Pubdate: Mon, 03 Feb 1997 Source: Legal Times (DC) Copyright: 2001 NLP IP Company Contact: http://www.legaltimes.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/759 Author: Mike McKee Note: McKee is associate editor of The Recorder in San Francisco, an affiliate of Legal Times; This article was distributed by the American Lawyer Media News Service LIFE WITH AIDS AND MEDICAL MARIJUANA A Drug Prosecutor's Pot Conversion When two doctors told Keith Vines three years ago that he should consider smoking marijuana for his health, the 46-year-old San Francisco assistant district attorney was thrown into a quandary. He had always been a strong advocate of the nation's anti-drug policies. And as a self-styled "foot soldier" in the war on drugs, he had prosecuted one of the biggest pot busts in San Francisco history, sending a man to prison in 1993 for possessing more than 400 pounds of marijuana. Yet Vines was faced with a potentially life-and-death decision. AIDS-related wasting syndrome had lopped 45 pounds off his 195-pound frame, and doctors thought pot might revive his long-lost appetite. To him, it simply came down to a choice between smoking or dying. "When you're in a situation like I am, and you're desperate, and you're watching your body evaporate and disappear around you," he says, his voice trailing off. "I mean, I started seeing my ribs and my chest (bones). It was very scary. I was losing the battle." Vines has no doubt that he's alive today only because he followed his doctor's advice, and he's glad they had the nerve to tell him--a narcotics prosecutor--to use marijuana. Last month he repaid them, in a way. Vines joined a group of doctors and patients in a San Francisco lawsuit that accuses the U.S. government of violating free speech rights by threatening to prosecute or suspend the prescription powers of doctors who recommend pot. The government's fighting words were provoked when California voters in November approved Proposition 215, which permits doctors to recommend marijuana to patients. The Clinton administration promptly announced it would send letters to every physician in California--as well as Arizona, which approved a similar initiative--warning that marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law and threatening to take action against any doctor who recommends or prescribes it. An outcry did prompt the officials to back down somewhat, educing them to simply stressing that they are not convinced pot can be therapeutic. Vines insists that if doctors are muzzled about marijuana or any other substance, patients will suffer. "In my case," he says, it was clear that nothing else was working." The Perfect Plaintiff Vines is the perfect plaintiff for Conant v. McCaffrey. A former Air Force captain with the Judge Advocate General Corps, he's led the kind of life that shreds the derelict pothead image of Prop 215 backers that drug czar McCaffrey--a former general himself--has tried to project. San Francisco D.A. Terence Hallinan, who approved Vines' participation in the case, calls Vines a "straight-arrow guy" who at one time was known in the office as the "king of DUI prosecutors." Vines, who is gay, no longer prosecutes drug cases, to avoid any conflict over his role in Conant, but he was on the D.A.'s federally funded Drug Strike Force for two years. He now heads the office's psychiatric unit, handling conservatorships and competency hearings, among other things. "General McCaffrey must have a lot of chagrin when he hears a former military officer and foot soldier in the war on drugs--basically someone with McCaffrey's own resume--make a compelling case for the use of marijuana," plaintiffs lawyer Graham Boyd says. If so, McCaffrey isn't saying. His spokespeople in the Office of National Drug Control Policy refuse to comment on the case. So does defense counsel Kathleen Moriarty Mueller, a Justice Department lawyer who will represent McCaffrey and the other defendants--Attorney General Janet Reno, Drug Enforcement Administration chief Thomas Constantine and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. In Conant, Vines joins a distinguished troop of plaintiffs that includes Marcus Conant, one of the best-known AIDS doctors in the country; Stephen Follansbee, chief of staff at Davies Medical Center; Milton Estes, medical director of San Francisco's Forensic AIDS Project; and former Police Commissioner Jo Daly, who uses marijuana to combat cancer. It's essentially a dream team of plaintiffs. "[Federal officials have] tried to portray patients who use medical marijuana as criminal outcasts from society," says Boyd, an associate at San Francisco's Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Berzon & Rubin. "We want to demonstrate that extremely respected and responsible people rely on marijuana as a legitimate medicine necessary to survive serious illnesses like AIDS or cancer." Being out front on such a sensitive issue isn't particularly to Vines' liking. It goes against his nature to be fighting for a cause publicly, and he's still getting used to the idea of using a substance banned by the federal government. "It's an awkward situation," he says. Vines started toking only after considering several factors--his rapidly failing health, his doctors' advice, San Francisco's tacit approval of marijuana buyers' clubs and the Board of Supervisors on-record backing of medicinal marijuana. "I weighed all of that and looked at the big picture, that it wasn't something I was going to abuse," Vines says. "I discussed it with friends in the D.A.'s office and they were supportive. My reasons were not recreational. It was to save my life." But he still would not have joined Conant without the OK of his boss. And Hallinan gave it happily. "He has AIDS, and he has been helped by [marijuana]. He's clearly within the definition Of 215, and I thought some of the statements made by General McCaffrey were out of line," Hallinan says. "I did not think it was inappropriate that [Vines] send a message that the medicinal use of marijuana has been accepted in the state of California." Both Hallinan and Vines say they know of no one who objects to Vines' role as a prosecutor challenging government policy. Vines has handled some prominent cases during his 12 years in the D.A.'s office. He successfully prosecuted a Castro District gay-bashing case that led to a 1995 California Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the state's hate crimes statutes. He also handled what at the time was one of the city's biggest drug busts. The case involved the March 1992 confiscation of 400 pounds of marijuana and S1.3 million in cash from the Turk Street residence of Soloman Mohamed and Paula Polite. Polite got three years' probation and Mohamed was sent to State prison for four years. Each was ordered to pay $12,500 in restitution. In recent years, Vines has pulled out the nerve-wracking world of criminal prosecutions because of AIDS-related health problems. His robust appearance is deceiving, he says. "I might look good, but I don't have the same capacities [as before]," he explains. Vines was one of the first people in San Francisco to use growth hormone to help bolster his weight and he has begun taking the new AIDS wonder drugs, protease inhibitors, in the last year. Both help immensely, but he says he still finds it necessary to smoke pot to stomach food. "A lot of it is forced eating habits, because I know I don't want to get back to where I was before," he says. Vines says he tried Marinol, the government-approved prescription drug that contains THC, the essential element found in marijuana. But he says it was unpredictable and caused an uncomfortably long-lasting "buzz" that does not occur with just a few puffs of marijuana. He won't say how much he uses per week, but says he does not toke during work hours. Vines, whose partner Michael died of AIDS in 1990, says his participation in Conant is one way he can make a difference. He took his first step in that direction on Dec. 1, when he spoke at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church on World AIDS Day about being gay with AIDS. It was a special moment, he says, because members of his family were in the audience, including his 17-year-old son, who lives in Alabama. Vines admits to being a bit hesitant to step out of his "quiet little corner of the world," but he figures that fighting for doctors' rights to provide their best advice to patients is a worthy cause. "If General McCaffrey and those other people in Washington would look beyond the ideological and political issue, and look at the individuals, they might understand," Vines says. "I would love to have some of those people step into my shoes...and see what they would do."