Pubdate: Sun, 25 Mar 2007
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2007 The Orange County Register
Author: Alan Bock, Sr. editorial writer, The Orange County Register
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


California voters in 1996 passed Proposition 215, which exempted bona 
fide patients with a recommendation from a licensed physician from 
certain aspects of state prohibition against the possession, use or 
transportation of marijuana, or cannabis. More than 10 years later, 
however, implementation of the law is spotty and still controversial.

Several recent developments, however, have put the issue in the news: 
Comedian Drew Carey is stepping up as a Hollywood spokesperson; the 
Orange County Board of Supervisors is weighing medical marijuana ID 
cards, and one of the most famous cases has come to an unhappy and 
unfavorable, in my view, conclusion. There have been a number of 
promising studies and decisions, too.

Taken together, these events and others signal progress for those 
patients who might benefit from using marijuana. But, it's 
excruciatingly slow, considering the California law was passed more 
than 10 years ago and that one cause of the foot-dragging over 
implementation -- that California law conflicts with federal law -- 
has not been brought to court successfully. Public opinion still 
leans strongly in favor of allowing the medicinal use of marijuana, 
but most public officials are still more wary than seems justified.

So, the small steps continue:

*Carey, in conjunction with the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, 
is planning a series of short documentaries, to be distributed 
initially via the Internet, on freedom-related issues.

The first film will be centered on medical marijuana.

I spent Tuesday, March 13, at the Farmacy, a medical cannabis 
dispensary in West Hollywood, where Carey and his crew filmed the 
facility and did interviews with patients, doctors, caregivers and 
others (I was interviewed as author of the book, "Waiting to Inhale: 
The Politics of Medical Marijuana"). The final cut is expected to be 
available in mid-April. The Farmacy was one of 11 medical marijuana 
dispensaries in Los Angeles County raided in January by Drug 
Enforcement Administration agents.

*Orange County's Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold hearings, 
probably on April 17, on setting up a system in which the health 
department will issue identification cards to qualified patients, as 
mandated by Senate Bill 420, the state law that set up a system of 
voluntary ID cards and directed county health departments to set up 
procedures to screen and approve applicants.

*The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently declined to give 
Angel Raich, whose doctors say the use of cannabis is the difference 
between living and dying, protection from federal prosecution for 
medicinal use of marijuana. She may be so prominent that the feds 
will not come after her, but despite prior DEA promises that it would 
not target patients, it has raided or prosecuted several patients.

*In February a new study at UC San Francisco demonstrating the 
efficacy of cannabis in treating neuropathic pain was published in 
the professional journal Neurology. This was the first study 
conducted in the U.S. in 20 years on the medical efficacy of cannabis 
(due to federal restrictions), but a number of studies in other 
countries have solidified marijuana's medical efficacy, including a 
study in Spain that demonstrated that cannabis stops the growth of 
certain kinds of cancerous tumors.

*Also in February, DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner 
ruled in favor of University of Massachusetts-Amherst researcher Lyle 
Craker, who had sought a DEA license to grow his own research-grade 
cannabis rather than relying on the stuff grown at the federal 
government's marijuana plantation in Mississippi, which has up to now 
been the only legal source of cannabis for research purposes.

The DEA controls the only legal source, and it has decided not to 
supply cannabis for any research except the aforementioned UC San 
Francisco study. Judge Bittner's decision could set the stage for a 
flurry of medical cannabis research projects, but the DEA 
administrator will have the final say.

*New Mexico is on the verge of becoming the 12th state to approve 
doctor-recommended medical marijuana. Gov. Bill Richardson, a 
declared candidate for the presidency as a Democrat, was instrumental 
in shepherding the bill through the Legislature when it hit a few 
snags, because, as he put it, "it was the right thing to do."


People have said for a long time that Drew Carey's comedy has a 
libertarian tinge. Recently, with his professional success 
established, he decided to do more reading and find out if it was 
true. He decided he really does lean libertarian, so he might as well 
use his fame to help push the country a bit more in the direction of 
personal freedom.

Because Carey interviewed so many people at the Farmacy, a storefront 
on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, I was able to see a 
number of activists I hadn't talked to in some time and get updated 
on many facets of the ongoing struggle to make cannabis available to 
patients whose doctors believe they can benefit from using it.

Although the feds raided the Farmacy in January and confiscated its 
cannabis, they did not seize the organization's computers, which 
leads Joanna LaForce, one of the proprietors, to believe they are not 
developing a case for prosecution. She told me that their lawyers now 
believe, after discussing the matter with representatives from the 
DEA, that federal prosecution is unlikely, although some of the 10 
other dispensaries raided the same day could face prosecution.

I'd like to debunk what might be some preconceived notions about 
these dispensaries. The reception area at the front of the Farmacy is 
divided from the rest of the facility. Receptionists greet those who 
come in and check their membership cards. If they are approved, they 
may step past a security guard into the room where cannabis and other 
herbs -- the Farmacy's proprietors are into all kinds of herbal 
medicine and insist that everything they dispense is strictly organic 
- -- are available. Shown in glass cookie jars are more than a dozen 
varieties of cannabis.

It's not cheap. Most of the cannabis buds go for $45 for an eighth of 
an ounce, and a few are $75 for an eighth.

As I was leaving I quizzed one of the receptionists about how they 
treat a new patient with a recommendation from a physician. Before 
they even are allowed into the center room, she said, the doctor who 
wrote the recommendation is called to verify that it is valid. Then 
they check to make sure the physician is properly licensed.


SB420 is the bill passed by the Legislature that sets up a voluntary 
state identification card program, run by the Department of Health 
Services. It mandates counties and cities to develop procedures to 
screen patients, check the validity of the recommendations, take a 
photo, then send the information to Sacramento for issuance of the cards.

Unfortunately, the bill did not include a deadline for counties to 
comply with this mandate, and several larger counties, including San 
Diego and Orange, have not yet complied. Los Angeles County 
supervisors have approved a program but it is not expected to go into 
effect until June. However, 31 of California's 58 counties have 
approved a program, although not all of them are up and running yet, 
according to Aaron Smith of Safe Access Now, who is traveling the 
state, talking to officials, under a grant from the Marijuana Policy 
Project in Washington, D.C.

The Orange County board, pushed in some degree by local attorney Bill 
Paoli, who has some cannabis patients as clients, and led by Chairman 
Chris Norby, who leans libertarian much of the time, decided it was 
time to proceed, even though SB420 does not have a firm deadline. Los 
Angeles County has already acted and there are both medical cannabis 
patients and cannabis dispensaries in Orange County. The topic was 
originally on the agenda for last week, but the board decided to wait 
until the vacant 1st District seat is filled. The other supervisors 
say they are still studying the issue.

The organization that has perhaps done the most to push compliance 
with California's medical marijuana law is Americans for Safe Access, 
headquartered in Oakland. ASA lobbied to get SB420 passed, then 
negotiated with the state when officials wanted to raise the state's 
portion of the fee from $13 to $142. The fee has now been set at $66 
(counties can charge an additional fee to cover their costs). ASA has 
worked with cities and counties and has several model laws available 
both for setting up the ID card system and for regulations governing 
dispensaries -- a separate issue.

Many local officials are still reluctant about issuing ID cards, 
aware that marijuana is still strictly prohibited under federal law. 
Some officials wonder whether they could be liable for federal 
prosecution if they are seen as facilitating the distribution of 
marijuana, even though medical use is permitted by state law. Others 
wonder whether, as some news reports have suggested, U.S. Supreme 
Court decisions that have affirmed that marijuana is still prohibited 
at the federal level, mean that federal law overrides state law.

As to the first concern, Oregon has had a state ID card system in 
place for several years, and no Oregon official has been prosecuted 
or threatened with prosecution.

As to the second, the duty of state, county and city officials is to 
enforce state law, not federal law. The California constitution is 
quite explicit, in Article III, Section 3.5: "An administrative 
agency . has no power ... to declare a statute unenforceable, or 
refuse to enforce a statute on the basis that federal law or federal 
regulations prohibit the enforcement of such statute unless an 
appellate court has made a determination that the enforcement of such 
statute is prohibited by federal law or federal regulations."


When I attended oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 on 
the Oakland Cannabis Cooperative case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg 
asked the government's lawyer why the federal government was not 
asserting federal supremacy -- the doctrine that federal law 
overrides and can invalidate state law -- on this issue. The 
government lawyer replied that this was simply one of many instances 
in our federal system in which state law differs from federal law.

Neither the federal government nor anybody else challenged Prop. 215 
when it was passed. Last year San Diego County filed a challenge to 
the state's medical marijuana law on the grounds that it conflicted 
with federal law. But in December a federal judge dismissed the suit 
on the grounds that its chances of success were minimal.

The evidence that cannabis is an effective therapeutic agent for 
conditions ranging from nausea to appetite loss (AIDS wasting 
syndrome) to multiple sclerosis to chronic pain has been affirmed 
many times, most recently by the 1999 federal Institute of Medicine 
report. California voters agreed 10 years ago that if morphine and 
cocaine can be used medicinally, marijuana also should be available. 
Every national poll shows that 70 percent to 80 percent of Americans agree.

It's high time the voters' will -- and common sense -- was fully 
implemented in California.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom