Calif. Mayors Ask Clinton: Spare Marijuana Clubs
Wednesday, March 18, 1998
By Andrew Quinn
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A group of California mayors asked President Clinton Wednesday to block a federal suit against the state's marijuana clubs, sharply escalating the political and legal battle over medical marijuana use.
"At stake is the well-being of 11,000 California residents,'' the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz and West Hollywood said in letters to Clinton. They also asked him to suspend enforcement of federal drug laws that interfere with the clubs' daily operations.
"If the centers are shut down, many of these individuals will be compelled to search back alleys and street corners for their medicine,'' the mayors wrote. "This will not only endanger their lives, but place an unnecessary burden on our local police departments.''
The mayors' plea comes ahead of a March 24 hearing in San Francisco on a Justice Department bid to shut down six California marijuana distribution clubs on the grounds they violate federal drug laws.
The suit, one of two filed in federal courts in San Francisco and San Jose, marks a major legal skirmish over California's Proposition 215, the state law voters approved in 1996 which legalized marijuana use for people suffering from AIDS, cancer and other serious ailments.
California politicians are squaring off over the clubs, which have been the major source of marijuana for people who say it helps relieve a variety of symptoms ranging from pain and nausea to "nerves''.
California's Attorney General Dan Lungren has personally vowed to see the clubs shut down, while local leaders such as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and city District Attorney Terence (eds: one "r'' is correct) Hallinan have promised to keep them open.
Lungren's legal efforts were boosted last month when the state supreme court sided with a lower court ruling which said the clubs were illegal because they were not "primary care givers'' for the patients they supply -- which is a condition set by the California measure.
Although the supreme court ruling set the legal groundwork for closure of the clubs, most are still operating and their leaders say they can fight the semantics in court.
Medical marijuana advocates are casting the battle as an issue of states' rights versus the federal government, saying federal officials should not be allowed to override a compassionate law approved by popular vote in California.
Federal officials say, however, they are not targeting ''medical use'' of marijuana -- simply the persistent violation of federal laws making it illegal to cultivate, possess or distribute the drug.
The mayors' letter urged Clinton to side with the clubs and said the federal government should allow local authorities to ''formalize dispensary systems that live up to the spirit of the law, and most importantly, make marijuana available, safe and accessible to suffering patients.''
They promised to abide by federal law, but asked for time to develop "airtight'' regulation and supervision of the dispensaries.
"We ask that the federal government respect local government's experience and expertise in potentially developing legal community-based solutions that benefit the public health of our residents,'' the mayors wrote.
San Francisco's Hallinan Monday indicated he was willing to defend the city's right to set its own policies.
In court papers, Hallinan said that if the current distribution system were
federal interference, San Francisco may ask its police to step in "to
distribute marijuana to
seriously ill people.''