Pubdate: Thu, 31 Aug 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-4712
Author: Jean Hector Becerra,  Times Staff Writer


Santa Ana activist says justices are inflicting 'cruel and unusual
punishment' on ill people who use pot to control pain or nausea.

With the United States Supreme Court on Tuesday coming one step closer 
to barring Californians from giving marijuana to people racked by pain, 
the quality of mercy has become ever more strained, local advocates 

"What the Supreme Court is doing is inflicting cruel and unusual 
punishment on people who are already in pain," said Marvin Chavez, a 
Santa Ana marijuana-for-medicine activist who spent 15 months 
imprisoned on drug charges related to his cannabis club.  

Chavez, 45, called the court's decision "a drug war against sick and 
dying Americans."  

Orange County criminal attorney Robert L. Kennedy, a supporter of 
marijuana for medical use since his son-in-law died of brain cancer 
three years ago, said he was "thunderstruck" by the Supreme Court 

He called it odd that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on 
Tuesday took steps that would allow a needle exchange program on the 
same day the justices showed a strong willingness to strike down the 
distribution of marijuana for medical purposes.  

"People are dying, suffering, and they can't have medicinal marijuana. 
But we're going to give clean syringes to heroin addicts," Kennedy 
said. "It's so ironic, it's absurd."  

The Supreme Court order shocked and frightened Californians who have 
found that marijuana--legal for medical use here since 1996--is the 
only thing that lessens their suffering from such debilitating 
illnesses as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.  

The court ruling, which backs a U.S. Justice Department move to close 
an Oakland cannabis club, is seen as indicating justices' willingness 
to consider invalidating the state's medical marijuana law.  

The justices sided with the Clinton administration, which had asked it 
to overturn a lower court ruling allowing the Oakland club to resume 
distribution of marijuana.  

The Oakland club and five others were part of a Justice Department case 
to test the California law.  

Tuesday's ruling is unlikely to have much immediate effect on the 
approximately two dozen cannabis clubs that sprang up around the state 
to distribute marijuana to patients who met the state's requirements 
for its use.  

However, the court's decision was widely interpreted as a signal it 
will consider the legality of the proposition this fall and could ban 
all the clubs, which have become the major conduit for patients to 
receive their marijuana.  

Club operators said the ruling is unsettling to the approximately 5,000 
Californians permitted to use marijuana.  

"Our phones have been ringing off the hook. People are afraid," said 
Scott Imler, president of the 840-member Los Angeles Cannabis Center in 
West Hollywood, one of the largest and most stringently run clubs in 
the state.  

Imler, who helped write the 1996 initiative and smokes marijuana to 
alleviate pain from epilepsy, called Tuesday's ruling "a bad omen." But 
it will not stop the club from providing marijuana to its members, 80% 
of whom have AIDS or are HIV positive.  

"We have come too far in the last few years, and we have no intention 
of being driven back to the streets to meet our needs," Imler said.  

Kennedy said the ruling would force people to grow their own marijuana 
or buy it illegally.  

Three years ago, as his son-in-law Paul Comouche lay dying, Kennedy 
read that marijuana helped reduce the pain of cancer. He contacted 
Chavez, then director of the Patient, Doctor, Nurse Support Group in 
Garden Grove. Chavez provided Comouche with marijuana until Comouche 
died at age 31.  

Kennedy became Chavez's lawyer when he was arrested in 1998 on charges 
that he sold marijuana to an undercover officer posing as a caretaker 
for a terminally ill patient.  

"Personally, I wouldn't have wanted my son-in-law, who was a choirboy 
till he was 21 years old, having to buy from a drug dealer in the 
streets," Kennedy said.  

Some in law enforcement welcomed the ruling and said the Compassionate 
Use Act, approved by voters as Proposition 215, has created problems, 
including some healthy marijuana users hiding behind the law.  

In Ventura County, the chief of the sheriff's narcotics unit cheered 
the court's action, saying he hoped justices would strike down the law. 

"We don't feel there's sufficient medicinal benefits of the drug, and 
they've created a nightmare for us to deal with," said that chief, 
Capt. Dennis Carpenter.  

"Many people we've known for years to be users now all of a sudden have 
severe headaches, and before the law came up they had no medical 

Operators of cannabis clubs hotly dispute that, saying their members 
must meet stringent requirements to receive their product.  

Many say it is the only thing that relieves pain and nausea and enables 
them to keep down food and medicines.  

Marlene Rasnick, 56, a cancer patient in Los Angeles, insists the 
marijuana she obtains from the Los Angeles Cannabis Center and smokes 
daily is what gives her the strength to keep fighting her illness.  

Marijuana "has been my best defender, both from the disease and the 
therapy," the actress and teacher said. Without marijuana to deal with 
the effects of the disease and the chemotherapy, "I don't know what I'd 
do," she said.  

Times staff writer Margaret Talev in Ventura County contributed to
this report.
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