Orange County Agrees to Medical-Marijuana ID Cards Just As the DEA Cracks Down on Dispensaries in L.A.

Orange County Agrees to Medical-Marijuana ID Cards Just As the DEA Cracks Down on Dispensaries in L.A.: Every Positive Step Seems to Be Met With a Step Backward

Published on Sunday, 12 Aug 2007
In the Orange County Register, The (CA) (
By Alan Bock (Sr. editorial writer)

Originally appearing here.

Eleven years after California voters, by passing Proposition 215, created exceptions to the marijuana prohibition laws for medical patients using marijuana, or cannabis, with the recommendation of a licensed physician, the issue of safe access to this medicine is still in turmoil. Orange County just became the most recent county in California to comply with California law and begin the process of setting up a voluntary ID cards program for patients. The Los Angeles City Council has declared a temporary moratorium on new medical cannabis dispensaries, but under the leadership of Dennis Zine, a former policeman, it has declared its clear intention to set up a regulatory and licensing regime for them.

After endless hassles from the federal government, a UC San Francisco research team finally got the go-ahead from the federal government to conduct rigorous scientific studies on limited aspects of the medicinal efficacy of cannabis. Its double-blind study against a smoked placebo showed that HIV patients experienced a significant reduction in the chronic foot pain associated with the disease; those who smoked cannabis got a 72 percent reduction in pain as opposed to 15 percent for those who smoked the placebo.

Doctors at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst are making steady progress in their quest to have the federal government permit them to grow their own cannabis for scientific research; researchers have complained that the cannabis from the federal government’s pot plantation in Mississippi – the only legal source for scientific experiments – is of erratic and sometimes low quality. Allowing botanists in Massachusetts to grow their own should open the way to more extensive scientific research. Research from Europe has shown efficacy against multiple sclerosis and even against certain kinds of cancer.

So we see steady progress in discovering and documenting medicinal uses for cannabis and sometimes halting but still encouraging progress in providing patients with reliable ways to get access to medicine while differentiating the medicinal market from the recreational black market. Against this backdrop, however, the federal government has continued to deny officially that cannabis has any medicinal uses at all, and the Drug Enforcement Administration has started playing hardball with patients and dispensaries, especially in California.

On July 6, the Los Angeles office of the DEA sent letters to as many as 150 landlords who rent to cannabis dispensaries, noting that their tenants are breaking federal laws and that as accessories to crime the landlords could receive 20 years in prison and have their property forfeited – stolen under color of law. Most, though not all, of the landlords gave their tenants eviction notices. The same day, in an apparently unrelated action, the DEA closed a chain of seven medical cannabis cooperative dispensaries in central California, as well as dispensaries in Bakersfield, Morro Bay and Corona. Meanwhile, Anaheim joined six other Orange County cities by passing an ordinance prohibiting – not creating rules for, but prohibiting – cannabis dispensaries.

On July 25 the DEA raided 10 more medical cannabis clinics in Los Angeles and arrested five people. That was the same day, coincidentally or not, that the L.A. City Council was voting to impose a temporary moratorium on new cannabis clinics, with the intention of developing regulations so the clinics – which had been proliferating like weeds – could operate in a more controlled, clearly legitimate fashion. The council also passed a resolution urging Congress to approve the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which was being considered in the House of Representatives that same day.

Hinchey-Rohrabacher is an amendment to the appropriations bill covering the Justice Department that would deny funds for enforcement activities against patients, growers or distributors in those states – 12 since New Mexico, with the active support of Gov. (and Democratic presidential candidate) Bill Richardson, approved one in May – that have passed medical marijuana laws. Some medical marijuana advocates have tried to spin the fact that it got more votes this year than last year – from 163 to 165 – as an encouraging sign. In fact, it was a deep disappointment.

Last year Republicans held the majority, while Democrats are in charge now. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had supported Hinchey-Rohrabacher in the past. Democratic presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, were on record opposing DEA raids in states with medical marijuana laws. Hinchey-Rohrabacher would get a lot more votes and maybe even pass this year.

Didn’t happen. Obviously the leadership didn’t push the measure (Pelosi didn’t record a vote). As Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project advocacy outfit in Washington told me, a number of freshman Democrats, especially in traditionally conservative or marginal districts, were unwilling to stick their necks out on what they believed could be an attack point in their reelection campaigns.

To be sure, even if Hinchey-Rohrabacher had passed the House it probably wouldn’t have passed the Senate, and in the unlikely event it passed the Senate President Bush would probably have vetoed it. But the fact that it did so poorly in a Democrat-controlled House suggests that the feeling among the political class is still that any move toward even modest loosening of the nation’s drug laws is the political kiss of death.

That shouldn’t be the case. National polls consistently show 70 percent to 80 percent support for allowing the medicinal use of marijuana. Gerald McNerney, the only San Francisco Bay area Democrat to vote against Hinchey-Rohrabacher – a freshman who took the 11th District from Republican Richard Pombo – got more criticism than congratulations for his vote. And Paul Broun, a Republican with impeccable conservative credentials who just won a special election in Georgia and was a surprise “yes” vote, got more favorable than unfavorable publicity.

A comment from Tom Riley, spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, was both galling and encouraging. “More and more people are realizing there is a con going on,” he said, “that a lot of people who are behind this aren’t really interested in sick people who need medicine, they’re interested in marijuana legalization, and they’re playing on the suffering of sick people to get it.”

It’s telling that Mr. Riley would rather demonize his opposition than deal with the substance of the issue. But if he’s sincere, there’s a way to call the bluff of these demon legalizers – carve out an exception for medical use in federal law and focus on enforcement against “recreational” users without the distraction of all those grandmothers in wheelchairs and other sympathetic sick people to give the other side an emotional advantage.

In fact, this would be in line with federal law as written. The Controlled Substance Act says that for a drug to be on Schedule I, which mandates no legal use and where marijuana is currently placed, it has to meet these criteria: A) “a high potential for abuse”; B) “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States”; and C) “a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervisions.”

As affirmed most recently by the 1999 government Institute of Medicine report, cannabis meets none of these criteria. So if the drug warriors were really interested in the law, they would take marijuana off Schedule I today.

Francis Young, a DEA administrative law judge, strongly recommended just that in 1988. The most recent petition to “reschedule” marijuana, by activist Jon Gettman, dates from 2002. The Catch-22 is that the administrator of the DEA makes the final decision, and in response to several petitions in recent years it has always been made on political rather than scientific grounds.

Despite setbacks, however, there’s an active medical-marijuana community that is growing in sophistication and is not going away. At the Orange County supervisors hearing last month on medical marijuana ID cards, one man got up and announced he heads a cooperative of 600 patients that has operated under the radar, but since the cards would be so helpful to the patients he was going public for the first time. Dale Gieringer, head of California National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told me his sources know of at least 400 cannabis dispensary operations in Los Angeles County, so even if the DEA closes as many as 150 of them, hundreds will still be in operation.

Americans for Safe Access, a patient advocacy group headquartered in Oakland, is pursuing an interesting lawsuit. The recently passed Data Quality Act requires that government policies and statements be based on sound current science and provides avenues for challenging those that aren’t. The Department of Health and Human Services says in several of its publications and on its Web site that marijuana “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” ASA started with administrative petitions and has been rebuffed, but it’s now in court to require HHS to change that statement to: “Adequate and well-recognized studies show the efficacy of marijuana in the treatment of nausea, loss of appetite, pain and spasticity,” backing up its filings with a three-inch stack of medical studies. Spokesman Kris Hermes told me the next brief will be filed Friday.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, told me allies in Congress are considering a proposal to take away the final determination of what drugs go on what schedules from the DEA administrator, giving it to an independent medical panel. There’s also the possibility of a law that would prohibit the use of forfeiture where a building’s use is in compliance with state law.

One would think that the federal government would not be able to dig in its heels forever against sound science and public opinion. But prohibitionism is a religion more than a policy, so the true believers won’t give in without a struggle.

Back to the MAPS Homepage

Orange County Register Senior Editor Alan Bock published an insightful editorial about the implementation of California’s medical marijuana law. Bock connects the challenges of implementation to the federal government’s obstruction of scientific research. He descibes MAPS’ effort to establish the nation’s first privately-funded research-grade marijuana production facility at UMass-Amherst, which would pave the way for an FDA drug development effort with marijuana.