Pubdate: 12-18 Nov 1999
Source: Philadelphia Gay News (PA)
Copyright: 1999 Timothy Cwiek
Contact:  505 South 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147-1506
Fax: (215) 925-6437
Website: http://www.epgn.com/
Author: Timothy Cwiek
Related: The Class Action Suit: http://www.fairlaw.org/

MEDICAL MARIJUANA LAWSUIT FACES ANOTHER CHALLEGE

Advocates of medical marijuana hope a federal class-action lawsuit will
survive another attempt by the federal government to have it dismissed.

The lawsuit, filed in July 1997 in Philadelphia, seeks the legalization of
medical marijuana. It was filed by 170 co-plaintiffs who maintain they
represent about 97 million people nationwide who could potentially benefit
from medical marijuana.

Smoking marijuana is prohibited by federal law. Participants face hefty
fines and lengthy prison sentences, according to court documents.

But supporters say medical marijuana would benefit many people suffering
from a wide range of illnesses, including AIDS, glaucoma and premenstrual
syndrome.

In March, U.S. District Judge Marvin Katz dismissed many of the plaintiffs'
claims. But Katz kept alive the plaintiffs' claim that they are
"arbitrarily and irrationally" being denied access to marijuana through a
compassionate-use program.

Currently, seven people nationwide can participate in the program,
according to court documents.

It is this remaining claim by the plaintiffs that the U.S. Justice
Department is asking Katz to dismiss, according to court documents.

The government claims there is no proof that marijuana is beneficial, and
contends that authorities rightfully stopped accepting new participants
into the program in 1992, according to court documents.

Katz will not rule on the Justice Department's request to dismiss the
remaining claim until after Nov. 15, according to court documents.

Lawrence Elliott Hirsch, plaintiffs' attorney, is confident that Katz will
not dismiss the remaining claim, he said.

"It [ban against marijuana] is killing people every day," he said. "It
forces people to be criminals to save their lives. But government officials
are the real criminals -- not my clients. They should be put in jail. Their
[marijuana] policy is hateful, mean-spirited and discriminatory."

But Gretchen Michaels, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, said
the department has no intention of relaxing its enforcement of the ban on
marijuana.

She said the U.S. Controlled Substances Act of 1984 prohibits the use of
smoked marijuana for medical and/or recreational purposes.

"The laws are what the laws are. If people want the laws changed, there has
to be a sound basis in science," she told PGN this week. "We haven't
changed our position [on medical marijuana]. Users could be prosecuted."

Hirsch said a strong movement is underway to legalize medical marijuana.

He wants a non-jury trial to occur, with Katz presiding, early next year.
He said the trial would last about 18 months.

Hirsch plans to call about 200 witnesses to support the plaintiffs' case,
he said.

"At the end of the trial, we want Judge Katz to issue an order that
fashions relief for people, so they can have access to medical marijuana,"
Hirsch said. "We also want the government to provide the marijuana, for free."

Hirsch also wants immunity from prosecution for his clients, before they
testify, or submit documents that may incriminate them. "The immunity
should be granted, either by court order, or voluntarily by the
government," he said.

Hirsch said the plaintiffs also are seeking in excess of $75,000 in
sanctions against the Justice Department for allegedly burdening plaintiffs
with improper court filings.

Michaels, of the Justice Department, had no comment on that allegation.

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, executive director of Critical Path AIDS Project, is the
lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

In a recent court document, Kuromiya, who has AIDS, stated: "Without
marijuana, I will waste away and perish. If I use marijuana for my health,
I am violating federal criminal laws and I risk certain death in prison." 
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