THE JOINT DEBATE
April 17, 1998
The NewsHour reports on the medical marijuana debate in California.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nearly two dozen cannabis clubs, where marijuana is sold for medicinal purposes, have sprung up in California in the last year. Their very existence flies in the face of a long-time state policy of cracking down on drugs. Since 1982, California's law enforcement agencies have engaged in war on marijuana. Officials of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, CAMP, have swooped down on fields of cannabis and last year claim to have destroyed 130,000 plants. CAMP operations are overseen by California Attorney General Dan Lungren.
DAN LUNGREN, California Attorney General: And we've seen a doubling of the use of marijuana by teenagers across the country. I am concerned about teenagers who are being sold a lousy bill of goods by adults who say too bad about the next generation, we went through it in the 60's; we ruined a lot of lives; it doesn't matter; let 'em ruin some more lives.
SPENCER MICHELS: Despite Lungren's concerns, in 1996, California voters enacted by a 56 percent majority Proposition 215, which allowed the use of marijuana for medical purposes with a doctor's recommendation. Most of the medical marijuana sales made under that law take place in buyers clubs like this one in San Francisco. It was started by marijuana activist Dennis Peron, who led the fight for Prop 215.
DENNIS PERON, Cannabis Club Founder: We didn't legalize marijuana. What we did is say we're taking away the criminal penalties for possessing and selling marijuana to sick and dying people.
SPOKESMAN: Make sure that we have everyone in position. We're going to be opening very, very shortly.
SPENCER MICHELS: Peron's club opens every morning to a rush of clients anxious to buy marijuana. They show a club ID card obtained with a doctor's letter affirming they have medical need for cannabis. And then they are free to belly up to the bar and buy packages of pot, ranging in price from $3 to $60 for an 1/8 ounce, depending on the quality. The club gets its supplies from a number of small growers who claim to cultivate pot exclusively for medical use. Health worker and club patron Sandy Cala admits he used to use the drug recreationally, but now it's for health reasons.
SANDY CALA: Sure. I grew up in Southern California on the beach, and we'd smoke before hitting the ocean, but yet now it's smoking with a purpose. I have liver disease, which is the reason for my vomiting. I'd start smoking pot, and it would completely subside to the point where I don't throw up at all. And that's the whole idea is keeping my food inside so my body gets all its nutrients.
SPENCER MICHELS: Another client named "Mike" says he uses pot to reduce side effects from pills he takes for bone cancer in his jaw.
SPENCER MICHELS: Now, how many joints is that a day? "MIKE": Maybe two. One in the morning and one mid-afternoon, right after we take our pills and stuff because you start getting nausea from the pills and stuff.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Attorney General Lungren does not think the club should be allowed to exist. At a news conference at which confiscated marijuana and money were displayed he announced civil and criminal charges were being brought against Peron's club. The complaint alleges that people who were not patients often bought marijuana. Undercover films were shown to the press.
DAN LUNGREN: Some of the film showed toddlers in the smoking room receiving secondhand marijuana smoke. This is a situation in which we saw 13--well 15-year-olds buying marijuana in the place.
SPENCER MICHELS: Peron, who was charged and who had previously done time for marijuana possession, denies he sold to minors. He attributes his arrest to another factor.
DENNIS PERON: To the government it is a cultural war that they've been waging since the 70's, the 60's, and essentially now they're using patients to continue this cultural war on people that they don't like.
SPENCER MICHELS: The case against the clubs goes beyond just who buys pot. Lungren contends the clubs have no legal basis to exist because they never were part of Proposition 215. Further, they don't qualify as a primary care giver as required under the new law.
DAN LUNGREN: They can't shoehorn in the idea of cannabis buyers clubs within the definition of primary care giver. Primary care giver is a relatively simple term to figure out, and cannabis buyers clubs just don't come within it.
SPOKESMAN: What are our priorities? Where is our compassion?
SPENCER MICHELS: But in San Francisco the clubs get a lot of support from activists and city officials like San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. He says that while the law didn't specifically establish buying clubs, they were a logical way to distribute the drug.
TERENCE HALLINAN, District Attorney: The one thing that was left out that was a mechanism by which marijuana was to be distributed to sick people, in San Francisco we've had these--they call 'em clubs--we call 'em medical centers--whatever name you choose to call 'em--they operate under a set of rules adopted by the health commission. My office oversees 'em. We do surprise pop-in visits. The Health Department has people going and confirming that they are checking on the recommendations and checking with the doctors. It works for us.
SPENCER MICHELS: But a state judge sided with the attorney general and this week, ordered the San Francisco club closed based on the argument that it is not a primary care giver. Officials in other jurisdictions interpret and enforce the law differently. The operator of the San Jose cannabis club was hauled into court recently for allegedly selling marijuana without a valid medical recommendation after local police raided the club. That club may soon close. But it's not only some local governments and the state that want the clubs closed; so does the federal government, which claims all marijuana use is illegal. The U.S. Attorney's Office recently filed a civil suit to close down six cannabis clubs in Northern California.
MICHAEL YAMAGUCHI, U.S. Attorney: The issue is not the medical use of marijuana; it is the persistent violation of federal law. And I'd like to emphasize that. Again, it is not the medical use of marijuana; it's the violation of federal law that's important here.
SPENCER MICHELS: At a press conference U.S. Attorney Michael Yamaguchi cited violations of the Federal Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits distribution or possession of marijuana unless the Food & Drug Administration approves.
MICHAEL YAMAGUCHI: Under our system of federalism laws by Congress cannot be overridden or supplanted by state law. Federal laws continues to prohibit the distribution of marijuana at the cannabis clubs.
SPENCER MICHELS: But a pack of attorneys for the clubs contend there are conflicting constitutional issues. William Panzer represents a buyers club in Oakland.
WILLIAM PANZER, Cannabis Club Attorney: Every American citizen enjoys what's called a substantive due process right, a fundamental constitutional right to life, to bodily integrity, to be allowed treatment for excruciating pain. The government, in essence, has taken the position that the world is flat. When all the evidence is there, the science is there, unequivocally that the world is round here, unequivocally that medical marijuana is an effective, very safe medicine for use for a number of ailments.
SPENCER MICHELS: Yamaguchi rejects the constitutional argument and as a legal matter, the medical use of pot as well.
MICHAEL YAMAGUCHI: Marijuana has no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and it's not been approved by federal health officials to treat any diseases or conditions.
SPENCER MICHELS: Yamaguchi's federal suit brought quick denunciations not just from these advocates but from the mayors of four cities, including San Francisco's Mayor, Willie Brown.
MAYOR WILLIE BROWN, San Francisco: I wrote a letter recommending to the president that he instruct the Justice Department to work out some arrangement with not only this local government but all local governments, so that, in fact, the administration of marijuana to people who are terminally ill and who find that as the only method of relief, that that opportunity can be afforded then. That's not flaunting the law. That's complying with the law.
SPENCER MICHELS: Officials in San Francisco marching to what they claim to be the beat of the pro 215 voters say that if the federal court closes down the cannabis clubs, city health workers could distribute marijuana to patients instead.
TERENCE HALLINAN: I don't see it as thumbing its nose. I see it as us saying, hey, guys, look, we've found something here that works. The health authorities of a city have authority under federal law and regulation to distribute drugs that otherwise would be illegal if they were distributing, if they're doing it in compliance with local laws and ordinances.
DR. DAVID SMITH, Haight Ashbury Clinic: The real barrier is getting them into care.
SPENCER MICHELS: Dr. David Smith, who has run a free clinic in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury District since the 60's, says all these legal and medical arguments are being used for political gain.
DR. DAVID SMITH: There is such a blurring of the medical issues, and it appears to me that both sides of this ideological debate use whatever evidence they want in order to support their ideology.
SPENCER MICHELS: Smith says many of the problems with medical marijuana could be solved if it didn't take the same form as the recreational drug. The clubs, he says, deliver medical marijuana in the wrong way, smoked in cigarettes or pipes full of harmful impurities
DR. DAVID SMITH: It is not the way medicine is delivered; therefore, what we need to do is to open up the medical system so that they can get the medication they need in a pure form that looks medical. For example, if a pain patient in a hospital needs morphine, we have a delivery system for morphine for pain that's medical. We don't say, well, the patient should tie up and shoot up in the ward like the heroin addicts do on the street.
SPENCER MICHELS: Smith would like a smoke-free inhaled form of marijuana bought at a drugstore prescription counter like an asthma inhaler. The American Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health favor research on that idea. The federal case against California cannabis clubs will be decided shortly. The state court order to close the San Francisco club is being appealed. Meanwhile, initiative drives are underway in seven other states and the District of Columbia to legalize medical marijuana.
JIM LEHRER: And yesterday Dennis Peron announced the Cannabis Cultivators Club was going out of business and will reopen as the Cannabis Healing Center. Peron said the new club will be run by a 78-year-old woman who will provide marijuana only to patients. He claims the club will then conform to California law.