ASA Activist Newsletter - October 2010

Volume 5, Issue 10

Medical Cannabis at Stake in Statewide Contests

Political races are heating up as Election Day nears, and four statewide votes have the attention of medical cannabis advocates.

Arizona voters will have a chance to approve a medical cannabis initiative that fixes wording flaws in the state's 1996 initiative that left it unenforceable. Voters in Oregon will decide on an initiative to make dispensing centers legal. South Dakotans have a chance to establish protections for patients. And in California, the low-profile race for attorney general has high stakes for safe access, as one candidate supports statewide standards for dispensaries, while the other has vowed to arrest dispensary operators, even those in compliance with all local regulation.

'Cannabis may not appear on every ballot in the country, but patients know that political choices have consequences for safe access,' said Caren Woodson, ASA's Director of Government Affairs. 'California is a perfect example. If Steve Cooley is elected attorney general, he promises to undo more than a decade of gains in the state.'

Steve Cooley, the Republican candidate for California attorney general who is currently serving his third term as Los Angeles County District Attorney, has said that no one can legally buy or sell medical cannabis in California, and that he will ignore any local regulations for the operation of dispensaries. When the LA city council passed regulations for dispensaries, Cooley dismissed the council as 'irrelevant,' saying he would prosecute anyone operating one.

State officials have a critical role in interpreting and implementing state medical cannabis measures, but the law itself is what concerns Arizonans. The state's voters passed an initiative in 1996 authorizing physicians to write 'prescriptions' for medical cannabis, but prescribing federally prohibited drugs can cost doctors their license to prescribe any medication. That's why every other state medical cannabis law says doctors may 'recommend' therapeutic use, rather than 'prescribe' it.

Arizona's Proposition 203, which corrects that error and authorizes distribution through regulated centers, looks well positioned to pass, with polling from early 2009 showing support for medical access in the state holding steady at 65%, the same percentage that approved the 1996 initiative. But as with all elections, get-out-the-vote campaigns will likely decide it.

In Oregon, voters face a decision on Measure 74, which would add a regulated supply system of dispensaries and producers to the state's medical cannabis program. Under current law, Oregon requires its nearly 40,000 qualified patients to grow their own medicine. If approved, Measure 74 would also direct the state to establish a system for providing reduced-cost cannabis to low-income patients.

South Dakota's medical marijuana act, known as Measure 13, would allow qualified patients and their designated caregivers to possess up to six cannabis plants and an ounce of medicine at a time. Physicians would be able to authorize any patient with a debilitating condition, and those qualified could provide medicine for up to five patients.

ASA Organizing After DEA Raids Las Vegas Dispensaries

Statewide Stakeholders' Meeting Scheduled for Oct. 21

Even as more states consider establishing medical cannabis programs or expanding existing ones to include regulated systems of distribution, the Obama Administration continues to authorize Drug Enforcement Administration raids on patients and providers.

The established pattern of coordinated, simultaneous DEA raids continued this month in Nevada, where half a dozen medical marijuana dispensaries in Las Vegas were hit at once. As a result, Americans for Safe Access will be holding a statewide stakeholders' meeting in Las Vegas on October 21.

'The Obama Administration promised change on this issue,' said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer. 'But we're seeing the same 'shock and awe' tactics being used to intimidate patients and the communities that support them. We're not going to tolerate it.'

ASA's stakeholders' meeting, scheduled for October 21, is part of the organization's national strategy for building a more effective grassroots. ASA has been facilitating meetings of patients and advocates across the country so stakeholders can share experiences and discuss not only how to pass meaningful federal, state, and local legislation but also how to implement those laws so they meet the needs of patients.

Nevada state law does not provide for medical cannabis dispensaries, but local officials have been supportive of their operation. Early this summer, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman told local television viewers that allowing dispensaries to operate was 'a very legitimate goal.' The mayor said that, 'If doctors say that it does a patient some good and gives relief to somebody that has a dire need for it, I'm all for it.'

The latest federal raids come less than two months after DEA raids on state-compliant patients in California and Michigan.

'The Justice Department has said individuals in compliance with state law are not targets,' said Sherer. 'If that's the case, the DEA must leave enforcement to the appropriate state and local authorities. They understand state law and community standards better than Washington.'

The DEA is currently led by Bush-appointee Michele Leonhart. During the Bush Administration, Leonhart helped direct more than 200 federal raids on medical cannabis patients and providers in California and other states. President Obama has nominated Leonhart to head the DEA despite objections from patient advocates, but her Senate confirmation has yet to be scheduled.

For more information about participating in ASA's Nevada Stakeholders Meeting on October 21, contact either ASA Community Liaison Director Raudel Wilson at [email protected] or local organizer Eric Woodson at [email protected].

ASA Working with DC Officials on Regulations

After more than a decade of struggle, residents of Washington, D.C. will soon have safe, legal access to cannabis when their physician recommends it. The process of implementing the district's 1998 voter initiative has been contentious, however, and Americans for Safe Access is pressing local officials to modify their plan. ASA wants these officials to reconsider how they are choosing who will operate dispensaries, who will oversee them, and who will provide feedback on the program.

D.C.'s new regulations prevent patients from growing their own medicine in the short term, but licensed cultivators and dispensaries will provide up to four ounces of cannabis to patients with cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and other chronic ailments. Both non-profit and for-profit organizations will be eligible to operate the dispensaries, but ASA has objected to the first-come, first-served approach the district has taken to permits.

'The district and its residents deserve a process that licenses only the best and most innovative medical cannabis facilities,' said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer, who is a D.C. resident. 'Competitive, merit-based selections will help ensure community-based facilities that have strong connections with their neighborhoods.'

ASA is also asking the council to reconsider placing oversight of the program under the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, arguing cannabis regulation should follow the framework used successfully to license pharmacies, drug stores, and other businesses that provide medical services.

'The department of health should have control,' said Sherer. 'Medical treatment falls outside the expertise of alcohol regulators.'

ASA is urging the council to include qualified physicians and patients on the Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee tasked with shaping the program. As it stands, the seven-member group will consist of appointees by the head of the alcohol board, the chief of police, and the city administrator, as well as four members appointed by the health department. But there is no requirement that any of them be either experienced physicians or qualified patients.

'The council should be advised by those directly affected by the program,' said Sherer. 'Medical cannabis patients and their physicians are the best equipped to evaluate what program decisions will mean for quality of care.'

The District is developing regulations after Congress relented earlier this year on a ban they had placed on enacting the district's 1998 voter initiative. Among the rules the council has approved are making medical cannabis subject to the city's six percent sales tax, allowing underprivileged residents to access their medicine for free or at reduced cost, and keeping dispensary locations at least 300 feet from schools.

Grassroots Gets Results on LA Dispensaries

Medical cannabis activists have succeeded in persuading two key Los Angeles city councilmembers to seek changes to the medical cannabis distribution plan adopted in the nation's second-largest city. In response to their constituents' concerns, Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Janice Hahn have asked that dozens of legal patient collectives be allowed to continue operating while the city sorts out the permit application process.

'Sometimes it is hard to see the results from grassroots advocacy, but persistence pays off,' said ASA's California Director Don Duncan. 'The city council has been steadfast in resisting calls for amendments, but after a barrage of phone calls, emails, letters and visits to councilmembers, we have the first opportunity for progress.'

The city's new dispensary regulations impose zoning restrictions that have made the vast majority of the city off limits to patient collectives, including many long-standing locations. In addition, the city officials evaluating applications for dispensary permits used what they described as a narrow, stringent interpretation of the city ordinance. As a result, almost all applicants were denied.

The controversy stems from a narrow interpretation of provisions for dispensaries that had registered with the city prior to a moratorium that went into effect more than two years ago. The operators of those dispensaries are eligible for permits under the new system, but they must comply with rules that prohibit change in ownership or management.

The city clerk ruled last month that dozens of collectives were ineligible for permits because they 'changed' management. In most cases, however, the only 'change' was in how many people were listed on different forms - including paperwork dating back to 2007. Immediately after the clerk's ruling, the city attorney filed lawsuits to close the collectives.

'We have to keep making our voices heard inside and outside city council chambers,' said Duncan. 'Getting this change is just the first step -- there are many more changes that need to be made to make this ordinance work for medical cannabis patients.'

For ASA's tips on being an effective grassroots advocate, see ABC's of Citizen Advocacy.