asshole," "DEA, We Voted, You Lost, Go Away," "Hey, Hey, DEA, How Many Patients Did You Kill Today?" and the ominous Vietnam- and civil rights-era standard, "No Justice, No Peace."
"The federal war on medical marijuana is the triumph of a small coterie of political fanatics who have hijacked federal law," Orange County Register editorialist Alan Bock told the crowd. "This is the triumph of politics over science and compassion," he added, before quoting the federal government-sponsored 1999 Institute of Medicine study on the uses of marijuana. "The feds know better," he said. "Hutchinson and the drug czar should not be able to say a word until they read that report -- and pass a test," he said, to loud applause.
"This is a bizarro world where reason and logic don't exist," Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Club attorney Bill Panzer told the crowd. "Ashcroft, Bush, Hutchinson--we will stop you," he vowed.
Debbie Goldsberry, director of the Cannabis Action Network and the Berkeley Patients' Group, while as defiant as the rest of the speakers, struck a more somber tone. "I'm nervous because we run a cannabis dispensary and we have 4,000 plants," said Goldsberry. The DEA and US Attorneys stoop to scaring sick old men to bust more dispensaries, she said. "They told Jimmy Halloran [arrested in the San Francisco Harm Reduction Center bust in February] that he would die in prison if he did not cooperate, so, yes, Jimmy turned state's evidence, but he told the truth about medical marijuana," said Goldsberry. "Jimmy Halloran is not the enemy. He was threatened and terrorized by the real enemy, and now about a dozen clubs are caught up in his case."
If Goldsberry was focused on the present, Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy was looking to the future. "Welcome to the beginning of the end of the federal war against medical marijuana," he said to loud cheers. "They are trying to scare you away, but they won't succeed," he told the crowd. "We are not political tools for the right wing," he said.
And Stephanie Sherer, head of the umbrella emergency response group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) that spearheaded the protest called for continued militant resistance to the federal attacks. "State and federal officials cannot ignore our compassionate effort to end this war against the sick and dying," she said. "Now is the time to push forward. We will win this war, we will push the federal government back," she vowed. With federal raids on medical marijuana patients and providers continuing at a steady pace, push may soon come to shove.