NOVEMBER 7, 1996
A new debate has been sparked after propositions passed in Arizona and California that allow the purchase and use of marijuana for medical reasons. Jeffrey Kaye reports.
JEFFREY KAYE: Election night parties to celebrate the passage of California's Proposition 215 gave new meaning to the term “smoke-filled room.” The proposition allows Californians to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes when recommended by a physician. The initiative passed with a 56 percent majority. Arizona voters also passed a similar measure--Proposition 200--it would allow for the medical use of marijuana with a doctor's prescription. The California vote was welcomed at the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyers Club.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
September 25, 1996
Issue and Debate: A look at the failures of the drug war.
September 12, 1996
Statement by White House National Drug Policy Director Gen. Barry McCaffrey opposing moves in California to legalize marijuana.
The California Secretary of State's Web site provided a page explaining Proposition 215, and outlined arguments for and against its passage.
The Los Angeles Cannabis Buyers' Club is included in Jeffrey Kaye's backgrounder.
SPOKESMAN: We can't do anything until we get your doctor's letter.
JEFFREY KAYE: The measure legalizes what the group has been doing for months--supplying marijuana to patients who present a physician's letter. Club founder--Scott Imbler--says the club dispenses marijuana to about 350 people.
SCOTT IMBLER, LA Cannabis Buyers Club: 90 percent have AIDS. The other 10 percent have cancer, glaucoma, Multiple Sclerosis, paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries, seizure and convulsion disorders, epilepsy, chronic pain due to surgeries gone awry, other people that are having trouble with the medicines that they're taking, they can't deal with the side effects of the medicines they're taking.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Los Angeles group is one of as many as two dozen buyers clubs around the country. The clubs make marijuana available from an underground network of growers and buyers. Yesterday in Los Angeles, patients displayed what they called their medicine to curious reporters. Richard Eastman has AIDS.
RICHARD EASTMAN, AIDS Patient: But the marijuana helps keep my weight on, and, you know, a lot of people don't realize that if you don't eat, you're going to die too. So and that happens with a lot of AIDS people because some of the drugs that we take takes away our appetites.
JEFFREY KAYE: The mood is not always so cheerful at buyers clubs. Recently, club members in San Francisco in Los Angeles have appeared in court after being arrested on charges of illegally dispensing or possessing marijuana. The arrests came during a campaign for a measure that was strongly opposed by law enforcement. Police officials said this was a backdoor effort to de-criminalize pot. While advocates tout its benefits, there is little definitive scientific evidence about the medical effects of marijuana. The LA Cannabis Buyers Club keeps doctors' letters in its members' files. Babaji Zeiger, an AIDS patient, read from his physician's referral letter.
BABAJI ZEIGER, LA Cannabis Buyers Club: This patient reports that cannabis/marijuana is providing an otherwise unattainable relief from his or her symptoms. I have no objection to him using marijuana for this purpose.
JEFFREY KAYE: The physician who wrote Zeiger's letter is Dr. Maxine Liggins, a specialist in infectious diseases. Liggins is associate medical director of the Los Angeles AIDS Health Care Foundation.
JEFFREY KAYE: Why is it appropriate for him or anyone like him to be smoking marijuana, in your opinion?
DR. MAXINE LIGGINS, Proposition 215 Supporter: I think it's appropriate because the patients basically have said that their symptoms are alleviated, and I don't have any evidence to the contrary. So all of my patients who smoke marijuana have told me that they eat much more; that increases their sense of well-being, that increases their energy level. Most of my patients who smoke marijuana have also told me that they feel less nauseated.
JEFFREY KAYE: But Liggins is cautious. She says she'd like to see more scientific research done about the effects of marijuana. So would the California Medical Association which represents 34,000 physicians. The association, the CMA, opposed Proposition 215. One reason, according to its chief executive officer, Dr. Jack Lewin, is too much is unknown about the drug.
DR. JACK LEWIN, Proposition 215 Opponent: The anecdotal evidence is questioned. For example, people say it works for lowering the eye pressure in glaucoma, a disease which causes blindness. However, the ophthalmologists do not feel it's an effective therapy for glaucoma. Some people say it's a treatment for migraine, however, the neurologists do not feel it's an effective therapy for migraine.
JEFFREY KAYE: Lewin says another reason for his group's opposition to the measure was the fear that doctors who recommend marijuana might be found criminally liable under federal law. The federal government considers marijuana a class one drug like heroin and LSD. It restricts research and prohibits medical use. Today, Attorney General Janet Reno gave every indication that the federal government will continue to enforce the current restrictions.
JANET RENO, Attorney General: The requirements of federal law are still in place, and it will be enforced, and people should be advised of that.
JEFFREY KAYE: The California state attorney general has called a meeting of law enforcement officials throughout the state to discuss the legal implications of the new laws. Now a debate on taking Proposition 215 national. Bill Zimmerman was the California campaign manager for Prop 215. Lee Brown served as national drug control policy director under President Clinton. He now teaches at Rice University in Houston. Welcome to both of you. Bill Zimmerman, you've talked about taking us national. What are your plans, and why do you want to do it?
BILL ZIMMERMAN, Prop. 215 Campaign Manager: (Los Angeles) Well, on Tuesday, we won for patients in California and Arizona the right to use marijuana to alleviate symptoms associated with various diseases. We think that's a right that all Americans should enjoy, so we are going to explore placing similar initiatives on ballots in other states in 1998. We're going to work with state legislatures around the country. As you may know, four states--uh, Ohio, Florida, Idaho, and Washington--already have afforded their patients protections under the marijuana laws. And eventually, if we are successful, we intend to go to Washington and ask the Congress to pass a law that extends these rights to all Americans.
JEFFREY KAYE: Lee Brown, what do you think about that?
LEE BROWN, Former Drug Policy Director: (Houston) I think it's a cruel hoax on Americans. I say that because it's really a backdoor way to legalize marijuana. Look at the organization that's backing this normally national organization reform marijuana laws--the Drug Policy Foundation, both pro-legalization organizations. Also, there's no medical evidence to suggest that it'll accomplish what they're attempting to accomplish. And beyond that, I think what we see happening is those who are proposing this are plain and pitting the sentiments of the American people who are compassionate about those who deal with AIDS or cancer against those who want to keep our children from getting caught up in drug use. I think in the long run what we're talking about will be our children, and that's our future. I think it's the wrong thing to do. All the medical evidence tells us right now that there's ample medication that would do the same thing that they're proposing, so it's not a medical issue. The long run objective is to legalize marijuana, and that's the wrong thing for this country.
JEFFREY KAYE: Is that the long run objective, Bill Zimmerman?
MR. ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely not. There were organizations that supported legalization who supported Prop 215, but so did the California Academy of Family Physicians, so did the San Francisco Medical Society, the California Nurses Association, and six of the ten largest newspapers in California endorsed Prop 215.
MR. BROWN: Not opposed by the American Medical Association--the California Medical Association--
MR. ZIMMERMAN: That's not because they're legalized. That's because they're interested in protecting patients' rights.
MR. BROWN: --oppose this.
MR. ZIMMERMAN: Certainly those institutions are concerned about our children. Unfortunately, what Mr. Brown has just said--precisely the same words we heard before, uh, Prop 215 passed in the campaign against it. I think it's time for law enforcement officers and legislatures across the country to get together and figure out how to make 215 work because 215 is the law of the land.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Brown.
MR. BROWN: It doesn't control the age. Any kid can go buy it. It doesn't define what's a serious, um, ailment, and Arizona is even more bizarre, and not only does it include marijuana, it includes heroin--
MR. ZIMMERMAN: That's not true.
MR. BROWN: --LSD, other drugs like that--cocaine. So I think what we have to do as the American public is to recognize that this should be a wake-up call for all parents in America. We have to send a message out to our children that marijuana's is not only illegal--it's also dangerous. We know that it causes damage to one's cognitive factors--the ability to think--to use judgment--to drive a car. We also know that it's more damaging to the body or the lungs, particularly our immune system than tobacco. We also know from substantial research--
JEFFREY KAYE: All right. Mr. Brown, let me get a response--
MR. BROWN: --Joe Telifano--that it's the gateway drug--those who use marijuana are also more likely to end up using the hard drugs--cocaine and heroin. So it's the wrong thing to do.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Zimmerman, what message does this send to children?
MR. ZIMMERMAN: I believe this message tells children that we are not so hysterical about a failed policy on--on drugs in this country; that we are willing to prevent sick and dying people from getting a medicine that alleviates their suffering.
MR. BROWN: The message to children--
MR. ZIMMERMAN: Mr. Brown has his facts wrong.
MR. BROWN: --would be that--
MR. ZIMMERMAN: Mr. Brown has his facts wrong.
MR. BROWN: If you're calling marijuana medicine--
MR. ZIMMERMAN: There's nothing in Proposition 215 that affects any drug outside of heroin--outside of marijuana. Uh, he says--uh--we've affected the laws on heroin--that's not the case. Proposition 215 leaves in place all of the laws that prevent recreational use of marijuana--that ensure that children don't get to marijuana. I find it strange that a former drug czar is complaining about children having increased access to marijuana. When that's the result of policies from the past, it certainly isn't the result of future policies--
MR. BROWN: Well, your conclusion is absolutely wrong. What's--
JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Brown.
MR. BROWN: What's being proposed in California doesn't even require a prescription. It's a recommendation for a doctor. Any kid can--can do that.
JEFFREY KAYE: Let's take that point alone. Why doesn't--uh--why isn't a doctor's prescription required for--for medicine--medical matter--medicinal marijuana, as it would be for any other drug?
MR. ZIMMERMAN: Because any doctor that writes a prescription for marijuana is guilty of a federal crime because federal law makes it illegal. A prescription is an order to a distributor to dispense a controlled substance. That's illegal under federal law. We intentionally wrote Prop 215 so that only a recommendation is required so we don't place doctors in a situation where they're guilty of federal crimes. I would point out that if a doctor makes a recommendation, he's got to be prepared to testify in court under oath that he made the recommendation for the reason that he did. And the reason we don't restrict marijuana use to children is that cancer doesn't restrict itself to adults. Cancer affects children. Epilepsy affects children. AIDS affects children, and we don't want to close off the possibility of an effective drug being administered.
MR. BROWN: I think the bottom line is this is a backdoor way to try to legalize marijuana, and that's the bottom line. What we have to do--
JEFFREY KAYE: But what about the point--
MR. BROWN: --is do more in the area of prevention, and getting the message to our children, and marijuana is dangerous, is illegal, and it's a bad thing. It should be, from what we've seen in California and Arizona, a wake-up call to all of us who are concerned about our children.
JEFFREY KAYE: But what about--
MR. BROWN: What we will see is increasing drug use amongst our young people.
JEFFREY KAYE: What about the point Mr. Zimmerman made, Mr. Brown, and that is that there is a standard of proof that would be required of doctors who would have to testify in court as to their recommendation?
MR. BROWN: Well, that certainly would save pain in what I've been able to read about the proposition. In fact, it does not even define what the serious illness is. It doesn't tell anything about the age. What would prevent a child from reading something in a magazine where the doctor recommends this, and the child uses that as a defense? Those are--
MR. ZIMMERMAN: That's a silly argument.
MR. BROWN: --so loose that one can't draw any serious conclusion that it makes any sense whatsoever. The point again I think that the viewer should recognize, that he's already said, they want to take it nationwide as part of an overall movement to legalize marijuana. And we have to be concerned about that if we're concerned about our kids.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Brown, should people who feel they are entitled for medicinal purposes to have marijuana be able to get it?
MR. BROWN: We have medical procedures to accomplish that. It's not been approved by the FDA. We're told by medical advisers that the same things that one will get out of marijuana can be obtained from synthetic drugs, and so--
MR. ZIMMERMAN: That's not true.
MR. BROWN: So the point being that the benefits or the proposed benefits of marijuana are already available in synthetic drugs, so there's no legitimate--legitimate medical reasons for using marijuana, and that's the reason--
JE FFREY KAYE: Let me get Mr. Zimmerman's--
MR. BROWN: --marijuana is on the controlled substance list as a schedule one drug because there's no legitimate medical reason, and it's also a subject of widespread abuse. Again--
JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Zimmerman.
MR. BROWN: --the objective is to legalize--
MR. ZIMMERMAN: The drug that Mr. Brown--
MR. BROWN: --marijuana in this country.
MR. ZIMMERMAN: The drug that Mr. Brown is referring to is called Marinol. It's synthetic THC. What he hasn't told the viewers is that it costs $30,000 per year, per person to use, that it is purely the psycho-active component of marijuana--THC--which gives patients a six-hour high when they take it. Patients complain about anxiety attacks and other discomfort when they use Marinol. Further, it goes--it enters the bloodstream through the digestive system, and it takes a full hour to have effect, whereas, smoked marijuana enters through the lungs and has an effect immediately. So patients can self-regulate their dosage by continuing to smoke until they achieve the relief they're after.
MR. BROWN: And the flip side of that--
JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Brown.
MR. BROWN: --is that chronic use of marijuana is also addictive, has a negative impact on the immune system, and many negative aspects. It affects one's cognitive factors. We see more and more--uh--serious accidents where death or serious injury's involved with marijuana in the system, so there are a lot of negative sides to all that we're talking about. The message--the message must be that this is a backdoor move to--
JEFFREY KAYE: We'll have--
MR. BROWN: --legalize marijuana in America.
JEFFREY KAYE: Gentlemen, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us.
MR. ZIMMERMAN: You're welcome.