Dealing a harsh blow

August 31, 2007

Raheem Hosseini, Ledger Dispatch

Because of a string of coverage on the medicinal cannabis issue early in my tenure here at the Ledger Dispatch, I won the half-joking reputation among at least one of my colleagues as the resident pothead.

The truth, if it matters, is that marijuana's effects are unappealing to me. Grogginess and nagging hunger I can do without, and the stale smell of sweat and manure that comes attached to the most enthusiastic practitioners makes me hope Calvin Klein never comes up with a scent called Herbal Cool - For Men.

That said, I do possess an admittedly liberal view of the drug, which is less deadly than both alcohol and tobacco.

So when the Jackson City Council voted unanimously to repeal an ordinance that would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to operate, I was disappointed, but not surprised.

Despite the decision 11 years ago by California voters to regulate legal amounts of cannabis for medicinal use, the federal government still considers the substance illegal and doesn't recognize Proposition 215, also known as the state's Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

As a result, local municipalities that dare flaunt the national decree in favor of their own state's laws can find themselves on the wrong end of federal drug raids.

For the most part, DEA squads have been loosed on high profile areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles in the hopes that their raids won't go unnoticed by other local governments in California, and so far they've been successful.

It hasn't helped that, as conceived, Proposition 215 provided scant guidelines for law enforcement, local government and even health care operators for the implementation of the people's will. Nor has the seeming ease with which almost anyone can obtain doctors' recommendations done any good to real chronic pain sufferers who benefit from a drug that is less invasive and less addictive than many legal pharmaceuticals.

But then it's difficult to find a rational middle ground in this divisive arena. There is hyperbole from both sides, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's position that support for medical marijuana is "a tactical maneuver in an overall strategy to completely legalize all drugs," as it says on the Department of Justice's Web site, is inflammatory to anyone whose seen firsthand the suffering caused by cancer and other diseases.

That's not to say marijuana is harmless. According to Outdoor Life, the start of the hunting season also means outdoor recreationalists have become increasingly concerned with happening upon armed marijuana growers and stepping into their traps. As a reporter in El Dorado Hills, state forest and drug enforcement officials told me during an early morning raid of a marijuana plantation that growers often hire poor migrant workers to tend the gardens and take the risk of arrest. We found no men with guns that day as we crawled up steep, wooded hills behind million-dollar neighborhoods, but we did find abandoned campsites marked by ratty blue tarps and rusted cooking utensils.

The health effects, too, remain in doubt. There are few studies on the benefits or drawbacks of the drug - most have been blocked or watered down by those who would have cannabis remain illegal - but anecdotal evidence suggests at least carcinogenic harm to those who would smoke it.

But as many chronic pain sufferers with legitimate marijuana prescriptions know, smoking is the less desired mode of ingestion. Many serious pain suffers choose to cook with it instead, regulating both the intensity and longevity of the drug's affects.

What becomes apparent as you delve deeper into the legal, health and ethical aspects of the marijuana issue is that more honest appraisal is needed. The DEA recently approved the University of California, San Diego, to assess the safety and efficacy of treating certain debilitating medical conditions with cannabis, the Justice Department's Web site says, and one hopes those studies won't be as diluted as those of the past.

One also hopes that the federal government and state of California can resolve their territorial dispute so everyone else isn't caught between the shifting gears. And if regulation is the people's desire, it should follow without federal interference and with much greater state oversight.

In effect, Monday's vote did little more than formalize the city's opposition to a regulated dispensary. The original ordinance that was repealed was so restrictive in its criteria that only one applicant ever applied for a license to operate, an attempt that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Patients with proper doctor's recommendations can cultivate and possess small amounts of marijuana and the county still allows residents to obtain identification cards that make lawful possession less of a legal hassle, but that won't save anyone from the feds if they choose to make a statement out of someone, as they have recently in Sacramento.

But as a symbolic blow, the city council vote Monday in a nearly empty civic center showed just how far federal intimidation can reach and how deeply public apathy can sink.

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