ASA Activist Newsletter - April 2011

Volume 6, Issue 4

Federal Agency Recognizes Cannabis Fights Cancer

Touts Anti-Tumor Action Then Scrubs Website

It lasted less than a week, but an agency of the U.S. federal government for the first time acknowledged that cannabis can fight cancer, and said that health care providers may recommend it for that purpose. That contradicts the federal government’s oft-repeated contention that cannabis has no medical value. After five days of media attention, the suggestion that cannabis may be used to combat tumors was removed.

The controversy began on March 17, when the National Cancer Institute (NCI) posted on their website a new “Physicians Data Query,” or PDQ, entitled “Cannabis and Cannabinoids.” That PDQ classifies cannabis as a Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) and summarizes several decades of research on the potential role of cannabis and its constituent chemicals in cancer treatment, including the many studies in laboratories and animals that have demonstrated its tumor-fighting properties.

The NCI concluded that “the health care provider may recommend medicinal Cannabis not only for symptom management but also for its possible direct antitumor effect.' Those antitumor effects of cannabinoids include reducing the spread of cancer cells, selectively cutting off the blood supply to tumors, and reprogramming malignant cells to die off. Researchers have demonstrated these effects both in animal models of cancers and in laboratory studies of human cancer lines, including skin, breast, bone, liver, adrenal, leukemic, and brain cancers.

Within a week, the NCI website was revised to say: “Though no relevant surveys of practice patterns exist, it appears that physicians caring for cancer patients who prescribe medicinal Cannabis predominantly do so for symptom management.” A week later, the NCI created a new section to distance the statements from federal policy and defend the changes as clarifications.

“Manipulating science for political purposes is offensive in every context, as the Obama Administration’s memo on scientific integrity makes clear,” said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer. “But patients deserve complete and accurate information from their doctors, and removing research conclusions because they don’t fit an outdated policy is outrageous.”

The PDQ still notes that “cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years,” and says people living with cancer may find cannabis effective for combating nausea, stimulating appetite, relieving pain, and improving sleep. These are the same therapeutic qualities described in the Institute of Medicine’s 1996 review of cannabis as medicine.

The NCI is a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). DHHS calls marijuana a dangerous drug with no medical value and has to date denied attempts to reclassify it as a medicine. A petition to reschedule cannabis to make it a drug doctors may prescribe has been pending for nearly a decade with no response from the federal government.

Since that petition was filed by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, of which ASA is part, hundreds of additional scientific articles on the therapeutic potential of cannabis have been published, eight states more have passed medical cannabis laws, and the country's two largest physician groups have each called for a federal review.

Federal refusal to acknowledge the scientific consensus on the medical efficacy of cannabis is longstanding. In 1988, the Drug Enforcement Administration ignored the findings of its own Chief Administrative Law Judge, Francis L. Young, who found after extensive hearings that “marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision.'

More information:
NCI web page on Cannabis
Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis
American Medical Association Statement
American College of Physicians Statement

Maryland Senate Passes Bill to Protect Cannabis Patients

New Compromise Bill Would Remove Criminal Penalties

Qualified patients in Maryland may soon be free of the threat of criminal convictions. On March 24, the state Senate voted 41-6 to pass a bill that would give an affirmative defense to qualified patients prosecuted for possessing or growing medical marijuana.

Senate Bill 308 amends Maryland’s 8-year-old medical cannabis law, the Darrel Putnam Compassionate Use Act, which allows qualified patients a 'medical necessity' defense that reduces convicts to a misdemeanor with a $100 fine. The new legislation would remove criminal penalties for patients who can show at trial 'clear and convincing evidence' that their cannabis use is therapeutic.

SB 308 is a diluted version of legislation introduced earlier this year in the House and Senate, which would have shielded qualified patients from arrest and established a state-run production and distribution system. That bill stalled in a House committee due to opposition from the new administration's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH).

The new DHMH Director estimated the cost of such a program to be ten times more than the fiscal impact assessment of a year before, putting the program cost at more than $7 million over a 5-year period.

'This inflated estimate thwarted a comprehensive program that would have provided safe access,” said Caren Woodson, ASA’s Government Affairs Director. “But rather than leave patients vulnerable to certain conviction, we support a compromise that stops patients from being classified as criminals.”

ASA worked with State Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County) to craft the amended version of SB 308. The compromise bill directs the state to create “a work group to develop a model program” for future legislation that would protect patients from arrest and establish a system of licensed cultivation and distribution.

SB 308 is now before the House of Delegates for a floor vote.

More information:
Text of SB 308

Federal Raids in Montana as Lawmakers Debate Initiative Repeal

Montana became the frontline in the federal campaign against medical cannabis in March, when federal agents staged more than two dozen raids, just as the state legislature was considering overturning the voters’ medical cannabis initiative. ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer immediately flew to Montana to facilitate strategy meetings for advocates in several cities.

“Using federal raids to influence state legislation is a reprehensible tactic that flouts the Constitution and makes a mockery of the democratic process,” said Sherer. “Montana voters passed a law giving patients safe access. No state or federal official should make them criminals again.”

Simultaneous raids were carried out in at least 26 locations in 13 Montana cities using agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In addition to seizing personal property in the raids, federal officials are attempting to seize $4 million from bank accounts in Bozeman, Helena, and Kalispell.

The raids came in advance of hearings on House Bill 161, a companion to an already-passed Senate bill that would overturn Montana’s voter initiative, which passed in 2004 by 62%. ASA’s Sherer was among those testifying against the bill during hearings, but the House approved it and sent it to Governor Brian Schweitzer.

In case the governor refuses to sign the repeal, state lawmakers are pushing another bill that would impose such tight regulations that almost all of the more than 28,000 patients in the program would be ineligible, and even those qualifying would be prohibited from buying or selling cannabis, effectively eliminating all legal access.

In 2009, the Department of Justice issued a memo advising U.S. Attorneys not to target state-qualified patients and providers. Yet federal agents have conducted more than 75 raids since then in California, Colorado, Michigan, Montana and Nevada, resulting in at least two-dozen indictments.

In addition, the FDIC has forced banks to close the accounts of medical cannabis providers, and the IRS has begun targeting dispensing centers with audits that disallow their deductions for operational expenses.

More information:
DOJ Press Release on the Montana Raids

Patient Employment Rights Bill Advances in Calif.

Bill to Prevent Discrimination Passes Senate Committee

A bill sponsored by ASA that would protect the jobs of qualified medical cannabis patients in California has advanced through a key state senate committee in early April. Introduced by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), SB 129 would prevent employers from discriminating against medical cannabis patients in hiring or employment, while prohibiting on-the-job impairment. The bill now moves to the full senate for consideration.

'When Californians approved the compassionate use of cannabis, they never intended for it to apply only to unemployed people,' said Senator Leno. 'With unemployment at record-high rates, we should be doing everything we can to keep productive and responsible members of the workforce in their jobs.' ASA staff were among those testifying in support of SB 129 at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

SB 129 would reverse a 2008 California Supreme Court ruling in Ross v. RagingWire that granted employers the right to fire or refuse to hire workers with a physician's recommendation for medical marijuana, a decision that has impacted hundreds of thousands of patients across the state. Within two weeks after the court ruling, then-Assemblymember Mark Leno introduced AB 2279, an identical bill to SB 129, which had strong support from a broad coalition of disability rights, labor, medical, and legal groups. AB 2279 passed both houses of the California legislature in 2008, but was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

'Californians who use this medication deserve the same civil rights as everyone else,' said ASA California Director Don Duncan. 'No one should be forced to choose between following their doctor’s advice and their job.'

The bill leaves intact existing state law that prohibits medical marijuana consumption at the workplace or during working hours and exempts from the law 'safety-sensitive' positions such as health care providers, school bus drivers, and operators of heavy equipment in order to protect employers from liability and to ensure public safety. SB 129 does not violate or impede federal 'Drug Free Workplace' laws, which narrowly deal with workplace use and possession.

Peter O’Neal, a former assistant manager at Walgreens, testified at the Senate Judiciary hearing last week about his employment experience as a medical marijuana patient. After finding out O'Neal was a legal patient, Walgreens forced him to participate in drug rehabilitation classes in order to keep his job. Not only was O'Neal eventually fired for his status as a patient, but Walgreens also blocked his effort to collect unemployment benefits. 'If this bill had been law a couple of years ago, I'd be a manager at Walgreens right now,' testified O'Neal. 'Instead, I'm unemployed because of flawed public policy.'

Since it began recording instances of employment discrimination in 2005, ASA has received hundreds of such reports from patients across California.

More information:
Employment rights legislation SB 129
Fact Sheet on SB 129
Legal briefs and rulings in the Ross v. RagingWire case

Los Angeles Voters Impose Tax on Medical Cannabis

In March, voters in Los Angeles added an extra 5 percent tax on medical cannabis sales, on top of the nearly 10% sales tax already being paid. ASA and other patient advocates had opposed the tax as a burden on some of the city’s most vulnerable and needy citizens.

'While we understand the city faces a budget crisis, taxing medicine is an inhumane solution,' said Don Duncan, ASA’s California Director. 'Prescription medications are tax exempt for a reason. Alternative herbal medications such as cannabis should be no different.'

Measure M allows the city to collect $50 out of each $1,000 in 'gross reimbursements' that dispensaries receive from their patients. That is more than ten times the typical business license fees in Los Angeles.

When a tax was being considered last year, LA’s principal tax compliance officer told the city council that, by law, medical cannabis dispensaries are nonprofit collectives, and therefore cannot be taxed.

The Los Angeles police chief, sheriff and district attorney all opposed the measure because federal law bans the growing, possessing or consuming of marijuana for any purpose.

Several other California cities have imposed similar taxes, including San Jose, Oakland, Richmond, Sacramento and Berkeley.

San Diego ASA Fighting Local Ban

The San Diego Chapter of Americans for Safe Access has created a campaign to halt the implementation of a local ordinance so restrictive it effectively bans safe access. In what has become the largest letter-writing campaign in San Diego's history, the “Stop the Ban” campaign collected and mailed over 3,720 physical letters from constituents in the city to their respective council members.

The letters urge the city council to amend their medical cannabis ordinance with three specific amendments. On March 28th, the day of the Council’s vote, the Stop the Ban campaign organized a lunchtime rally of over 500 people. They marched from the Federal Courthouse to City Hall, where they testified before the San Diego City Council meeting, asking them to amend the ordinance. This was the largest turnout the city council has ever seen at ANY council meeting.

Despite the chapter’s successful organizing efforts, the council voted to approve the ordinance. ASA San Diego plans to bring supporters to the City Council for upcoming meetings.

“We will hold the Council accountable for their actions,” said Eugene Davidovich, ASA San Diego’s spokesperson. “We’ll keep coming back until they properly implement state law.”