Pubdate: 28 Oct 2000
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2000 The Dallas Morning News
Contact:  P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, Texas 75265
Fax: (972) 263-0456
Author: Charlie Brennan, Special Contributor to The DMN
Note: Charlie Brennan is a free-lance writer based in Boulder, Colo.
Cited: Marijuana Policy Project:


Colorado Joins Other States Putting Medicinal-Marijuana Issue In Voters' Hands

Rob Conaway is dying. Colorado voters will decide whether he dies a criminal.

Mr. Conaway, a 50-year-old Denver resident, smokes the equivalent of a 
couple marijuana cigarettes a week to combat nausea and depression from an 
array of prescription AIDS drugs. He is so debilitated, he can only get out 
of bed for a few hours at a time.

On Nov. 7, Colorado voters will decide whether seriously or chronically ill 
people such as Mr. Conaway should be allowed to use pot for medical 
purposes with physician approval.

"To me, this has nothing to do with street drugs or pot legalization," Mr. 
Conaway said. "With my Social Security disability checks, I have a very 
limited income. To keep it as an illegal drug just puts the risk of getting 
arrested and its street price on top of everything else, and it just adds 
to the stress."

If Amendment 20 passes - and recent polls suggest it will - Colorado would 
be the nation's eighth state to approve the use of medical marijuana. But 
while the issue makes progress state by state, the federal government 
remains staunchly opposed and is fighting at the Supreme Court level.

In fact, in California - the first state to approve marijuana for use by 
the seriously ill - the future of this grass-roots movement is hazy at best.

"It's controlled chaos," said Nathan Barankin, spokesman for California 
Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a proponent of pot for the sick. California 
passed its initiative in 1996, before Mr. Lockyer took office. But he is 
stuck trying to fix the problems with it.

Mr. Barankin said the initiative was poorly drafted. "It raised more 
questions than it answered," he said.

The California law failed to clearly outline how marijuana would be 
dispensed. The result is a patch-work system of enforcement that varies 
widely from county to county.

Opponents of the Colorado initiative say that state is about to make the 
same mistake.

"It doesn't say where people are supposed to get it," said Larry Wall, 
president of the Colorado Health and Hospital Association and a member of 
Coloradans Against Legalizing Marijuana.

"If you don't grow your own, the initiative is silent on that issue. And 
that's one of the problems," Mr. Wall said. "It would assume that you could 
buy it from a dealer. Now, is that legal dealer, or illegal? I don't think 
anybody knows."

Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Arizona legalized medicinal marijuana in 
1998; Maine in 1999. Hawaii legalized it this year by an act of its 
legislature. Nevada approved it in 1998, but its state constitution 
requires approval in two consecutive general elections, and it's on the 
ballot again this fall.

Maine's initiative is credited for most clearly addressing distribution 
methods, by calling for recommendations from a state task force, which 
recently endorsed distribution through a controlled, regulated state-run 

Epicenter Of The Battle:

Ground zero for the battle over medicinal marijuana in California is at the 
Co-op Stop on Broadway in Oakland, formerly known as the Oakland Cannabis 
Buyers' Cooperative. It changed names when it was forced to stop dispensing 
marijuana on orders from a federal judge.

Jeff Jones, who runs the co-op, thinks California will help shape the 
future of the medical marijuana movement, possibly through a Supreme Court 
decision or by influencing a change in marijuana's status as a Schedule I 
narcotic, which requires it to be as tightly regulated as heroin.

"There will have to be a control mechanism and an ability to make sure that 
it is regulated in a fashion that is not restrictive, but it is still not 
getting out on the street," Mr. Jones said.

In 1998, the Justice Department charged Mr. Jones' co-op and five others in 
northern California with violating the Controlled Substances Act. The 
California initiative had put those who dispensed marijuana in direct 
conflict with federal drug laws.

Mr. Jones is fighting the federal government with a legal team that 
includes attorney Gerald Uelman, a member of the O.J. Simpson defense. He 
insists his advocacy of medical marijuana is not part of a larger mission: 
"It doesn't change the law in any fashion for people who are using it for 
illicit purposes, or growing it for illicit purposes."

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who issued the order to close Mr. 
Jones' club, ruled against a defense of "medical necessity" - the legal 
doctrine that a law can be broken when it is the only way to prevent a more 
serious harm.

In 1999, in answer to an appeal of Judge Breyer's ruling, the Ninth Circuit 
Court of Appeals ruled a "medical necessity" defense was not precluded by 
federal law. Judge Breyer, according to the appellate court, should have 
considered the needs of patients "who suffer imminent harm" without 
marijuana and had no legal alternative.

The higher court ordered Judge Breyer to reconsider the Oakland case, and 
he reversed his ruling on July 17, finding in favor of the Oakland club and 
the 3,500 members that it claims.

The Justice Department is appealing that decision to the U.S. Ninth Circuit 
Court of Appeals; the U.S. Supreme Court granted an emergency stay of Judge 
Breyer's order on Aug. 29.

Proponents of medical marijuana lean heavily on a 1999 report by the 
National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, which said that 
marijuana's active components are "potentially effective in treating pain, 
nausea, the anorexia of AIDS wasting and other symptoms."

But its opponents point to the same report's contention that the potential 
health dangers associated with chronic marijuana smoking merit further 
study, and the fact that marijuana's active ingredient can be delivered 
through the prescription drug Marinol.

Standard Not Formed:

California lawmakers considered legislation this year for a standard means 
of providing marijuana to the ill. That bill, painstakingly crafted by a 
task force appointed by Mr. Lockyer, was never brought up for a vote by the 
state assembly because of a lack of support.

What happens next?

"That's a good question," said Mr. Barankin, the attorney general's 
spokesman. "Like any legislation, you don't give up and walk away at the 
first sign of failure. There will probably be additional legislative 
efforts to clarify the law."

Mr. Barankin said that one reason medical marijuana has created an 
enforcement and administrative nightmare is that the concept lacked strong 
front-end support from some California law enforcement agencies.

Some California buyers' clubs obtained pot from sick people who were 
permitted to grow it for their own use under the state's new law and had 
excess harvest, Mr. Jones said. But police and prosecutors see such an 
arrangement as ripe for abuse by people with criminal intent, he said.

"We just need to provide more certainty for not only sick people in 
California, but also law enforcement, who, with each passing day, are 
becoming more and more frustrated with the lack of clarity in the law," Mr. 
Jones said.

Examples of the range of medical marijuana's legacy in California:

- - Federal agents charged Los-Angeles area writer-publisher Peter McWilliams 
with manufacturing and distributing marijuana that he cultivated for use in 
his battle with AIDS and AIDS-related cancer. Unable to use the authority 
of the state initiative in a federal case, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy 

- - Emboldened by the federal government's tough stance in the Oakland case, 
Ventura County officials closed down its sole medical marijuana distributor 
in 1998 with a civil lawsuit filed by its district attorney, forcing the 
county's two dozen medical marijuana users to go elsewhere for the drug.

- - San Francisco officials in July created a registry - with the support of 
the district attorney - in which patients can obtain a card for a $25 fee 
that shields them from arrest in that city. San Francisco followed a 
precedent established in Santa Cruz, Arcata and Mendocino County.

Colorado would likely face such divisiveness over the application of its 
law, given that its opponents include the Colorado District Attorney's 
Council, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and Gov. Bill Owens.

Chuck Thomas, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy 
Project, - which advocates in favor of medicinal marijuana - said the 
therapeutic use of marijuana represents an irreversible tide and that most 
opposition comes from "the usual gang of idiots - the police, the prison 
guards, the people who have a vested, financial interest in being able to 
arrest as many people as possible."

"People need to be asked," said Mr. Thomas, "should patients be arrested? 
If the answer is yes, vote against the initiative. But, if the answer is 
no, then there's only one way to keep patients out of prison in the United 
States, and it's for states to pass such initiatives."

Mr. Conaway, who was active in the battle for gay rights as a younger man 
living in San Francisco, is cautious in assessing the future of pot for the 

"Passing this initiative in Colorado does not mean that the fight is over," 
he said. "Having fought for gay rights and things, I know it's a constant 
struggle, and you just take one thing at a time.

"You don't get it all in one step, and even with one victory, it can later 
be lost. It's true for anybody's cause, whether it's human rights or 
anything else. It's one step at a time, and you just don't give up."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake