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) 237-7679
Jean Merl, Times Staff Writer


Health: Supreme Court Ruling On Some Cannabis Clubs Has Many Worried
State Law Will Be Overturned

By JEAN MERL, Times Staff Writer

In the three years since Marlene Rasnick learned she had ovarian 
cancer, she has smoked marijuana--legally, with her doctor's assent--to 
ease her suffering from the disease and from punishing rounds of 

Marijuana's ability to keep nausea at bay and diminish pain has "raised 
my spirits" and allowed her to continue to enjoy life's small 
pleasures, Rasnick said.  

"I can sit in my garden, read, talk with friends. It allows me to 
experience more than just the effects of the disease and the chemo," 
said Rasnick, 56, an actress and teacher who lives in Silver Lake and 
runs the Public Works Improvisational Theatre with her husband.  

Little wonder, then, that a U.S. Supreme Court order Tuesday shocked 
and frightened Rasnick and other 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.  

Some in law enforcement, however, 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.  

The court sided with the Clinton administration, which had asked it to 
overturn a lower court ruling allowing an Oakland cannabis club to 
resume distribution of the substance. The Oakland club and five others 
were part of a U.S. Justice Department case to test the California law. 

Tuesday's order is unlikely to have much immediate effect on the other 
cannabis clubs around the state. In the past four years, approximately 
two dozen sprang up to distribute marijuana to patients who met the 
state's requirements for its use.  

However, the court's intervention was widely interpreted as a signal 
that it probably will review the entire distribution issue this fall 
and could ban all the California clubs.  

Operators of some of the clubs not included in the test case said 
Wednesday they plan to continue operations. But they said the ruling is 
unsettling to the approximately 5,000 Californians currently permitted 
to use the substance.  

"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 the substance 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," said Imler, adding: "We just want to be 
able to take care of ourselves in peace and not be constantly 
threatened with arrest and prosecution."  

'Thunderstruck' by Ruling  

The court action came as the Los Angeles Cannabis Center is in the 
process of buying its own cultivation and distribution building, with 
expected help from the West Hollywood City Council. It is working 
toward its goal of growing all of its own marijuana to ensure high 
quality, Imler said.  

Orange County criminal attorney Robert L. Kennedy, an advocate 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 

As his son-in-law Paul Comouche lay dying, Kennedy read that marijuana 
helped reduce the pain of cancer patients. He contacted Marvin Chavez, 
the director of the Patient, Doctor, Nurse Support Group in Garden 
Grove, who then provided marijuana until Comouche died. Later, Kennedy 
represented Chavez 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.  

"If marijuana can ease dying people's excruciating pain, what's so 
wrong with that?" Kennedy said. He said the court's ruling would force 
people to either cultivate their own marijuana or illegally buy it from 
street dealers. Chavez, who was released after serving 15 months in 
custody on charges of selling marijuana, said the Supreme Court "is 
inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on people who are already in 
pain. This is a drug war against sick and dying Americans." Some law 
enforcement officials don't see it that way.  

In Ventura County, the chief of the sheriff's narcotics unit cheered 
the court's action, saying he hoped justices would ultimately 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 Capt. Dennis 
Carpenter, who oversees the narcotics unit of the Ventura County 
Sheriff's Department.  

"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 medical requirements to receive their product. Many 
say it is the only thing that works for them in relieving pain and 
nausea, thus enabling them to keep down food and medicines.  

Rasnick, the cancer patient, insists that 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," Rasnick said. "Without it, I don't know what I'd do."  

Times staff writers Hector Becerra and Margaret Talev contributed to 
this report.  
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