Drugs

Why I Am Willing to Go to Jail For Medical Marijuana

An activist explains why we need to take direct action to stop the government from punishing the seriously ill in order to prop up a failed drug war.
On June 6, reform activists organized demonstrations in 60 cities at DEA offices across the United States to protest their continued prosecution of community-based marijuana dispensaries, growers and patients.

The DEA continues its prosecution even though research proves medical marijuana is the most effective treatment available for many people with chronic pain and other serious illness. They ignore seven statewide referenda where the public voted overwhelmingly for medical marijuana. They ignore court decisions that demonstrate that marijuana should be available as a medicine. They've ignored efforts to negotiate to resolve the matter and ensure safe access for the seriously ill. Despite all the evidence and overwhelming public support, our democratic will is still being pushed aside by the Federal Government.

These are some of the reasons why I joined nine other reform leaders in Washington, D.C. in closing down the employee entrance to the Department of Justice. We decided to take direct action, even if it meant risking arrest, even though my organization, Common Sense for Drug Policy, does not advocate illegal activity nor does it encourage its staff to engage in illegal activity. The federal government is closing all alternatives to resolving this matter. As individuals we must challenge them.

A religious reform leader recently posted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to a group of reform advocates. When Dr. King's explanation for when direct action is appropriate was applied to medical marijuana it was evident that we had no choice but to be civilly disobedient and stand up against the injustice of federal government attacks on medical marijuana patients and their dispensaries. Their refusal to follow votes, research, needs of patients and court rulings left us no choice. Direct action against the perpetrators of this injustice was necessary.

Medical marijuana providers in states that have voted for allowing medical use are heroes who are risking serious criminal charges for providing medicine to the seriously ill. Reformers across the country need to stand up and say no more, we need zero tolerance for medical marijuana injustice.

The medical marijuana issue is not a new one for me. In 1978 when I first became involved in reform I worked on NORML's (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) lawsuit in the US Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. We challenged the DEA's refusal to allow medical access to marijuana. During this litigation, and others where I represented patients being prosecuted for marijuana offenses, I received scores of phone calls from doctors and patients who told similar stories about how incredibly useful marijuana was to seriously ill people who would suffer needlessly without marijuana. Regardless of their positive experiences, they would remain criminals for their medical use of marijuana.

After we won in the court of appeals and forced the DEA to hold an administrative law hearing on medical marijuana I worked with the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, a group of patients and their advocates, to develop the evidence supporting medical marijuana. In doing so we not only compiled the testimony of dozens of patients, doctors, nurses and researchers but we also compiled the published research in medical journals and by state departments of health that unequivocally showed that marijuana is a safe and effective medicine. The DEA also put forward their best case, and in hearings across the United States we cross-examined these witnesses. The case continues to be the largest compilation of information on medical marijuana in any court proceeding.

Our case was overwhelming. Indeed, the Chief Administrative Law Judge for the DEA, Francis L. Young, ended up ruling strongly in our favor. Judge Young rejected the most common argument of the DEA as being specious, allowing medical use will send the wrong message saying: "The fear of sending such a signal cannot be permitted to override the legitimate need ... of countless suffers for the relief marijuana can provide ... "

Judge Young ruled: "The evidence in the record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety ... It would be unreasoning, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefit of this substance ... "

That was 14 years ago and the DEA has only escalated its efforts to block the seriously ill from getting this much needed medicine.

Unfortunately, Judge Young's ruling was a recommendation to the politically appointed head of the DEA. The DEA, predictably, rejected his ruling. We appealed, and to our surprise, won. This was surprising because administrative law strongly favors the administrative agency. The court sent it back to the DEA for reconsideration. The DEA again ruled against medical access. We appealed and won again. But the DEA remained obstinate and on our final appeal we lost, not because of the facts but because a basic tenet of administrative law is the courts defer to the agency.

In the late-1980s research on medical marijuana was in the final phase of a three-step process. Two states, New York and California, were conducting large-patient population research studies that when completed would finish the final research phase and make marijuana available as a medicine. By this time 34 states had passed laws allowing the use of marijuana in research programs. At this critical moment the first Bush administration halted all research on medical marijuana. There was no opportunity for public comment, no hearings, just an internal agency decision that ignored state law, court decisions, research findings and the urgent need of patients.

This frustrated medical marijuana patients, and like a kettle covered while boiling, the pressure was building. Activists in San Francisco put a medical marijuana referendum on the ballot in the mid 1990s, Proposition P, which passed overwhelmingly. In 1996 California passed proposition 215, and a series of states soon followed; Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Maine and Washington, DC all passed similar laws. Every state that considered the issue voted in favor of medical marijuana. When Hawaii became the first legislature to pass a medical marijuana bill, other states began moving in that direction.

Local governments began to implement the laws. Some put in place a patient ID card system run by their Health Department or the prosecutor investigated the medical dispensaries to ensure they were lawful. Local medical associations began to educate their colleagues about medical use of marijuana. Some cities began to find ways to make the new laws work, in the midst of the federal government's war on marijuana where the FBI estimates 735,000 were arrested last year.

The feds reacted with threats to doctors, arrests of growers, patients and dispensaries. They put out false information, saying there was no research supporting medical use, even after a million dollar National Academy of Sciences research project they commissioned concluded marijuana had medical value for some patients. Federal drug officials escalated scares about marijuana's dangers by making exaggerated claims of harm. In my hometown, Washington, DC, they were successful in blocking the counting of the ballots on medical marijuana for one year after the vote occurred. In the end, when a court forced the count we won by a landslide but Congress blocked implementation of the will of the people.

The feds have done everything they can to block the seriously ill from getting their medicine.

We still hope the federal government will come to its senses, stop punishing the seriously ill in order to prop up their failed drug war, allow safe access to medical marijuana so that the will of the people can become reality. But today we needed to make a statement -- we will not go away, we will no longer tolerate this injustice, we will stand together against their denial of medicine, and in the end, we will prevail.

Mr. Zeese serves as President of Common Sense for Drug Policy. This is mentioned for identification purposes only. Common Sense for Drug Policy does not support illegal activity. He is an attorney who has worked for safe access for medical marijuana for 24 years.
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