Margaret Sanger of Marijuana Arrested

On September 5, D.E.A. agents arrested epileptic patient Valerie Corral and her husband Michael in Santa Cruz, Calif., on charges of cultivating marijuana for distribution.

The Corrals have made no secret of the fact that their Women's Alliance for Medical Marijuana cooperative serves the needs of seriously ill Californians who have recommendations from their doctors to use marijuana for medicine. W.A.M.M. operated under state law and with the blessing of local officials, but has become the latest victim of an alarming pattern of heavy-handed federal interference in state policy.

The arrest of the Corrals is reminiscent of the 1916 arrest of birth control activist Margaret Sanger after she opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. At the time, New York state law prohibited even the distribution of information about birth control. But Sanger, a public health nurse in the poorest communities of New York, could no longer stand to witness the suffering of her patients and flouted the law.

In those gentler times Sanger faced only local authorities and a 30-day jail sentence. Today, the Corrals face federal charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences of five to ten years or more, despite the fact that federal authority over the matter is highly questionable.

California Health and Safety Code 11362.5, passed by the voters of California as Proposition 215 in November 1996, exempts Californians from laws against possession and cultivation of marijuana if they have their doctor's approval. The county of Santa Cruz approved a similar measure in 1995. Since then dozens of cooperatives like W.A.M.M. have bravely opened their doors across the state to meet the needs of patients unable to cultivate adequate supplies of medicine for themselves. Valerie Corral is an especially well-respected and well-spoken advocate for her cause, and her arrest led Dale Gieringer of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) to declare, "This means war."

According Gieringer, a federal campaign has been mounted against small-time marijuana growers, particularly those who claim a medical exemption. "The feds are targeting honest providers who openly supply medicine to sick people under state law rather than large-scale criminal traffickers who clandestinely supply the recreational market," he said. Gieringer says medical marijuana accounts for fifty percent of the 21 federal marijuana cases filed in the U.S. district court in San Francisco this year. Half the medical marijuana cases involve fewer than 300 plants; only two or three more than 1,000. But only one arrest for terrorism is known to have been reported in California during this time.

DEA agents have moved against medical marijuana gardens as small as six plants, over the protests of local district attorneys. In at least three cases, federal officials have arrested patients already acquitted on state charges because of their medical needs. So far, over a half-dozen medical marijuana growers have been sent to federal prison this year for activities they had reason to believe were legal under state law. The latest is Brian Epis, who was convicted for growing marijuana for a patients' group in Chico, Calif., and faces sentencing in Sacramento on Sept. 23.

In a case similar to the Corrals, Ventura County residents Judy and Lynn Osburn are currently in federal prison in Los Angeles after being arrested by the D.E.A. for growing a small personal-use medical garden. The Osburns were targeted for their past involvement in supplying the 800-member strong Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center. That center's closing was protested by the local sheriff and other public officials, but to no avail.

In the state of Washington, which also has a medical marijuana law, U.S. attorneys in the western district have announced that they will no longer adhere to the Clinton administration's guidelines of not prosecuting cases of fewer than 100 plants. Seattle defense attorney Jeffrey Steinborn says that prosecutors told him that they are under orders from Attorney General John Ashcroft to target medical marijuana providers. Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and Oregon have also passed medical marijuana laws.

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the north are taking a decidedly different tack. Under Canadian law, Steve Kubby, a U.S. citizen and medical marijuana user, is permitted to grow 49 plants and possess 6 pounds of processed marijuana by judge's order while he is in Canada. And on September 4, the Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs endorsed the establishment of "compassion clubs" as an alternative for serving medical users. The 600-page report -- the result of a two-year study -- urges Parliament to amend federal laws to allow for the regulated use, possession and distribution of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes. "Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol," the report states. "It should be regulated by the state much as we do for wine and beer, hence our preference for legalization over decriminalization."

Gieringer doesn't see any relief in these matters in the U.S. unless perhaps the Democrats re-take control of Congress and hold hearings on medical marijuana. He also looks forward to the results of an upcoming University of California study on the efficacy of marijuana as medicine and hopes to hold public officials to their pledge to follow its findings. A National Academy of Science study commissioned by then drug-czar Barry McCaffrey failed to produce a change in policy, although it found many promising medical uses for marijuana.

For now, however, it seems more medical marijuana martyrs will be seeing the inside of U.S. prisons.

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