Bipartisan law would emphasize state statutes
House members' bill seeks to give a medical defense

February 20, 2003

Josh Richman - Tri-Valley Herald,

Three California members of Congress are preparing a bipartisan bill to let medical marijuana users, growers and providers protect themselves from federal conviction -- a bill sure to face an uphill battle. Reps. Sam Farr, D-Carmel; Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma; and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, are "putting together a bill that would basically say that in states that have medical marijuana statutes, you are able to use as a defense that you were in possession or distributing ... marijuana for medical reasons," said Rochelle Dornatt, Farr's chief of staff. "If you would present that evidence and the jury agrees, you would be found not guilty," she said; if a jury remained unconvinced the intent was medicinal, a defendant would still be convicted under the Controlled Substances Act. "The idea is that juries need to know whether you were doing something you believed was lawful." Dornatt said the bill was inspired in part by the recent federal convictions of medical marijuana growers Ed Rosenthal of Oakland and Bryan Epis of Chico. Farr was also concerned about last year's Drug Enforcement Administration raid of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana cooperative near Santa Cruz within his district. "He's become close to them and feels they run a very tight ship, a very clean operation," Dornatt said. "He was very upset to see agents come in and upset the clinic and destroy the marijuana plants." The bill won't move easily, Dornatt said: "Given the current conservative makeup of Congress, and a Supreme Court decision that weighed against medical marijuana, passing this bill would be a sea change." But she said supporters "will try to do little things daily that will help build a critical mass of support -- just one more co-sponsor per day, or one more conversation with a colleague, or one more visit by constituents to their representative. Eventually, these smaller steps will result in a current that will help change many minds." Farr was in Sacramento on Wednesday accepting thanks from Rosenthal's and Epis' families. Also present were some federal jurors who convicted Rosenthal but later regretted doing so, claiming they were duped by a system that didn't give them the whole story of Rosenthal's protection by state and local laws. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer attended, too."I support Congressman Farr's bipartisan effort to change federal law so that all the facts would be before a jury," he said later Wednesday. "I think many people are offended by the lack of due process associated with the Rosenthal conviction. It seems to me to be just fundamental fairness to allow his Proposition 215 defense to have been presented to the jury," Lockyer said. MDULRohrabacher's chief of staff Rick Dykema said this bill isn't as far-reaching as one penned in 2001 by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and co-sponsored by Rohrabacher. That would have moved marijuana to a less-restricted list within the Controlled Substances Act, and would have made medical use federally legal in states with their own medical marijuana laws. The Frank bill -- the latest of many similar ones he has authored -- was never even reviewed in committee, Dykema said. "Often ideas have to go many Congresses before they get enacted. We recognize this is a difficult situation. As long as most states don't have medical marijuana laws, generally their congressmen are not going to want to be on record supporting something like this." Rohrbacher is bucking most of his party on this issue because "he wants to support his constituents ... and not have the federal government interfering with the wishes of the people of California," Dykema said, adding the congressman also draws upon his personal experience of a few years ago. "He had a situation in which he thought he might've been able to help his own mother, who had gone through a difficult time in which she wasn't eating," Dykema said; some patients use marijuana to stimulate appetite. "It turned out she was able to recover from the wasting without it, but he was still concerned that even though Californians had voted for medical marijuana, he was facing a situation where he might not have been able to legally obtain it for his mother." Contact Josh Richman at jrichman@angnewspapers.com

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