Marijuana Clubs in San Francisco Unfazed by High Court's Ruling

June 06, 2005

Karen Gullo, Bloomberg.com

Mike Barnes put his mouth on the end of a plastic bag full of marijuana vapors and inhaled deeply. It's a ritual he practices every day to combat chronic back pain from an Army injury.

``I'm always in pain,'' said the 35-year-old Californian, one of several medical marijuana users who stopped by the Compassion and Care Center, a San Francisco pot club, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that patients such as Barnes are violating federal drug laws.

``My health is more important than someone telling me it's not good for me, that someone being the federal government,'' Barnes said.

Federal law enforcement officials in San Francisco said they don't intend to crack down on medical pot users, who under California state law are allowed to buy and smoke marijuana with a doctor's permission. About 40 marijuana clubs in the city, which operate without interference from local police, are likely to continue in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that federal drug laws ban use of medical pot.

``We respect the state law,'' said Javier Pena, special agency in charge at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. ``I can't tell you we are going to shut down all those clubs tomorrow. Our efforts will remain targeted at the trafficking organizations. We've never targeted the user, the sick people, the dying people.''

The DEA in San Francisco has shut down two of the city's pot clubs and arrested two people in connection with club operations in the last two years, said Casey McEnry, an agency spokeswoman.

San Francisco Police spokesman Neville Gittens declined to comment on the Supreme Court ruling and referred questions about policing pot clubs to the San Francisco City Attorney's office.

Alameda County Proposal

``I am disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision today,'' said City Attorney Dennis Herrera. ``My office remains committed to working with our clients throughout city government to determine if and to what extent there is any room left for local regulation to facilitate the compassionate use of medical marijuana in accordance with the law approved by California voters.''

Across the bay from San Francisco, Alameda County supervisors are scheduled to consider a proposal today to license marijuana clubs to protect them from prosecution.

California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by two California women seeking to stop the federal government from enforcing the Controlled Substance Act against medical marijuana patients. Twelve U.S. states have decriminalized marijuana, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Few Prosecutions

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said the U.S. has always been able to prosecute medical marijuana users for violating federal drug laws and has rarely done so.

``This doesn't represent a big change for the potential for federal enforcement,'' Lockyer said in a telephone interview. ``Our medical marijuana users were always exposed to the possibility of federal prosecution; there haven't been that many.''

Angel Raich, a 39-year-old mother of two from Oakland, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said she doesn't intend to stop using marijuana. Quitting would be a death sentence because pot is the only thing that works against a life-threatening wasting syndrome that robs her of her appetite, said Raich, who has an inoperable brain tumor.

``I don't have a choice but to continue using cannabis,'' she said yesterday on a conference call with reporters.

`Train Wreck' and `White Widow'

At the nonprofit Compassion and Care Center, patients can relax on couches or sit at café tables as they munch on free fruit and other food. To visit the center, located in a storefront building about four blocks from San Francisco City Hall, patients are required to show city-issued medical marijuana identification card and a driver's license before being buzzed in.

Twelve types of marijuana were on sale Monday, ranging in price from $15 for one gram of ``Train Wreck'' to $350 for an ounce of ``White Widow.'' The club gets much of its marijuana from patients who grow it, says Arrow Christopher, who works behind the counter and dispenses pot from plastic jugs to about 100 patients a day. He said the police had never been to the center since he began working there a year ago.

A couple of users gathered yesterday around a vaporizer that blows hot air through a filter filled with marijuana into a long plastic bag. Inhaling air from the bag is easier and safer than inhaling the smoke of a marijuana cigarette, said Jane Weirick, 45, president of the Medical Cannabis Association.

``The Supreme Court ruling doesn't affect local patients,'' said Weirick, who smokes pot to control the symptoms of a neurological disease.



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