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California Cannabis Clubs Organize to Fight Feds

As the DEA cracks down on the medical marijuana community, the clubs launch a counter-campaign to build public support.
 
 
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In an effort to fight what they say is the targeting of the medical marijuana community by federal law enforcement, a California group called the Cannabis Action Network (CAN) has launched a campaign to revive the statewide movement that helped pass Prop. 215 -- the 1996 initiative that allows seriously ill Californians to use cannabis with a doctor's recommendation.

The campaign, called Americans for Safe Access (ASA), was sparked by a series of raids carried out in San Francisco by the Drug Enforcement Administration on Feb. 12. The operation led to the indictment of four men under federal narcotics laws and the closure of the city's Sixth Street Harm Reduction Center medical cannabis club. The men, who are legal medical marijuana patients under California law, face cannabis cultivation and conspiracy charges -- that carry potential life sentences.

"We are completely committed to protecting patients who are very close to losing their access to medical cannabis," said CAN director Steph Sherer, who notes that a number of California patients have been arrested on federal drug charges. "We are talking about death, we are talking about AIDS patients who will not have access to medication to let them live. That is a reality."

DEA director Asa Hutchinson was in San Francisco the day of the raid, but he denied that the DEA was targeting patients or cannabis clubs. Federal prosecutors said the operation was in response to an alleged marijuana trafficking operation at Sixth Street which had been under surveillance for months.

"The marijuana clubs are not our primary priority; we could, but we have not, targeted them for investigations," said Richard Meyer, a special agent for the DEA's San Francisco field division. Meyer asserts that his agency is focused on investigating drug trafficking operations, no matter where it leads them. "We have heard people in the community saying that many traffickers are using [the cannabis clubs] as a smoke screen to engage in this business for profit and are not concerned with the sick. Any cultivation, possession, and distribution of marijuana is illegal under federal law. It is our job is to enforce those laws and we will."

The DEA rejected an appeal made in 2000 by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to reschedule marijuana from a Schedule One substance to Schedule Two of the Federal Controlled Substances Act. This would permit doctors to issue a cannabis prescription with medical oversight. Instead, the federal government wants to punish doctors who now recommend cannabis to their patients. The Justice Department is seeking to overturn a federal district court ruling, Conant v. McCaffrey, which found that stifling cannabis recommendations violated physicians' First Amendment rights. On April 8, judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals questioned Department of Justice attorneys who are appealing an injunction against sanctioning these doctors.

"Why on earth does an administration that's committed to the concept of federalism . . . want to go to this length to put doctors in jail for doing something that's perfectly legal under state law?" asked Judge Alex Kozinski at the hearing. U.S. Attorney Mark Stern argued that the government should be allowed to investigate doctors whose advice "will make it easier to obtain marijuana." But he had difficulty convincing judges that there was a distinction between discussing cannabis and recommending it.

It's unclear when the appeals court will issue a ruling in this case. But the cannabis clubs say they are bracing for more federal raids. The ASA campaign is trying to rally public opinion to support the clubs and understand "the futility of the war on drugs and the value of medical marijuana." ASA is encouraging supporters to sign a "letter of resistance" opposing Hutchinson and the Bush administration's medical cannabis policies.

"This is going to be ASA vs. Asa," says Sherer. "We are looking the Bush administration in the eye, the voters here voted for this and this country is a democracy, you are not going to take medical marijuana away from the state of California."

Allegations And Proposals

The ASA campaign is also attempting to build stronger ties between the cannabis clubs and their local communities. To support this effort, it is developing a set of recommended protocols for the operation of cannabis dispensaries. The guidelines include a mediation process that clubs can use to address the concerns of residents, city officials, or local law enforcement. The protocols are modeled on those which have already been used by the Alliance of Berkeley Patients to address a zoning dispute at a Berkeley club and two armed robberies at a second club. The Alliance represents five Berkeley cannabis clubs. "We are involving city government in the process so that if there is an issue or a situation with the city government or antagonism by the federal government, we have allies," says Sherer.

Prop. 215 offers no specific controls for the operation of medical cannabis clubs in California. Each club has its own regulations and each city and county negotiate their own medical marijuana laws. Sherer wants to encourage a set of statewide club guidelines, export the model to other cities, and network the Alliances together. "How do you police yourself when you are playing a fine line on the state level and illegal on the federal level?" asks Sherer. "Where do you go?"

The Alliance guidelines include membership restriction to qualified patients, the need to demonstrate patient eligibility and screening of members. Membership is not required but all the Berkeley clubs follow Alliance protocols. The Alliance investigates issues of non-compliance. "We don't provide cannabis to people that are not legally sanctioned to have it from their doctors and we won't provide more than they need for their personal use" said Debby Goldsberry, director of Berkeley Patients Group, a cannabis club which helped draft the Alliance guidelines.

Ed Rosenthal, one of the four men facing federal drug charges in connection with the DEA raid, agrees that common accounting standards could help thwart charges of club profiteering. He proposes that the city of San Francisco charter all its medical marijuana clubs and make the club employees officers of the city. The author of numerous books and articles on cannabis cultivation, Rosenthal also supports efforts to regulate cannabis quality and price. "I think patients have a right to expect a certain quality of product and the way to do that would be to standardize it," says Rosenthal.

Fred Medrano, the director of health and human services for the city of Berkeley, says the city has taken a low profile in regulating the medical cannabis clubs, leaving the responsibility of community coexistance to club operators. He says the Alliance guidelines are a useful way to set standards and mediate disputes. "Typically, in most communities, there is tension between the needs of patients to receive medical marijuana for medical purposes and the potential effects on the community living in the neighborhood," said Medrano. "There has to be acceptance and you can't have that unless you are willing to meet people and form relationships. This is a pretty good first step."

The importance of resolving community concerns became clear after the February DEA raid in San Francisco when it was revealed that accusations of trafficking by a city clergy member, had helped the DEA obtain search warrants. The complaint was brought by the Reverend Father Nazarin, who says he the presiding bishop of a breakaway faction of the Iraqi-based Assyrian-Chaldean Catholic Church. Nazarin was associated with another San Francisco cannabis club -- the St. Martin de Porres Chapel which he considered a department of his church. According to a DEA affidavit, Nazarin wrote a letter to the agency alleging that some of the medical marijuana dispensaries were "owned and operated by greedy, professional drug dealers who hide behind the shield of Proposition 215."

In a later statement, Nazarin further charged that the medical cannabis movement had been "hijacked" by profiteers who hid profits with fraudulent bookkeeping. Nazarin said staff members at the Sixth Street Harm Reduction Center club told him that another member of the staff, Rick Watts, was "operating an illegal drug market in the back room" and insisted that "the medical marijuana movement is either unwilling or unable to expel its criminal elements."

Watts, son of the philosopher Alan Watts, was one of the four men arrested in the DEA sweep. Neither Watts, nor his attorney, had any comment on the case.

Counter Charges And Court Rulings

Nazarin's allegations rocked the Bay Area medical cannabis community. The directors of the St. Martin de Porres Chapel say they were not aware of Nazarin's concerns before he sent his letter to the DEA. They reject Nazarin's charges and have banished him from the St. Martin club, which is being reorganized under a new name. St. Martin director Wayne Justmann, said that Father Nazarin grew cannabis as a patient caregiver under Prop. 215 and attempted to sell it to St. Martin at inflated prices. Both Justmann and Rosenthal say Nazarin is motivated by a financial interest in the Sixth Street club. "He wanted control over [St. Martin] and the Sixth Street facility," said Justmann. "He wanted to take over."

Nazarin vehemently denies that he sought to control the St. Martin or Sixth Streets clubs. He says he simply wants to alert authorities of club mismanagement, and wrote another letter to the DEA this month claiming that "a criminal element is moving to take control" of the Northern California clubs. Debby Goldsberry says she wishes there was an Alliance in San Francisco where Nazarin could put his issues on the table. Had Nazarin's charges been directed against a Berkeley club, Goldsberry said the Alliance would have investigated and reached a consensus solution satisfactory to all parties. At this point, Goldsberry says she is skeptical of Nazarin's allegations of mismanagement.

"I have been involved in these issues for 10 to 12 years and I haven't seen that kind of profiteering," she said. "It doesn't seem to me that he has any widespread experience with the movement, he is applying limited experiences in a broad and sweeping way and he is harming us all."

Medrano points out that without a forum for settling disputes, the potential for conflict will continue to exist. "Unless you create the vehicle for opportunities for relationship building and coexistence, you are basically left with a lot of unknowns and sometimes the unknowns can lead to hasty conclusions and prejudices," Medrano said.

For his part, Nazarin says the clubs should address allegations of mismanagement by working more closely with federal authorities. He proposes that club workers and volunteers undergo background checks. But he declined to provide any information about his own background or the activities of his breakaway church. The Assyrian-Chaldean Catholic diocese in the United States does not recognize him as a priest.

Nazarin further proposes that the DEA and the Attorney General of California designate non-profit organizations to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana to approved dispensaries that buy only from these sources. "I would ask the U.S. Attorney General to encourage faith-based organizations to assume the lead in this project," writes Nazarin.

DEA special agent Meyer says the agency is not ready to acknowledge that marijuana has any medicinal value or help to distribute it. "I think it is good that the clubs are concerned about people abusing the system," says Meyer. "But that does not change the fact that under federal law marijuana is illegal and we all know that federal law supersedes state law."

Federal legislation does not always trump state law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last May that medical necessity was not a defense against prosecution under the Federal Controlled Substances Act. But on April 19, the case will be heard again by a U.S. District Court judge who will decide whether the state or the federal government has jurisdiction over medical marijuana distribution inside California. The ASA campaign is planning street protests to mark the date.

Ann Harrison is a freelance writer in San Francisco.