Local Medical Pot Users Disheartened By Decision

June 06, 2005

Brian Seals, Santa Cruz Sentinel

For a little more than a year, members of the Santa Cruz-based Wo/men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana have run what is, in effect, the only legal medical pot farm in the country. The garden's safe status is now in peril after Monday's U.S.  Supreme Court ruling that medical marijuana users can be prosecuted by the federal government.

The 6-3 decision reverses a 9th Circuit U.S.  Court of Appeals decision in 2003 that allowed for medical marijuana use so long as no money changed hands and the marijuana crossed no state lines.  California and nine other states have versions of a law that allow people to grow, smoke or obtain marijuana for medical needs with a doctor's recommendation.

Predictably, the mood at WAMM's Westside office Monday ranged from sorrowful to angry.

'My feeling is rage,' said Hal Margolin, 73, as he pounded an office desk with his fist.  'This is my government, and my government is telling me that what I do to help myself is illegal.'

A spokesman for the federal drug czar hailed the ruling, calling medical marijuana a 'Trojan horse for drug legalization.'

Area medical marijuana advocates had been anxiously awaiting the ruling, as it is closely linked with pending suits brought by WAMM against the federal government.

The group won an injunction in April 2004 that prohibited federal raids on its Davenport garden, as happened in September 2002, until the case that was decided Monday was finally adjudicated.

Nonetheless, members of the cooperative vowed to continue their work.

'We'll just keep going,' WAMM co-founder Valerie Corral said.  'We'll just be continuing the work we've been doing and hope the judiciary and Congress catches up with us.'

Most medical marijuana patients, at least those who can grow their own, need not worry, said WAMM attorney Ben Rice, but clubs and cooperatives run the risk of being shut down.  And that, he said, is harmful to those who are very sick.

'Nobody thinks individual patients are gong to be targeted,' Rice said.  'The crime here is that the most sick among us are going to be most affected because they can't go out and get it or grow it themselves.'

WAMM serves about 160 members whose ailments range from epilepsy to cancer to AIDS.  They say marijuana -- smoked or eaten -- offers them relief in ways pharmaceuticals do not.

'I can't replace it with pain medications because I am allergic to the pain medications,' said Jeremy Griffey, who smokes and eats marijuana to cope with AIDS and arthritis.

Others have similar stories.

'I don't have a choice to quit using marijuana,' said member Suzanne Pfeil.  'Now, we have to worry about being raided again.  It's an uncomfortable way to live.'

The Supreme Court ruling will have an impact on WAMM's lawsuit against the federal government in U.S.  District Court in San Jose.

Part of the WAMM case -- and part of the case decided Monday -- centered around the interstate commerce clause of the U.S.  Constitution.  The 9th Circuit U.S.  Court of Appeals had ruled that when sick people share marijuana and money is not exchanged, there is no interstate commerce involved, therefore it cannot be regulated by Congress.

While the Supreme Court gutted that portion of the local cooperative's argument, the legal fight is still on, Rice said.

Another portion of the WAMM's legal contention is centered on due process provisions of the Constitution, Rice said.  The group will argue, he said, that if a patient is following a doctor's recommendation, abiding by state law and is using a substance to alleviate pain and suffering, then the patient has a right to the medicine.

'Our team has always felt that is our better argument,' Rice said.

The Supreme Court decision becomes valid in 60 days.  Rice said the U.S.  Attorney's Office would likely file to have the injunction protecting WAMM's garden dissolved in light of Monday's ruling.

Luke Macauley, a spokesman for the U.S.  Attorney's Office in San Francisco, said he couldn't speculate on how the department will respond.

WAMM will continue on its own case in U.S.  District Court in San Jose, and likely fight on to the U.S.  Supreme Court, Rice said.  The city and county of Santa Cruz signed on as plaintiffs in WAMM's suit.

For Corral and husband Mike, also a co-founder, there is another concern.  When federal agents raided WAMM's Davenport garden in 2002, they uprooted 167 plants.  The Corrals were taken to jail, but never charged.  The statute of limitations for them to be charged doesn't run out until 2007.

Critics of Monday's ruling included U.S.  Rep Sam Farr, D-Carmel, co-sponsor of legislation that would protect patients and doctors from federal prosecution so long as they were acting within their state's law.

'Often people joke about medical marijuana, but due process and respecting state laws is a serious issue,' Farr said in a written statement Monday.  'Beyond that, I think it is high time the federal government recognized that one of the best ways to prevent recreational use of a drug is to let doctors prescribe it in closely regulated ways.'

In writing the decision, Justice John Paul Stevens said that Congress could change the law to allow medical use of marijuana.

Among those praising the ruling was Rafael Leamaitre of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, known as the Office of the Drug Czar.  He scoffed at what he called the 'caricature' of the federal government arresting sick people.

'We're after major drug traffickers,' he said.

While the Supreme Court decision allows for federal prosecution, medical marijuana advocates said that using marijuana medicinally remains legal under California law.

Santa Cruz County government abides by Proposition 215, the 1996 state ballot initiative voters approved that allows for medical marijuana use.

The county established a photo-identification card system in 2003.  Last year, the Board of Supervisors set limits that allow patients who have a doctor's recommendation to possess 3 pounds of pot and keep a garden with a 100-square-foot canopy.

An estimated 500-600 people have been issued county ID cards, said county health officer Poky Namkung.

Sgt.  Fred Plageman of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office said he didn't expect department policies to change.  When the matter comes up, deputies check to see if a person has a valid prescription, then the department acts accordingly, he said.

Attorneys with the state Department of Health Services said they were reviewing the Supreme Court's decision to determine how it would affect the state's medical identification card program, said department spokesman Robert Miller.

Andrea Tischler of the marijuana-friendly Compassion Flower Inn said the ruling sparked calls of support to her Santa Cruz bed and breakfast.  The inn allows medical pot users to consume on the premises.

Though the ruling was 'devastating,' she said, it didn't mean death to the movement.

'It is not the first time we have suffered setbacks' Tischler said.  'I think the movement will continue.  It's not going to stop.'


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