Chris Rizo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune,
SACRAMENTO -- Declaring that the war on drugs has unjustly been extended to the seriously ill in California who use marijuana at the advice of their physicians , hundreds protested at the state Capitol on Monday, calling on the federal government to leave people's medicine alone. The estimated 500 demonstrators, which included public officials from around the state, came here by the busloads, including a caravan from Los Angeles County all to urge federal officials to respect California's landmark, voter- approved medical marijuana law.
Aboard one of those buses, Marie Santiago, 56, said she made the eight-hour trip to protest the federal government's recent crackdown against medical marijuana growers and those seriously ill and injured patients, who like herself, smoke pot 'so life is worth living,' she said, flashing the ornate rhinestone- studded cigarette case in which she stores her stash. 'Before I got cancer, I had never even taken a drag off a cigarette,' said Santiago, of West Covina. 'But the chemo made me so sick that I had to so something,' declaring, 'I'm in pain. I am not a criminal.' But, the grandmother of five is a criminal in the eyes of the federal government, and she knows it. Also on the Capitol's South Lawn picketing was Roger Moore of South Pasadena, who said he has been smoking pot since 1996. He credits his daily toke with helping him to offset the side effects of his chemotherapy treatments for an illness he declined to disclose. 'I can take a hit or two of marijuana, and not have to get up the first thing in the morning to puke my brains out, like I did for years,' said Moore, who got his medical marijuana from the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center until federal officials raided the West Hollywood facility on Oct. 25, 2001, confiscating nearly 900 plants and the records of its members. Santiago and Moore are among the hundreds of medical marijuana users caught in the middle of an intensifying turf battle between state officials and the federal government. It's a classic fight between federal supremacy and states' rights, advocates say. The discord centers on whether the federal government should continue to enforce its unequivocal ban on marijuana, or whether it should turn a blind eye to certain cases, since Californians overwhelmingly approved a 1996 ballot initiative that allows for the use of marijuana with a physician's signed recommendation. California is one of nine states where voters have allowed physicians to prescribe marijuana to patients suffering from such conditions as AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis. Earlier this month, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and DEA Chief Asa Hutchinson, requesting a meeting to discuss recent actions against growers by the DEA. In a written statement to organizers, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, said he is 'very disheartened and outraged' by the recent federally orchestrated actions against medical marijuana growers. Until recently, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency adhered to a Clinton administration guideline that stated federal agents would not pursue cases of marijuana cultivation if fewer that 100 plants were involved. But so far, several small-scale medical marijuana growers have faced federal indictment, under the Bush administration. Among those caught up in larger busts is Bryan James Epis, co-founder of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers in Chico, who now faces up to 40 years in federal prison for conspiring to manufacture at least 1,000 pot plants in his home, located about a block from Chico High School. Advocates on Monday lashed out at federal officials for the conviction and upcoming sentencing of Epis, 35, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 7, according to his defense attorney, world-renowned barrister Tony Serra. Steph Sherer, a spokeswoman for Americans for Safe Access, said Epis is an unfortunate casualty from the conflict between the federal law banning marijuana use and California's law, which allows patients to grow their own medicine. 'This should have been a fight between state officials and the federal government,' Sherer said. 'But it's patients who are fighting the federal government.' Caring a sign reading 'My dad isn't a criminal,' Epis' 8-year- old daughter, Ashley, said, 'The only criminal thing I see is that they are taking him away from me, and I don't appreciate that,' she said, leading a candlelight march around the Sacramento County Jail, where her father has been held since a jury found him guilty in June. Monday's protest follows an all- but- officially sponsored marijuana giveaway in front of Santa Cruz City Hall last Wednesday , by which protesters including city officials objected to the Sept. 5 raid on the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana. During the raid, federal agents seized 130 pot plants and arrested Michael and Valerie Corral, the couple that founded the dispensary and helped write Proposition 215. 'We are talking about people who don't smoke marijuana to get high,' said Dr. Philip Denney, a general practitioner who specializes in providing medical marijuana consultations. 'We are talking about people who are taking an alternative to (more dangerous) medications,' he said. San Francisco County District Attorney Terence Hallinan, an ardent proponent of medical marijuana, said Monday that the federal government should take a hands-off approach when it comes to medical marijuana dispensaries. Cracking down on cannabis clubs as they're known is a misappropriation of federal resources, Hallinan told the enthusiastic crowd. Shortly after Proposition 215, or California's Compassionate Use Act, passed, the Drug Enforcement Agency made it known that it would seek to revoke physicians' licenses to prescribe medications of any kind if they recommended marijuana to their patients. That policy, however, was struck down by the courts, after a group of physicians and patients sued the DEA, claiming that the government's policy would intrude on the doctor-patient relationship by preventing doctors from providing patients all their treatment options. 'We have a lot of compassion for those who are suffering from pain,' said DEA Special Agent Richard Meyer, spokesman for the administration's San Francisco Field office. 'But we cannot disagree with (the protester's) position more. 'There is no medical association or scientific organization that has come out to say that marijuana is a medication,' he continued, adding that the DEA has a policy of pursuing traffickers and not users including medical marijuana patients. 'I really don't know what the big deal is, here,' said Mark Woo, a 30-year-old East Los Angeles engineer. 'I am just trying to live without unbearable pain. Why can't people understand that?' -- Chris Rizo can be reached at (916) 296-3097.