WHEN CALIFORNIA VOTERS APPROVED THE MEDICINAL USE of marijuana in 1996, the issue of how to implement the new law became a challenge for law enforcement: How do you set up a state distribution system for a drug that the federal government still says is illegal?
The fog surrounding the medical marijuana issue is finally beginning to clear. On Monday a special task force unveiled a plan to implement Proposition 215, passed by 56 percent of the voters three years ago. The plan calls for a statewide voluntary registry system patterned after a system already in place one designed and established by Arcata Police Chief Mel Brown more than two years ago.
"The beauty of the thing is, it's just such a simple program," Brown said in an interview in his office last week.
As Brown was explaining Arcata's program with a physician's approval, patients are issued photo IDs to protect them against mistaken arrest telephone rang. It was David DeAlba, special assistant to Attorney General Bill Lockyer, asking Brown's advice and making plans to come to Arcata next month to fish and escape the heat of Sacramento.
Brown, along the Humboldt County District Attorney Terry Farmer, served on Lockyer's 30-member task force that included other law enforcement officials, physicians and medical marijuana advocates.
Lockyer's reason for finally setting up a statewide system is partly personal. The state attorney general's mother and sister died of leukemia, and he said he would have wanted an alternative to morphine to relieve their suffering.
"It seemed absurd they were given morphine to deal with their terminal illness but not this medicine," he said, referring to medicinal marijuana during a phone interview from his Sacramento office. His mission is to push for more scientific research into the effects of the drug on various illnesses and to fix the "ambiguities of the law" surrounding it.
The passage last year (with Sen. Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, voting aye) of Senate Bill 848, sponsored by Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, created the task force, which began meeting in January. But the panel's specific recommendations were closely guarded until Monday. (See provisions, page 11.) Hearings on the bill by the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee began Tuesday.
"This bill represents a remarkable compromise after one of the most elegant collaborative processes I've enjoyed in my 33 years in the Legislature," Vasconcellos said in an issued statement.
"The bill meets Proposition 215's key objective allowing access to medicinal marijuana for persons with legitimate need and carefully balances concerns of patients, physicians and law enforcement. It gives law enforcement a brighter line to ensure resources are not wasted pursuing legitimate medicinal marijuana patients and are not diverted from pursuing persons who violate other drug laws," Vasconcellos added.
The Arcata police chief was the person who drew that brighter line, gaining national media attention in the process. Brown has been interviewed by Court TV, Rolling Stone and Time magazines, among other media.
He didn't set out to become a pioneer, but when the initiative passed he said, "I could hear the train coming."
Like most police chiefs and sheriffs, he could have waited for the attorney general to issue enforcement guidelines since federal law prohibiting the sale or use of the drug supersedes state law. But he chose instead to be pro-active.
"It came down to I'm either going to manage the problem or it's going to manage me," he said.
At first he called it a pilot program just in case it didn't work. The system requires a doctor's written approval before his department prints and issues a photo identification.
Brown said he is satisfied with the results of the 2-year-old program so far. He hasn't revoked a card yet, and he said the few hours per week he spends on administration beats the alternative a bogged-down judicial system.
When voters passed what was officially known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, buyer's clubs and cannabis centers began cropping up to distribute marijuana for ailments ranging from glaucoma to epilepsy. Among them was the Humboldt Cannabis Center in Arcata, one of 10 that narrowly avoided being raided last year by the U.S. Department of Justice. DOJ won a court order to shut down most of the state's cannabis clubs for violating federal laws against marijuana distribution.
The Arcata center not only escaped a raid but survived months of public feuding by its founders. The facility is marking its success with a move in late August to a 3,700-square-foot building at 6th and H streets in Arcata, just three blocks from the police station. The building has been leased by the nonprofit with an option to buy.
So far, Brown has issued IDs to 75 medical marijuana users on file with his department, but the cannabis club estimates it serves up to 450 clients. Some come from Redding or Oakland. Some are transients, just passing through. And there are others who have moved to Humboldt County because of the program, according to club President Greg Allen. One patient even came from Wisconsin.
Residents and out-of-towners must submit a physician's note, which Brown verifies. (He wants assurance he's "not dealing with the janitor.") Then the patients are allowed to grow and possess up to 10 plants or the equivalent of up to 8 ounces of dried, processed marijuana. If a patient or caregiver grows a larger garden, officers confiscate the excess and book the ambitious grower.
Through mutual agreement, the police chief has reserved the right to pop into the center at any time without a warrant.
Mendocino County District Attorney Norman Vroman was one of the first to take notice of Arcata's success and last month he started a similar program there with a few modifications. Physician notes are verified by the county public health department and a user may grow up to 24 plants or have up to two pounds of processed marijuana.
Vroman said he's discovered a few surprising things so far in his county's new program. For one, many users are over 50 years old, he said. And he has learned that about half of them don't actually smoke the weed; they ingest it in food.
The Mendocino district attorney said in a telephone interview from Ukiah he still intends to pursue commercial pot growers, but he wants to make sure that "people who need it (for medicinal purposes), get it."
Humboldt's district attorney said prosecuting marijuana growers is "not the most burning issue" this county faces.
"Each jurisdiction is faced with a challenge of how to deal with this law," Farmer said.
Until their new building is ready, cannabis club members, who pay $20 per month in dues, are occupying a pair of trailers in the parking lot behind the structure.
On a recent day, people were dropping by the clinic to visit and to smoke. Ted Marks of McKinleyville, who said he uses marijuana for pain symptoms induced by an irritable bowel, shared a pipe with Arcata resident Sandra Rocha, who has suffered from multiple sclerosis for the past six years.
"I've made friends here," Rocha said between hits and telephone duty as a volunteer. She said a friend with the same degenerative disease introduced her to the clinic when it first opened. She flashed card No. 12 to show she's among the "dirty dozen," one of the club's first 12 members.
This club had a rocky start with co-founder J.J. Baker publicly feuding with Humboldt Cannabis Center founder Jason Browne.
Browne, who now lives in Red Bluff and plans to return to Arcata in a few months, said in a telephone interview that he's proud of his role in the passage of Proposition 215 and of the example Arcata's program has set for the state.
"Sometimes I have to pinch myself that, wow, this is really happening," he said.
In 1995, Browne and others gathered the signatures to have the initiative placed on the state ballot. He said he did so because of his own medical condition, chronic back pain, and for many others with conditions "a lot worse."
Debby Goldsberry, founder of the Cannabis Action Network in Berkeley, said in a telephone interview she is convinced patients have a better chance of remaining cognizant by smoking pot instead of taking morphine. She had just returned from a 30-day, 22-city tour of the United States lobbying for changes in the legal system.
Eight other states including Oregon and Washington have joined California in enacting compassionate-use laws, according to CAN. Regionally, supportive medicinal marijuana ordinances are in place for the cities of Berkeley and Oakland and San Francisco and Marin counties.
The compassionate-use movement has come a long way since crowds a few years ago congregated on San Francisco sidewalks in front of Dennis Peron's Cannabis Healing Center and smoked pot in front of TV cameras.
"We wouldn't be here without Dennis Peron," Browne said with admiration. "And only in Arcata could this (program) succeed the way it has where people talk candidly about it."
In addition to the bill establishing a state registry, Vasconcellos sponsored a bill to fund medical marijuana research. That measure, appropriating $3 million for the University of California, is also being considered by the Assembly health committee.
The bills put California in a leadership position regarding medical marijuana reform and in conflict with federal law.
"The (Drug Enforcement Agency) will continue to enforce the law," warned DEA spokesman Terry Parham from his Washington office. "We're not in a position to look the other way."
But how likely is it the feds will target California's medical marijuana users and growers?
Not likely, Parham said. DEA agents are much too busy.
Vasconcellos and others say the federal government has been lacking in leadership on the medical marijuana issue, sometimes ignoring some of its own findings. One recent study conducted by the Institute of Medicine and commissioned by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under the direction of President Clinton's drug czar Barry McCaffrey benefits to prescribing pot for medical use, Vasconcellos cites in a recent report.
Two weeks ago the federal government did ease restrictions on Marinol, a byproduct of marijuana used to counter symptoms of AIDS and side effects of chemotherapy, the Associated Press reported. The "rescheduling" puts Marinol in the same category as drugs like Codeine. Although some say the availability of Marinol by prescription could eliminate the need for marijuana, others disagree.
Browne said since it's easy to overdose on Marinol and it's not as effective, users prefer smoking marijuana.
The use of Marinol as a substitute, how marijuana gardens will be regulated, how to test and grade marijuana for potency, and the conflict between state and federal laws are among the many issues that may take years to resolve.
In the meantime, at least one Humboldt County official has been outspoken on the topic.
"I think the federal government ought to butt out and allow the will of the voters," said Supervisor Roger Rodoni, who represents southern Humboldt.
Rodoni along with 3rd District Supervisor John Woolley, who represents Arcata voted against accepting a $250,000 grant to fund the Marijuana Eradication Team again this year. (They were outvoted 3-2.)
"For 20 years, we've been chasing these people around," Rodoni said in his office after the meeting. "Why should we fill up our jails with people who didn't create any victims?"
He thinks legalizing the drug would close down the money machine and the "symbiotic relationship" between drug agents and growers. But Rodoni said he's no friend to the large-scale, commercial pot grower.
Sgt. Steve Knight, of the Humboldt County Drug Enforcement Task Force, said big growers are precisely the target of the grant money, not small-time medicinal users.
"Let's be realistic. All we're trying to do is control marijuana," Knight said.
PHOTOS by Mark Lufkin:
1. Clients in Humboldt Cannabis Center's temporary trailer.
2. Sample of ID cards from City of Arcata, San Francisco Cannabis Cultivators Club and Humboldt Cannabis Center.
3. Arcata Police chief Mel Brown.
4. Club President Greg Allen.
5. Humboldt Cannabis Center office worker at the phone.
SOURCE: DR. TOD MIKURIYA.
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