Pubdate: Sun, 22 Apr 2001
Source: Ventura County Star (CA)
Copyright: 2001, Ventura County Star
Note: Peter Schrag writes for the Sacramento Bee.
Also: This OPED appeared in several California papers, and


Drugs: Nation Is Watching Closely As State Deals With Effects Of Two 

It's more than likely that come June, the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold 
federal attempts to shut down the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative and 
similar groups distributing marijuana. Medical use of the drug was 
legalized by Proposition 215, the initiative that California voters 
approved in 1996.

But however the court rules, voter-enacted medical marijuana laws in 
Arizona, Maine, Colorado, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada 
- -- plus one passed last year by the Hawaii Legislature -- will remain on 
the books. One of every five Americans now lives in a place where state law 
allows the medical use of pot.

More important, the broader campaign to reform the nation's drug laws -- a 
campaign that's rolled up one victory after another in the states -- is 
almost certain to go on. And because the reformers feel they've made their 
point with medical marijuana initiatives, the focus is likely to shift to 
broader and more controversial issues.

Late last month, as the high court was hearing arguments in the OCBC case, 
Bill Zimmerman, who's been running the campaign, was looking at Florida, 
Ohio and Michigan as possible new opportunities in the drive to reform laws 
covering possession of all illicit drugs.

The states have been the battleground, but federal drug policy is the real 
target. The state initiative process merely gives the reformers their 
leverage. And on this issue the voters, at least in the West, have been far 
more restive with the nation's drug policies than the politicians they send 
to Congress.

In the past five years, with funding from billionaire financier George 
Soros and a few other deep pockets, the resulting gap has given Zimmerman 
14 victories in 15 attempts, making him one of the most successful 
political operatives in this country.

Among those victories: the overwhelming vote last November for Proposition 
36, the California initiative designed to sentence those convicted on 
simple drug possession charges to treatment instead of prison; the medical 
marijuana laws; reform of asset forfeiture laws in Utah and Oregon; laws 
legalizing needle exchanges or legalizing the sale of needles in pharmacies.

So far, Washington has been slow to respond. Although the drug reformers 
handily won most of their campaigns, the federal government has resisted 
vigorously. In fall 1998, as a medical marijuana initiative was heading for 
a vote in the District of Columbia, Congress voted to prohibit the district 
from even counting the vote. Ten months later, when a federal court 
overturned that prohibition, the count showed that the measure had passed 
69 percent to 31 percent. Despite such votes, Attorney General John 
Ashcroft vows to step up the drug war.

The Oakland case arose from the federal government's attempt to shut the 
club down. Given the likelihood that juries would acquit AIDS or glaucoma 
or cancer patients smoking marijuana to control nausea or other symptoms, 
the government's most logical strategy was to stop distribution.

Yet as Zimmerman points out, even if the high court lets the government 
shut down OCBC, it may not discourage the medical use of marijuana so much 
as it fosters other efforts, as in Oregon, to have the state certify users 
and create a decentralized supply system that makes any federal crackdown 
nearly impossible. Under Oregon law, anyone may grow up to seven marijuana 
plants for a state-certified user. Nevada, where voters last November 
approved a medical marijuana initiative with a 65 percent majority, is now 
setting up a similar system. Other states may follow.

In the meantime, California is rushing to implement Proposition 36, which 
goes into effect July 1. That means vastly expanding treatment facilities, 
finding the people to run them and making certain, through testing and 
other means, that users successfully complete their treatment. But in some 
counties there's still a lot of arm wrestling between probation and health 
authorities over who gets the lion's share of the $120 million a year that 
Proposition 36 provides for the addicts sentenced to treatment.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows 
that 74 percent of Americans believe that the drug war is a losing cause. 
And while most are not ready to decriminalize drugs, a large majority 
support policies allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for their 
patients. And in states such as California, sizable majorities are ready to 
send most hard drug addicts to treatment rather than prison.

But those attitudes could easily change if the reform laws don't work in 
the states where they've been enacted. Here again, California is likely to 
become the bellwether state. The reformers think it can be done, but the 
big tests still lie ahead.

Peter Schrag writes for the Sacramento Bee.
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