Santa Cruz OKs pot strategy

October 26, 2005

Kathleen Sullivan, San Francisco Chronicle

The Santa Cruz City Council has voted to create a city department to distribute medical marijuana, a move city leaders hope will bolster its chances of winning a lawsuit that would legalize the use of medicinal pot.

The ordinance, which will not go into effect unless a federal court allows it to proceed, passed by a 4-2 vote Tuesday.

"We think the fact that the city, an arm of government, wants to do this will get us a much clearer hearing from the federal court," said Mayor Mike Rotkin. "The court will be forced to confront the states-right argument in the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and to answer the question whether the federal government has the right to regulate medical marijuana use at all."

The 2003 lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose by the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana.

The federal government raided the Santa Cruz cooperative's farm in 2002, and the alliance -- joined by the city and county of Santa Cruz -- sued the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, claiming the Constitution bars the federal government from interfering with patients' rights to grow and use medical marijuana.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that federal authorities can prosecute medical marijuana users despite Proposition 215, the state's voter-approved ballot initiative that legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes in 1996.

Rotkin said the city wants to distribute medical marijuana itself because existing entities -- the cooperative and a pot club -- cannot meet the needs of residents, and because people who use medicinal pot live under the constant threat that "the feds can swoop in and arrest them" at any time.

Santa Cruz Councilmember Tim Fitzmaurice, who voted in favor of the ordinance, said the city has made the "commonsense decision" that marijuana is a medicine that should be available to people who are ill.

"Many people would like to see this issue dealt with in a much more organized way," Fitzmaurice said. "People are a little afraid of the lack of discipline that surrounds the use of the stuff. Generally speaking, if we could find a way to have marijuana delivered through pharmacies in effective doses, I think support would be a lot more widespread."

Councilmember Cynthia Mathews, who voted against the ordinance, said she has long supported the use of medical marijuana, but described the idea of creating a city department to distribute medicinal pot as "unwise, unworkable and unrealistic at a time when the city's resources are incredibly strapped."

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco declined to comment on the Santa Cruz ordinance.

Hilary McQuie, communications director of Americans for Safe Access, a medicinal marijuana advocacy organization based in Oakland, said the group appreciates the position the Santa Cruz City Council has staked out.

"However, they know and we know that the federal government is not going to approve a city department distributing marijuana until the federal government changes the classification of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act," she said.

"It's not a wasted effort. But on a practical level, it's not going to provide medicine for patients."

Currently, marijuana is included in the same classification as heroin, as a dangerous, highly addictive drug with no accepted medical uses, she said.

The group was one of several that petitioned the federal government to reclassify marijuana in 2002.

E-mail Kathleen Sullivan at ksullivan@sfchronicle.com.



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