Hil Anderson, United Press International ,
LOS ANGELES, June 5 (UPI) -- A legal clash over states' rights and the use of medical marijuana has led to the launching of a hunger strike by activists trying to head off the forfeiture of their small office building to the federal government. The Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Cooperative was closed by the Drug Enforcement Administration in October, and workers there learned last week that the Justice Department was moving to take over the West Hollywood building where they had set up shop as a provider of medical marijuana to nearly 2,000 patients.
'The people who go to that building are sick people who can prove through documents from their doctors that they are ill,' said Jeffrey Prang, a member of the West Hollywood City Council, at a news conference. 'They are receiving prescribed medicine. Why would the DEA find the time and resources to expend these efforts in the city of West Hollywood?' The six hunger strikers vowed to stick it out until the threat of criminal prosecution was ended and planned to watch Wednesday night's Lakers playoff game with no food on hand in a tent in the parking lot across the street from the building to be forfeited. Anger over the prospect of continuing raids, arrests and forfeitures are the inspiration for a nationwide series of protests scheduled to take place Thursday at the DEA's national headquarters outside Washington and at DEA offices in 55 cities nationwide. Advocates of medical marijuana insist that they are doing a humanitarian service for patients who suffer from HIV-related diseases, cancer and other debilitating ailments that make it difficult to eat and keep food down, and, more importantly, stick to the exhaustive regimen of medications that can keep the patients alive. A study at the University of California at San Francisco found that HIV patients who smoked marijuana were more likely to put on weight and keep on their medications than patients taking a protease inhibitor pill or an oral placebo. 'Without the marijuana, they can't keep the pills in their stomachs,' said Scott Imler, president of the Cannabis Resource Center, who told reporters that he was under a federal grand jury's scrutiny and could be indicted in the future. 'Antiretroviral therapy was directly observed. Subjects did not miss a dose,' said Dr. Donald Abrams, the lead author of the study that was presented July 13, 2000, at the XIII International AIDS Conference in South Africa. While marijuana is considered easy to get in just about any U.S. city, medical marijuana users, many of whom are in poor health, say they need a 'safe' and easily accessible place where they can obtain marijuana without having to do their deals on the street where they risk getting beaten up, robbed or arrested. 'If I knew someone who was sick, I'd be in a park (buying marijuana) in a heartbeat,' Sarah Wright, a seminary student who is taking part in the hunger strike told United Press International, 'but I didn't want to contribute to the black market.' The medical marijuana concept appealed to California voters who in 1996 approved Proposition 215, which allowed doctors to 'prescribe' marijuana to such patients -- the measure unfortunately did not address the issue of how these souls would get a hold of a substance that is inherently illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling last year that there was no medical necessity for exempting marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act, which effectively trumped Prop 215 and turned the state's marijuana buying clubs into common drug dealers in the eyes of the law. As a result, the DEA has raided marijuana cooperatives in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as in Los Angeles. A building used by a buyers' club in Santa Rosa was raided earlier this week by the DEA, which insists it is not targeting medical marijuana organizations, but will investigate large-scale trafficking organizations. DEA spokesman Richard Meyer told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat on Monday, 'Federal laws have not changed, so we will continue our investigations.' But the medical marijuana advocates have questioned the DEA's priorities. 'Club members are not Colombian drug lords or al Qaida terrorists,' said Howard Jacobs, an AIDS activist who planned to join the six hunger strikers on their first night in tents. 'They are not threatening public safety. They are simply helping people who are sick and suffering.' 'California voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 215 and the current federal administration claims to endorse states' rights,' Jacobs said. 'Why are they taking those states' rights away?' But the purely legal obstacles may be more difficult to overcome. No challenge to the government's ruling that there was no medical necessity for marijuana has yet succeeded, and the Cannabis Resource Center apparently doesn't have much legal ammunition to use against the Justice Department. West Hollywood has solicited advice from the city attorney's office, but the case is otherwise in the hands of overworked federal public defenders. Still, the activists vowed to fight the forfeiture of their building, and would insist on a public jury trial. 'We are challenging everything the government is throwing at us,' said Imler, who indicated that their legal strategy could involve claims that the government is depriving patients of their civil rights under color of authority. Activists have also taken heart from an April 17 federal court ruling in Portland that upheld Oregon's assisted suicide law, which the Justice Department had attacked by planning to prosecute doctors who prescribed lethal dosages of drugs. The government had maintained that such dosages did not reflect legitimate medical practices and were therefore illegal. Otherwise, the patients and operators of the Cannabis Resource Center are appealing to public opinion to pressure the White House and Justice Department into changing the policy. A Methodist minister offered a prayer at Wednesday's news conference to keep the hunger strikers safe and to 'break the hearts of stone of President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft.'