Bugs in Calif Medical Marijuana Law

Monday, July 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — In the four years since California's groundbreaking medicinal marijuana law, bugs have been detected, other states have been inspired and the federal government remains unhappy.

Advocates say more research could help solve problems that arose from the 1996 measure, such as how best to take the drug, how much to prescribe and how law enforcement officials should treat those with a doctor's recommendation.

Gina Pesulima, spokeswoman for Americans for Medical Rights, said California's law doesn't define the specific amounts of marijuana allowed or say if patients should be registered or required to carry an identification card. That, she said, has created confusion among law enforcement officials, medical personnel, patients and lawmakers.

``Proposition 215 was pretty loosely written,'' said Pesulima, whose group advises grass-roots organizations promoting medical marijuana laws. ``We help other states draft tighter laws, which will make it easier for everyone involved.''

California Sen. John Vasconcellos has sponsored a bill that would tighten state law by establishing a registry or identification card system and urging consistent enforcement.

The bill was put in the inactive file in the state Assembly, but Rand Martin, a consultant from Vasconcellos' office said he expects it to be approved this year.

In the meantime, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan last week announced a plan to issue city ID cards allowing sick people to use marijuana. The cards, which cost $25 and require a doctor's note, allow patients to avoid local prosecution if caught possessing the drug.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer was expected to decide if an Oakland club is allowed to distribute medicinal marijuana. He hinted last week he may be forced to permit it because the U.S. Justice Department hasn't rebutted evidence that cannabis is the only effective treatment for a large group of seriously ill people.

Gov. Gray Davis has approved spending $3 million over three years to research the benefits and efficacy of marijuana, which is used by some to ease the pain of terminal or chronic illness.

Even officers who fight drug use support the research, said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotic Officers Association.

``We've always supported all dispassionate research into the effects of any drugs. I don't think anyone has any investment in ignorance,'' Lovell said.

Since California voters approved The Compassionate Use Act of 1996, voters in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Maine have approved similar laws. This month, Hawaii became the first state to use legislation to approve the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Voters in Nevada and Colorado also approved initiatives, but will vote again on their measures this fall. Colorado's was disqualified after the election, while Nevada's law requires approval in two successive elections.

Possession and cultivation of marijuana remains illegal under U.S. law, and federal officials have repeatedly told state officials that medical marijuana users risk federal prosecution.

Federal defendants who have tried to use the state's law as a defense have failed, said Thomas J. Ballanco, the defense attorney involved in the two biggest cases using the defense. He lost both.

In one of them, B.E. Smith was convicted of growing marijuana on federal land in Trinity County. Smith has a doctor's recommendation for marijuana and said he was growing the plants for himself and others who were able to smoke pot under the Compassionate Use Act.

Smith is serving a 27-month prison sentence and is appealing the conviction.

``In the cases I've seen at the state level, it has been a successful defense,'' Ballanco said.

One of his clients had her marijuana plants seized, then returned by the Los Angeles Police Department. ``We just backed up a truck to the LAPD and drove off with a bunch of marijuana,'' Ballanco said.

Americans for Medical Rights provides legal assistance for patients who have been arrested on drug charges and are using the Compassionate Use Act as a defense in state courts.

``We're confident that patients are able to use the law as a defense,'' Pesulima said. ``In the cases where there's more of an ongoing battle, it's usually because they have more than the amount allowed for personal use or they are using in public, which is clearly not allowed.''


On the Net:

Americans for Medical Rights: http://medmjscience.org

California Narcotic Officers Association: http://www.cnoa.org