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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
They huff and puff in Calif. fight over medical marijuana

By Lynda Gorov, Globe Staff, 07/20/98

AKLAND, Calif. - In the back room of an otherwise bland downtown building here, a dozen or so men and women lined up the other day to buy baked goods laced with marijuana.

The selection included ''Rice Crispy treats'' and chocolate chip cookies. The sweets came in peanut butter flavor, too.

For those who prefer to smoke their supply, an even wider assortment was available in plastic bags with labels like ''Indoor Special'' and ''Fruit Loops.'' Cannabis in pill form was also on sale.

The transactions were perfectly legal, according to the people who run the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative and the people with cancer, AIDS, and chronic pain who shop there. They say Californians gave them that right in November 1996 when they voted to become the only state in the nation to allow medical patients to use marijuana with a doctor's approval.

But both buyers and sellers are edgy these days, worried that the federal or state government will keep patients from the one drug that they say prevents muscle spasms, eases their agony, and helps them keep down food - and does so without negative side effects.

In test cases that are being monitored by marijuana advocates from Maine to Alaska, the Oakland cooperative and a handful of others are operating in violation of a federal court injunction. Their defiance can be detected in the air: Although smoking is forbidden in the back room known as the Bud Bar, the sticky-sweet smell of marijuana was so strong it clung to clothing and hair.

''It is my medicine and it allowed me to kick every other pharmaceutical unless I'm in serious, serious pain,'' said Ken Estes, 40, who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident 22 years ago. He now grows marijuana for the Oakland cooperative and teaches customers how to cultivate it in their closets. ''I've sat in my wheelchair behind bars because of it. Well, they can put me in jail again. I'm not going to quit.''

The outcome of the California drug war could set a precedent, and advocates fear a decision against them would discourage other states from pursuing similar policies. The issue is on Oregon's November ballot, and is likely to be voted on in Colorado and Washington state. Signature drives in Maine, Alaska, and Nevada have yet to succeed, but the effort to legalize medical marijuana there continues.

''Government opposition to medical marijuana, especially at the federal level, is voracious,'' said Dave Fratello, a spokesman for the Santa Monica-based Americans for Medical Rights, which pushed the voter referendum formally known as Proposition 215.

The federal government says the sale or distribution of marijuana is illegal under any circumstance. The Justice Department wants US District Judge Charles Breyer to allow US marshals to padlock six northern California clubs, which were caught selling marijuana to patients without the requisite doctor's approval, and hold them in contempt.

The state also opposes the clubs, which serve thousands of people, saying that Proposition 215 permits only patients or their primary caregivers to possess or cultivate marijuana.

So far, state Attorney General Dan Lungren has succeeded in putting the largest club - the Cannabis Healing Center in San Francisco, with about 8,000 members - out of business, at least temporarily. Police in other cities have closed clubs too, after accusing them of selling marijuana to nonpatients.

''It's not something we're against,'' said John Carrillo, an officer with the San Jose Police Department, which shuttered a club and arrested its operator. ''We're just making sure everyone is in compliance with the law.''

Just the fear of arrest, however, is forcing clubs underground as in the days before Proposition 215, making an accurate count of their number difficult. Advocates estimate, however, that the number of larger cannabis clubs has plummeted in the past year, from a peak of 28 to fewer than a dozen. Stephen Shefler, a first assistant US attorney in San Francisco, said his agency is considering what action, if any, to take against the clubs not named in the federal lawsuit.

''Originally we opposed Prop. 215; now we're calling for a rational approach,'' said Matt Ross, Lungren's spokesman. ''A doctor can recommend it, a patient can use and grow it based on that recommendation, and should the patient not be able to do so, a primary caregiver can provide it - the key word being primary caregiver.''

The clubs counter that, by being part of cooperatives, members are pooling resources to acquire marijuana as inexpensively and efficiently as possible. Jeff W. Jones, the Oakland cooperative's executive director, said a quarter-ounce of marijuana can cost patients $40 to $110, depending on quality. That cost includes just enough to cover the cooperative's overhead and the cost of the plants. That's slightly below street value for 10 joints.

''Public opinion is way ahead of the politicians,'' Jones said. ''It started as a movement with the people and now it's accepted by some local governments. The next step is the state and then we'll get the feds.''

In the meantime, club operators say they want their day in court. Saying that voters already approved medical marijuana once, they believe a jury is certain to see the need for their distribution networks. But the federal case will be heard only by Breyer, who has indicated in previous rulings that he is likely to side with the government.

At the state level, Senator John Vasconcellos, whose May summit on medical marijuana brought together advocates and opponents, is pushing a bill that would authorize local governments to create their own medical marijuana distribution systems. That bill recently failed in committee but may come up again. Lungren and other elected officials have endorsed a project at the University of California to research the efficacy of medical marijuana, whose palliative effects are promoted by many patients and doctors.

Even the federal government supplies marijuana to some patients under the so-called Compassionate Investigative New Drug program. But the Bush administration closed that program to newcomers in 1992 - advocates say it was because too many AIDS patients were applying - and today it serves only eight people, most of whom have glaucoma.

''People with AIDS and cancer need it now; we can't wait until the research is concluded to fix this awful distribution system that has grown up on an ad hoc basis,'' said Rand Martin, Vasconcellos' chief of staff. ''The irony is that while President Clinton and his people are pushing to close our clubs down, the movement is spreading nationally. People want this.''

Yet even some cannabis club operators say that their operations are no panacea. They want medical marijuana to be reclassified as a prescription drug that can be grown legally and sold in pharmacies.

As Scott Imler, who heads the as yet untargeted Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood, put it: ''The minute the clubs aren't necessary anymore, I'll be the first one to close. Who needs this stress?... I worry every day that we'll be shut down.''

The same threat hangs over the Oakland cooperative, open since July 1996 and serving 1,350 patients, ages 18 to 85. Now a guard checks membership cards, and doctors' recommendations must be updated yearly. To be extra cautious, the club will not provide referrals to doctors known to support marijuana use; members must find their own physicians. The precautions, Jones says, helped the club spot an undercover officer who was attempting to buy drugs - an unmasking captured on videotape.

The Bud Bar where marijuana is stored and cuttings are sold is off-limits to minors and monitored by another guard. On a recent day, in the course of an hour a dozen or more patients came and went, many shockingly thin, none giddy from a drug high. Marijuana, they said, offers relief rather than euphoria.

''My legs used to jump all over the place,'' said Yvonne Westbrook, 45, who has multiple sclerosis. ''The doctor prescribed valium, but I couldn't function. With a few puffs of marijuana, I'm just fine. My doctor understands this.''

The city council in Oakland, where Jerry Brown is the mayor-elect, has indicated it understands, too. Recently it voted to allow patients to store 1.5 pounds of marijuana - a three-month supply far larger than the state allows. The new policy also instructs Oakland officers to treat medical-marijuana growers as a low priority for enforcement and gives individuals two days to provide proof that their marijuana is for medical use.

''We want to conserve cop time and, at the same time, we don't want to harass cancer and AIDS patients,'' said Mike Nisperos, public safety liaison for the Oakland city manager. ''If this makes you stop retching, if it makes you feel less sick, we're saying go ahead. You're not hurting anybody.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/20/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

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