Medical pot activists stage protest rally
October 28, 2005
Josh Richman, San Mateo County TimesAbout 50 medical marijuana activists rallied under Wednesday's leaden skies near the United Nations Plaza farmer's market, wielding a bullhorn and picket signs to demand that federal officials act on a formal request to loosen the drug's ban.
This weekend, "Guru of Ganja" Ed Rosenthal of Oakland hosted a "Wonders of Cannabis" festival in Golden Gate Park featuring joint-rolling contests and an appearance by comedian and noted stoner Tommy Chong.
Mixed messages, some drug policy experts say sadly.
"Sometimes I think cannabis activists are their own worst enemies," said University of California, Berkeley public policy professor Robert MacCoun. "They rely too heavily on a 1960s countercultural playbook, but it's precisely that kind of association that inflames opponents."
Rosenthal insists McCoun and other critics miss the point: The Bay Area supports medical marijuana, and the ease with which the region has assimilated it should be a model for the rest of the nation.
"It's not like we're trying to be far out, we're just appealing to a rainbow," he said. "Marijuana is the one issue that crosses gender, age, ethnic and political lines. There's only one group that's opposed to marijuana and that's the criminal justice system. It's fat in the budget for them and they don't want to lose it."
Part of the festival's proceeds benefits Green Aid, a medical marijuana legal defense and education fund that's defraying legal costs for defendants including Rosenthal himself, as he appeals his 2003 federal conviction and one-day jail sentence for growing marijuana.
Besides Chong, other guests include policy heavyweights such as Marsha Rosenbaum, the Drug Policy Alliance's West Coast director, politicos such as San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, and an array of medical-marijuana lawyers. That said, "we think it's going to be a really fun festival," Rosenthal added. "I'm known for my parties."
itself is not necessarily the kind of thing we ourselves would organize. Even at a lighthearted event, we're hoping there's an opportunity to address some serious issues."
Perhaps foremost among those issues is how to proceed with national efforts to change marijuana policy.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June squashed activists' and patients' best hope of judicial relief by upholding the federal ban. In a case brought partly by an Oakland patient, the court found medical marijuana activity even occurring entirely within California's borders and with no money changing hands still affects the overall national market for marijuana, and so falls within Congress' constitutional reach to regulate.
Nine days after the Supreme Court ruling, the House of Representatives voted 264-161 against a bipartisan amendment to bar spending federal tax dollars to prosecute patients and caregivers in states with medical marijuana laws. Marijuana advocates noted the amendment got 13 votes more than it had a year earlier; it still fell 57 votes short of the 218 it needed to pass.
The latest, bipartisan iteration of a perennial House bill to carve out an exception in federal law for states to allow medical marijuana was introduced in May. It was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's health subcommittee — chaired by Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga. — where it has languished without action like its many predecessors.
And neither this Republican administration nor its Democratic predecessor has shown any interest in making the administrative decision to move marijuana to a less restrictive schedule of the Controlled Substances Act, thus acknowledging and allowing its medical use.
Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access in 2002 helped petition the Department of Health and Human Services and the Drug Enforcement Administration to reschedule marijuana. HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt at his Senate confirmation hearing in January said the department's review would be done by August.
That didn't happen, so activists gathered Wednesday outside HHS offices in seven cities. In Washington, they brought Leavitt notice of their intent to sue; in San Francisco, they rallied in U.N. Plaza.
"We're hoping this has an effect on D.C., although not much seems to move them," said ASA legal campaign director Kris Hermes.
ASA campaign director Caren Woodson was one of two representatives who met Wednesday with HHS regional director Calise Munoz.
"She said, 'I have communicated all of your concerns'... so Leavitt is hearing the message, which is a success as far as I'm concerned," Woodson said.
"The battle continues, and I feel the voices are getting louder and louder... The walls are going to tumble, at some point."
Methods may vary so long as the goal is the same, said Bruce Mirken, the Marijuana Policy Project's communications director, who speaks Sunday at Rosenthal's event. "What we're seeing is the sign of a true grassroots movement where, frankly, you can't control people."
Federal drug-war leaders paint drug policy reform — particularly marijuana reform — as an insidious, well-funded and carefully orchestrated plot, Mirken said. Actually, it's "a very disparate collection of folks from all corners of society who've come to the honest conclusion that our current marijuana laws make no sense," he insisted.
"If this were a great, disciplined conspiracy, there probably wouldn't be a 'giant rolling contest' — I'm willing to bet no poll or focus group has tested that as an effective method of reaching the public."
Mirken said his own organization strives for a "straight-laced and buttoned-down approach" so as to shatter stereotypes and emphasize facts. "But in any mass movement you've got people with different attitudes, different styles, different approaches. And let's face it, the Bay Area is not a community that does straight-laced really well."
As for his participation in Rosenthal's event, "part of what any organization needs to do is reach out to the people who are interested in your issue," Mirken said. "We do want to reach out to those folks even if the event