Mayor's Letter Calls For Hearings of DEA

April 30, 2008

Jessica Kwong, The Daily Californian

In a move reflecting the city's supportive stance as a sanctuary for medical marijuana, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates wrote a letter last Thursday urging the federal government to stop the Drug Enforcement Administration from intervening with the work of dispensaries.

Bates wrote the letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers calling for congressional hearings about letters the agency sent in 2007 that threatened landlords renting to medical marijuana dispensaries.

The landlords of dispensaries, three of which are in Berkeley, were threatened with property forfeiture or criminal prosecution.

"This is really a back-door way to try to eliminate access to medical marijuana," said Julie Sinai, chief of staff to Bates. "We want Congressman Conyers to call for hearings to get the (agency) to focus on issues of hard drug use and serious drug offenses instead of targeting medical marijuana dispensaries."

Kris Hermes, spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access, said the agency has raided upwards of 100 dispensaries across California since June 2005-with more than 50 occurring in 2007 alone-forcing many to close.

The agency's threatening letters led the City Council to pass a resolution on Jan. 29 declaring Berkeley a sanctuary for medical marijuana patients and dispensaries.

"Medical marijuana is a proven medication that helps alleviate a number of chronic diseases," Sinai said. "The city of Berkeley feels that residents should be able to get the medications that they need with the supervision of (doctors)."

While cannabis is illegal at the federal level, some states have passed laws allowing for its usage. California votes legalized medical marijuana in 1996 with the Compassionate Use Act.

"Twelve years after (the act) passed, we are still living in fear (of raids)," said Becky DeKeuster, community liaison for the dispensary, Berkeley Patients Group. "(The) situation is unjust and we welcome congressional oversight into what's happening here, so we are very grateful to the mayor for taking a stand."

Officials at Berkeley dispensaries said they were targeted although they were operating legally under state law.

"They focused in areas like Berkeley ... where dispensaries have shown that they can be positive members of the community," DeKeuster said.

Bates' letter is the fifth in a string of requests already sent to Conyers by the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz and West Hollywood.

"It's good to see that local and regional leadership is all on the same page on this issue," said Michael Hunt, spokesperson for Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. "It's the responsibility of the state and local governments to uphold the will of voters and adopt sensible guidelines to regulate the provision of medical cannabis in our communities."

Hermes said he believes the hearings will discourage congressmen from using the agency to regulate dispensaries.

"They'll soon conclude that it is not wise (to) use taxpayers' money (to interfere with) medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it's legal," he said.

Robert MacCoun, UC Berkeley professor of law and public policy, said Bates' letter may help make the federal government accept medical marijuana use in the state.

"(The letter) could make a difference because there's a very good chance we're going to enter a new era with a new administration which may make federal interference with medical marijuana less of a priority," he said. "The federal government thinks medical marijuana is a slippery slope towards marijuana legalization, and it probably isn't."

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