Groups want to oppose county's medical marijuana lawsuit

January 23, 2006

Gig Conaughton, North County Times

Flanked by frustrated cancer, car-accident and burn victims who use marijuana to ease their pain, a collection of legal and marijuana advocacy groups said Tuesday that they would seek court permission to oppose the county of San Diego's challenge to California's medical marijuana law. County officials formally filed a precedent-setting lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Friday seeking to overturn California's 9-year-old "Compassionate Use Act," Proposition 215 ---- on the grounds that it should be pre-empted by federal law, which says all marijuana use is illegal.

Tuesday, after unsuccessfully lobbying county supervisors to drop the lawsuit, unhappy patients and officials from three groups ---- the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Safe Access, and the Drug Policy Alliance ---- said they would seek permission to challenge the county's lawsuit.

Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties, said the groups would do that by immediately filing a request in federal court to join the county lawsuit as an opponent ---- permission that may or may not be granted.

Frustrated and angry patients, meanwhile, said during and after the county meeting that they could not understand why county supervisors were challenging California's medical marijuana law ---- even though supervisors have repeatedly said they are uncomfortable with supporting Prop. 215 when it contradicts federal law.

"I don't get where you guys are coming from," said La Mesa resident Rudy Reyes, who has been using medical marijuana to alleviate the pain of third-degree burns he suffered during the 2003 Cedar fire. "You guys are just hurting people."

Prop. 215, passed by 55 percent of voters statewide in 1996, states that "seriously ill" people have a right to "obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes" when recommended by a doctor.

But the federal government still classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug on a par with heroin, LSD and mescaline, and says that it has no medicinal value.

Vista resident and businessman Craig McClain said Tuesday that he had been using medical marijuana for years to alleviate his pain ---- after "crushing" his spine in car accident in 1992 ---- and campaigned for Prop. 215 in 1995 and '96.

"When we passed the initiative, I thought we (patients) were safe," he said. "I no longer have that feeling of being safe. I want you to really think about what you're doing because you're opening a gate to cause a lot of damage to a lot of people."

San Diego resident Pamela Sakuda told supervisors that she was dying from colorectal cancer, but that she still wanted to fight the disease through chemotherapy. She said that marijuana was the only drug that has helped quell her nausea and allow her to eat enough to keep up her strength.

Sakuda's husband, Norbert Litzinger, offered the most tortured testimony.

"We've been married 28 years," he said, speaking slowly. "She is the standard by which I measure everything in my life. By your acts ... you are attempting to deny her access to a legal medicine.

"If you succeed," Litzinger said, "you will increase her pain. You will increase her suffering. And you will hasten her death. That is wrong. It is gravely wrong."

Meanwhile, Keenan and Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access said they hoped that the courts would allow the groups to join the county lawsuit in order to represent patients and their testimony.

The county lawsuit was filed against the state and Sandra Shewry, director of California's Department of Health Services.

Keenan said Tuesday that he thought the federal courts might throw out the county's lawsuit because it lacked legal standing ---- because, he said, counties cannot sue states over federal law.

He also said he did not think the county's argument that Prop. 215 should legally be pre-empted by federal law would be upheld by the courts.

The county's argument cites the U.S. Constitution's "Supremacy Clause" ----- which states that the Constitution and federal law should be "supreme" ---- and a 1961 U.S. treaty with 150 other nations that states marijuana is illegal.

Keenan said case law ---- such as last week's decision to indirectly uphold Oregon's assisted suicide law ---- illustrates that the county's argument is hollow.

But the county's top lawyer, John Sansone, said the county believes it has a good argument.

Officials said there is no timetable on when the courts might hear the arguments on either side.

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