ASA Activist Newsletter - January 2011

Volume 6, Issue 1

ASA Launches National Strategy

Americans for Safe Access's three-year national plan for expanding safe access to medical cannabis for all Americans was unveiled in April, following the Sixth National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics in Rhode Island. At the core of this strategy is the creation of a strong, national grassroots base demanding safe access for all Americans. To implement this strategy, ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer has been traveling the country holding stakeholder meetings with key constituencies in critical states. These meetings include a series of trainings on everything from strategic planning to lobbying and media messaging, as well as discussion of how to not just pass federal, state, and local legislation that creates safe and legal access but also implement those laws so they meet the needs of patients. Since unveiling the strategy in Rhode Island, ASA has held similar meetings in New Jersey, Nevada, and Montana, with more to come this year.

New Jersey and Arizona Get
New Medical Cannabis Laws

Last January, New Jersey became the 14th state to establish protections for patients who use cannabis on the advice of their doctors. The law, signed by outgoing Governor Jon Corzine, shields qualified patients from arrest and prosecution for possession and transportation, and mandates distribution of medical cannabis by six state-regulated dispensaries. As the 11th most populous state in the nation, New Jersey is the third largest state to pass medical cannabis legislation, after California and Michigan. New Governor Chris Christie has delayed implementation of the law and created new rules that advocates have denounced as overly restrictive, but ASA has been working with the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey to facilitate effective implementation of the new law, and state lawmakers are demanding it be implemented as passed.

In November, voters in Arizona approved a new medical cannabis law, making it the 15th state to remove criminal penalties for patients. Arizona's Proposition 203, which passed by a razor-thin margin of just 0.2%, is the third medical cannabis initiative to be approved by the state's voters, but the previous measures proved impossible to implement. Arizona will soon have dispensaries in every county and patients and caregivers who live more than 25 miles from a dispensary may cultivate up to 12 plants. Qualified patients from out-of-state will be permitted to possess and use cannabis, though they will not be allowed to purchase it in Arizona dispensaries.

Arizona's new law also includes explicit civil rights protections for patients. Schools and landlords will not be able to discriminate against medical cannabis users, and a positive drug test will no longer be grounds for denying or terminating employment for patients. Patients' parental rights will also be protected, and medical treatments such as organ transplants can no longer be denied solely because a person uses cannabis therapeutically.

District of Columbia to Offer Safe Access

Medical cannabis patients in Washington, D.C. will soon enjoy legal protections voters approved more than a decade ago. With input from ASA, the District Council is taking action to implement an initiative that voters approved in 1998 but was blocked by an act of Congress. That Congressional ban was lifted early in 2010. Based on input from ASA and other advocates, DC has established a four-member licensing board for production and distribution to be appointed by the Mayor. ASA also helped secure enhanced privacy protections for patients and the adoption of a merit-based licensing system for the production and distribution of medical cannabis, rather than the first-come, first-served approach in the initial proposal.

Los Angeles Approves Dispensaries

In January, the nation’s second largest city established regulations for the distribution of medical cannabis through storefront dispensaries. The new Los Angeles ordinance threatened to close the majority of the dispensaries operating in the city, but by year's end the measure had been put on hold as the council attempts to resolve problems created by stringent restrictions on ownership and location. ASA California Director Don Duncan has been instrumental in helping persuade the council to relax many of the rules that would roll back safe access. Restrictions on where dispensing collectives can locate bar them from operating near residential areas, schools, parks and other 'sensitive uses,' effectively eliminating almost all neighborhoods in LA. Additional rules about who could operate the dispensaries threatened to close all but 40 of the 500-odd collectives currently operating in this city of 5 million. The council has eased the restrictions on dispensary management and given operators an additional six months to come into compliance.

Colorado Voters OK Dispensaries

In the November election, Colorado faced a large number of local measures on regulating medical cannabis, with voters approving dispensaries or commercial cultivation facilities in at least six counties and two cities. Once the measures are enacted, they will join the 19 other Colorado cities with regulated access to medical cannabis for state-approved patients.

Activists Help Decide Calif. AG Race

The race for California Attorney General ended as one of the closest contests in decades, with Democrat Kamala Harris narrowly defeated Republican Steve Cooley. The thin margin of victory—only 0.8%—may well have resulted from an aggressive campaign by cannabis advocates targeting Cooley, the Los Angeles District Attorney. Cooley drew the opposition of ASA and other advocates after he denounced all medical cannabis sales in the state as illegal and attempted to undermine the regulatory process in LA. ASA targeted the Attorney General's race as the most important in California for patients' rights because the position has enormous influence over the interpretation and implementation of state law.

VA Relaxes Rules on Medical Cannabis

In August, the federal Veterans Health Administration (VHA) reversed a long-standing policy that barred veterans who receive VHA care from using medical cannabis. The new policy says 'patients participating in state medical marijuana programs must not be denied VHA services.' The new policy was first laid out in a letter from Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel, who stated that agreements between doctors and patients about how to treat pain 'should draw a clear distinction between the use of illegal drugs, and legal medical marijuana.' Over the past several years, ASA has received numerous reports of veterans being denied pain medication by VHA physicians for refusing to discontinue their medical use of cannabis, even though it had been approved by other doctors. Dr. Petzel's letter states that under the new policy, 'if a veteran obtains and uses medical marijuana in a manner consistent with state law, testing positive for marijuana would not preclude the Veteran from receiving opioids for pain management.' VHA physicians are still prohibited from directly authorizing cannabis use.

Calif. Dispensary Ban Case Back to Trial

A state appeals court has ordered a new trial on the critical question of whether California law prevents local governments from banning the operation of storefront dispensing collectives. The widely watched case of Qualified Patients Association v. City of Anaheim, which was argued on appeal by ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford, seeks to overturn local bans. Elford told the court that California's Medical Marijuana Program Act (SB420) specifically bars local governments from using nuisance statutes to ban medical cannabis dispensaries. That argument was bolstered by a concurring brief from Senator Mark Leno, one of the principal co-authors of the bill. The Fourth Court of Appeals has returned the case to the trial court for action in 2011. The case was brought by attorney Anthony Curiale on behalf of a dispensary that had been in operation for five months prior to the City of Anaheim instituting a ban in July 2007. The appeal was filed in March 2008 after a Superior Court ruled that Anaheim could prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries from operating within its city limits.

Calif. Supremes Nix Cannabis Limits

In a unanimous January ruling, the California Supreme Court said lawmakers cannot impose limits on how much cannabis qualified patients may possess or cultivate. The published decision in People v. Kelly struck down plant and possession guidelines established by the state legislature in 2003, declaring the limits to be an unconstitutional change to the Compassionate Use Act approved by voters in 1996. Under the ruling, California patients are entitled to quantities consistent with their reasonable personal use. The court left intact the legislature's voluntary ID card program, which provides protection from arrest and prosecution for card-carrying patients who are within state or local guidelines for personal-use quantities. Californians who exceed those guidelines may still have to go to court to prove their compliance with state law.

Congressmen Push Truth in Trials Bill

After pressure from the ASA office in D.C., the two principal co-sponsors of federal legislation to allow a medical defense in federal marijuana trials pushed for hearings on the bill before the end of the legislative session, but the measure failed to get through the House Judiciary Committee. Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) worked with ASA to draft the request after hearing about the continuing plight of medical cannabis patients and caregivers facing federal trial in California and elsewhere. The Truth in Trials Act (H.R. 3939), which has been introduced every session since 2003, would allow individuals facing federal prosecution for marijuana-related offenses to provide evidence at trial that their activities were legal under their state's medical cannabis program. Currently, federal defendants are barred from presenting evidence of medical conditions, doctors' recommendations, or state law.

AG Faces Tough ASA Questions

ASA's work with House Judiciary Committee members this year resulted in tough questions for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, when Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) each pressed the AG on issues that affect medical cannabis patients. At a hearing before the committee in April, Rep. Cohen challenged Holder on the Department of Justice's approach to rescheduling cannabis to make it available by prescription everywhere in the nation. Rep. Polis, one of the newest members of the committee, pressed Holder to clarify federal medical cannabis policy under the Department of Justice memo from 2009, asking him to 'describe the objective processes DEA and US Attorneys are using in order to make a determination about...compliance with state law.'

Congressional Help on Banking Problems

In May, lobbying by ASA resulted in 15 members of Congress asking the Treasury Secretary to help protect banking services for medical cannabis providers. After receiving dozens of reports of banks closing the accounts of state-qualified medical cannabis providers, ASA worked with members of the House to draft a letter to Secretary Geithner. The letter urges the Treasury Department to provide 'written guidance for financial institutions,' assuring them that neither account holders who are in compliance with state laws nor their banks would be targeted.

UC Researchers Report on 14 Studies

In February, university researchers funded by the state of California reported on the 14 studies of medical cannabis they had conducted, confirming that the drug is uniquely effective for relieving neuropathic pain and reducing muscle spasms, among other conditions. The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research issued a report on the 10-year program as part of its mandate by the state legislature, which established the center to fund and coordinate research at campuses of the University of California. Results of only five of the 14 studies have been published, with a sixth done but not yet published. Pain relief was the focus of many of the double-blind placebo-controlled studies in the $8.7-million research effort.