Pubdate: Tue, 21 Jul 1998
Source: Washington Times 
Author: Thomas D. Elias, Special To The Washington Times


SAN FRANCISCO - The war in California over the legality of medical marijuana
has produced as much confusion this summer as a weed-induced high. The
state's most liberal cities and counties have struggled to find a legal way
to distribute marijuana to medical patients, while federal and state
authorities have fought to close the few remaining cannabis buyers' clubs.

The battle likely will move to both the ballot box and a jury trial this
fall, with pot-supplying cooperatives in three northern California cities
remaining open in defiance of a federal court order to shut down. The co-ops
now face contempt of court charges, and pro-marijuana activists are eager to
see whether any jury will convict their leaders.

Regardless of how the courts or the fall election affect medical marijuana,
cities such as San Francisco and Oakland insist they'll keep trying to put
pot in the hands of AIDS patients, epileptics and others whose conditions
are eased by the narcotic. "It won't be an easy task to find a way to do
this legally," says San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. "But
it's necessary."

Adds the city's mayor, Willie Brown, "We'd be remiss if we didn't do
anything. At least 10,000 people in this city need the marijuana." Mr. Brown
said since the city's only buyers' co-op was closed by court order, the city
attorney and Mr. Hallinan have been crafting an ordinance "to allow for the
greatest security in any court test."

Across the bay, Oakland's city government took action early this month to
allow patients to grow their own pot. The council passed an ordinance
allowing patients acting on a doctor's recommendation to possess 1.5 pounds
of marijuana at a time, and also to grow as many as 144 plants at once, with
48 of them in the flowering phase, when potency is highest.

Even pro-medical marijuana activists say that is about three times more than
any patient should need, and it is three times the standard that California
Attorney General Dan Lungren set last year for legal possession by a
patient. Possessing marijuana for medical reasons on a doctor's
recommendation has been legal in California since 1996, when voters passed
Proposition 215 by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin.

But federal law still forbids the sale and use of pot, and Mr. Lungren and
California Gov. Pete Wilson have fought efforts to set up government-run
distribution networks.

They argue it would open a back door to total legalization of the narcotic.
Mr. Lungren is the Republican candidate for governor and his former top
deputy, David Stirling, is the GOP candidate to succeed him as attorney general.

"We're now left in legal never-never land," says Scott Imler, co-author of
Proposition 215 and director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyers' Club, one
of three surviving clubs not covered by the May shutdown order. "I'm now
very disappointed we did not include distribution in the proposition.

That was a political decision, to keep clubs from becoming a campaign
issue." Mr. Imler believes the fall election will decide the fate of medical
marijuana in California, and possibly in the nation, because other states
often follow California's lead in passing ballot initiatives.

"Electing Lungren and Stirling would mean four more years of chaos, because
they are adamant about not allowing distribution of medical marijuana," Mr.
Imler said. "If they're elected, the only solution would be for the federal
government to declare this a prescription drug -- and they haven't shown any
great eagerness to do that."

State Sen. John Vasconcellos, a Democrat who has fought for years to
legalize medical use of the weed, agreed. "We're going to present Wilson
with a bill this fall to set up legal forms of distribution with solid
checks about medical necessity," he said. "But we have no illusions that he
will sign it. He vetoed two medical marijuana bills before Proposition 215
passed and he wants to run for president.

He'll veto this one, too, no matter how many safeguards we put in it."
Meanwhile, six clubs still distribute marijuana to California patients, with
all but Mr. Imler's group operating in northern California cities.

Pro-medical marijuana elected officials such as Mr. Hallinan also see two
possible positive signs in the U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer's order to
close clubs. His decision, which said federal law takes precedent over state
laws on the subject, did not preclude the use of a medical necessity defense
in the upcoming jury trial.

Judge Breyer also left open the possibility that federal courts might not
stop distribution of pot to chronically ill patients who are too weak to
grow their own. 

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Checked-by: Melodi Cornett