Medical Marijuana Madness

Just before 7 a.m. on Sept. 5, before the sun could rise over the slope above his house, Mike Corral awakened to the sound of vehicles driving over the narrow gravel road leading to his property. He peeked outside the second-story window and saw five U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, dressed in black combat gear and wielding automatic weapons, marching towards his door. Like an episode out of Cops, the agents busted in the unlocked house and screamed at Corral to hit the floor. "Stay calm, I’m not going to resist, you don’t have to do this," he recalls saying before the agents pushed him to the ground, frisked and handcuffed him.

Mike’s wife, Valerie, and two friends slept in an adjacent house on the couple’s 106-acre property -- a quarter of which they own -- nestled in the hills of northern, coastal Santa Cruz County, when Valerie heard heavy boot steps in her home. One of her friends, Suzanne Pfeil, a paraplegic who requires a respirator to breath, was being ordered out of bed. Because she couldn’t stand without the aid of crutches, agents handcuffed her to her bed. Meanwhile, Valerie, wearing the green silk pajamas that her mother had given her for her 50th birthday, walked through the door of the room and demanded, "What are you doing in my house? Get out." The officers told her several times to hit the ground, while Valerie asked to see a search warrant and their badges.

Instead, the DEA shoved her to the ground and cuffed her. The bantam, five-foot-tall Valerie was no match physically for the heavily armed agents, but she stood her ground, telling them that what they were doing was wrong. "The only way your going to shut me up is with Duct tape," Valerie told the agents gathered in the house. "You're causing harm, you're causing suffering and you need to know it." For the past decade, the Corrals have run the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a cooperative that grows marijuana and shares the harvested crop among its membership of medical marijuana patients, who swear by the reefer’s relief. WAMM patients suffer from cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, polio, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy (Valerie Corral suffers from seizures herself) and a host of other afflictions. And conventional pharmaceuticals, they say, just don’t do the trick. But that’s none of the DEA’s concern. The Corrals were taken, handcuffed, to the federal courthouse in San Jose, where they spent the next eight hours in a holding cell. Meanwhile, agents took a chainsaw to 167 marijuana plants growing on the Corrals’ farm.

As shocking as the morning proved to be, the Corrals feared a bust might be imminent. The WAMM bust is just one in a recent rash of raids on mom-and-pop medical marijuana cooperatives across the state. In the past year, the agency has raided gardens producing as few as six plants -- chump change in terms of the feds’ goal of eradicating illicit drugs. And the DEA promises more raids are on the way.

Slash and Burn

Nestled on a hill at the end of a long, bone-jolting road, sits the Corrals’ home, where the couple has lived for 16 years. The uprooted WAMM garden is discreetly set 20 or so yards from the side of the ranch-style house, behind an old wooden gate. Aside from a small crop of corn, squash and few heavily laden tomato plants, the wheelchair-accessible garden is stripped bare, weed-less and dusty. Every 10 feet there are craters where the marijuana’s roots once grew, the only hint of what was.

Up until Sept. 5, the Corral’s regularly doled out pot to 238 card-carrying medical marijuana patients, 85 percent suffering from terminal illnesses. WAMM is touted as a model medical-marijuana cooperative. Patients and caregivers help grow the weed, which is given away, not sold. And the organization is picky about who gets it. It’s an unusual co-op -- more hospice than pot club -- and it’s a place where patients not only get pot to relieve suffering but find emotional support. WAMM enjoys the support of the Santa Cruz City Council, the county Board of Supervisors and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department.

"Valerie Corral, of all people, is probably the most responsible of all the medical marijuana providers we’ve dealt with," says sheriff’s spokesman Kim Allyn.

Never mind, the feds say. The Corrals were breaking federal law, which deems marijuana a controlled substance with no recognized medical value.

Federal law enforcement has never taken a hands-off approach to medical marijuana, legalized by state Proposition 215 in 1996. However, under the Clinton Administration, federal prosecutors targeted the largest and most public medical marijuana distributors.

As far as growing operations, the DEA would rarely take on cases involving less than 1,000 plants. But in the past year, the DEA has taken to raiding small-time growers and distributors in California. "Up to a couple of years ago, the DEA never stepped in until there were thousands of plants," says Dale Gieringer, the state coordinator of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "WAMM would not have typically been a DEA bust in passed years. They’re now going after people we haven’t seen before."

In March, the DEA busted a 660-plant medical marijuana garden in Sonoma County. In August, the DEA seized 281 plants from a six-patient caregiver garden in Lake County; 128 plants from a 10-pateint cooperative in Santa Rosa; 35 plants from a garden in Ventura County; and six plants from a garden in Butte County. Last month, following the raid of WAMM’s 167-plant garden, the DEA confiscated 26 plants grown by Steve McWilliams for six patients in San Diego. Federal prosecutors have yet to seek indictments related to any of these busts.

Will Glaspy, DEA spokesman in Washington D.C., says the recent raids on medical marijuana groups is not intensifying. "I think what you see is that we are enforcing the law consistently throughout the country," says Glaspy. "However, due to circumstances in California, there’s certainly more media attention. Additionally you have people there who are openly discussing the fact that they are in violation of federal law which adds to the information we have into the probable cause to initiate an investigation. If they flaunt the fact that they are in violation of federal law, that is something we are obligated to look into."

Does this mean that medical marijuana advocates invite a raid every time they go public? It’s a question Glaspy can’t or won’t answer. Still, California must be easy hunting grounds for the DEA. All they have to do is pick up the local paper, mark the spot and put on their boots and flak jackets.

Seeded in Politics

Nevertheless, it’s the paltry size of recent busts, along with the U.S. Justice Department’s habit of not bothering to formally press charges on alleged criminals and therefore denying them legal recourse, that proves worrisome. The nature of the recent raids suggests that they have more to do with politics than fighting crime. To medical marijuana advocates and state and local officials, it seems that the federal government is flexing its sovereignty in a not-so-subtle way -- the people be damned. "We’re pawns of a bigger issue -- state versus federal rights," Kim Allyn says. "Unfortunately, sick people and voters of California are caught in the fray."

In 1996, Prop. 215, carefully titled the Compassionate Use Act, decriminalized the use of medical marijuana for the seriously ill, thus setting a precedent -- California became the first state to recognize the medical benefits of marijuana. Voters passed the ballot initiative by a 56 percent margin, a victory partly fueled by television ad campaign that featured the heartbreaking stories of cancer patients who had found relief from their pain by smoking marijuana. After Prop. 215 passed, the state attorney’s general’s office set up a task force to determine how it should be implemented. In the end, local law enforcement agencies were left with broad discretion of how to enforce the law in their local jurisdictions. Many organizations, such as WAMM, worked closely with local law enforcement and have for years operated with the cops’ blessing. Despite the will of the people, the federal government didn’t buy it from the beginning. Nor was President Bill Clinton about to inhale a law that would make him appear to be soft on drugs. In fact, Clinton devoted more funds and resources to the so-declared War on Drugs than Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. combined. The Clinton Administration, including then drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, was wary that medical marijuana created a slippery slope towards outright legalization. Much in the way that marijuana is often accused of being a "gateway drug" into harder drugs like heroin and LSD, medical marijuana was, and still is, considered by many a guise, a gateway towards full-blown legalization. But medical marijuana and legalization advocates lay the blame for recent efforts to squash Prop. 215 squarely at the current administration’s feet. While it’s difficult to ascertain whether or not the crackdown on medical marijuana is being executed directly form the Oval Office, the busts do fall in line with the Bush Administration’s hawkish political agenda.

"I think there is a different attitude in this administration," says Rep. Sam Farr, whose 17th congressional district includes Santa Cruz County. "It’s one that is essentially -- you feel it here in Washington -- of a tightening of the reins." Moreover, medical marijuana raids seems to reinforce the battle lines already drawn between the White House and California early in Bush’s term. People like WAMM’s Mike and Valerie Corral and the ill patients they serve could very well be collateral damage caught up in the political crossfire between the president and California Governor Gray Davis.

"We saw in the energy crisis, the Bush Administration definitely trying to draw a line between a Democratic governor and a Republican president," Farr says. "I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a hidden political agenda here. California didn’t vote for Bush." A clearer trail leads straight to the U.S. Justice Department. The decidedly right U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has made no secret of his priority to escalate the War on Drugs and has even stretched it so far as to weave it inextricably with the War on Terrorism. In a March 19 speech to the DEA, Ashcroft declared: "In an era in which we know more than ever before about the ravages of drug abuse, surrender is not and cannot be an option. At a time when we see clearly the evil interdependence between the terrorists that kill American lives and illegal drugs that steal American potential, to surrender to either of these threats is surrender to both." Somehow, "never surrendering" translates to a focus on medical marijuana. California NORML research reveals that medical marijuana accounts for half of all the marijuana cases that ended up in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco this year.

"Clearly there has been some sort of decision made internally within the Justice Department to not look the other way, one could say, at some of the most prominent marijuana operations in California," says Paul Armentano, a spokesperson for the national NORML in Washington, D.C. "Whether it’s (DEA Administrator Asa) Hutchinson) or Ashcroft or a combination of both, clearly with the new administration, there are some Drug War hawks in positions of power who clearly have decided that federal marijuana laws need to be enforced in California regardless of the will of the voters and regardless of the state law and, in particular, regardless of how this plays out in the court of public opinion." Even more disturbing, the Justice Department has failed to press charges following the six small raids this year, including WAMM’s. Federal prosecutors have up to five years to press charges, but because none have been made, it leaves would-be defendants living in limbo. Meanwhile, their plants are destroyed and growers are left without an opportunity to fight the DEA’s actions in court.

"They told us it could be a day, it could be a week, it could be a year [before charges are pressed]," Mike Corral says. "I try to let go of it, otherwise you’ll be paranoid every second of the day, looking over your shoulder and fearful. We’ve never lived are lives like that, and we’re not going to start living our lives like that." One explanation for federal prosecutors’ failure to seek indictment is that they know the cases would never fly in court. The WAMM bust prompted a Sept. 6 letter from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to John Ashcroft, in which he requested a meeting with Ashcroft and the DEA’s Hutchinson. In the letter, Lockyer lambastes the DEA for conducting raids "without apparent regard for the likelihood of successful prosecution. … Conversations with DEA representatives in California have made it clear that the DEA’s strategic policy is to conduct these raids as punitive expeditions whether or not a crime can be successfully prosecuted." If that’s not insidious enough, the federal government, under civil forfeiture laws, can seize property allegedly associated with illegal drugs, even if the owner is never charged or convicted.

While the DEA says it’s raiding medical marijuana clubs in other states as well, California is bearing the brunt of the agency’s wrath, advocates say, because California led the charge in legalizing marijuana for medicinal purpose, and because the state is home to some of the most sophisticated and prolific medical marijuana distribution systems in the country. In other words, California has demonstrated that medical marijuana can work, and the feds don’t like it one bit. "I think by going after some of the most public and most outspoken (medical marijuana providers), arresting them and taking their marijuana, they are trying to send a message and have a chilling effect," Armentano says. "They’re trying basically to squash a political movement."

10th Degree of Separation

During a Sept. 17 media event in which WAMM distributed marijuana to its patients on the steps of Santa Cruz City Hall, Robert Anton Wilson, author of the conspiracy theory classic "The Illuminatus Trilogy," was the first to receive his dosage. Wilson, 70, suffers from post-polio syndrome and uses pot for pain relief. Not one to shy away from criticizing the government, Wilson delivered perhaps the most poignant sound snippet of the day. "Of all the signs out there, the one I like the best is the one telling the government to read the 10th Amendment," he said peering out at the 1,000 or so protestors gathered to support WAMM. "The 10th Amendment says all powers not relegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or to the people. Nowhere does it say that a goddamn czar will be in charge of my medical care and interfere between me and my doctor. If anybody in Philadelphia in the 18th century had suggested putting something that in the Constitution, they would have been considered a raving lunatic. This Constitution was not created to establish a czarist tyranny, it was established to create a free society."

And therein lies the confusion. If the voters of California declared marijuana to be a legitimate medicine, why doesn’t federal government respect the peoples’ decision? "We voted on this issue, and I don’t understand why the federal government can [bust medical marijuana cooperatives]." says Santa Cruz resident Jim Cotter, a caregiver to an AIDS patient who uses medical marijuana. "There’s such a thing as states’ rights, and I don’t understand why the federal government is not working with the state."

But the truth is, states’ rights have been eroding since the Civil War, before which the amendment was used to justify slavery. Later, it was used to defend racial segregation. Meanwhile, over the past several decades the federal government has been handed more and more power by the courts (despite the fact that the current conservative U.S. Supreme Court leans towards favoring states’ rights.) In particular, the Constitutional responsibility of Congress to regulate interstate commerce has been broadly interpreted to give the federal government a legal trump card over state laws.

In 1970, Congress delegated to the federal government the power to enforce drug laws via the Federal Controlled Substances Act. And in May of 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court -- which has a history of respecting ballot initiatives passed by the people -- made it clear that federal drug laws do not recognize the medicinal value of marijuana. So in the case of medical marijuana laws, federal law -- at least as it stands right now -- trumps state law.

In the case of WAMM, the organization’s lawyers argue that because WAMM was a privately run operation where pot was homegrown and given away, the federal government’s Constitutional obligation to regulate interstate commerce doesn’t come into play. In other words, the federal authorities have no jurisdiction, and state law should prevail. "This is not interstate commerce," says the Corrals’ attorney Gerald Uelman. "This is grassroots Santa Cruz compassion." But as far as the DEA is concerned, busting small-time medical marijuana cooperatives simply adds up to law enforcement. "Typically the DEA focuses on higher echelon drug traffickers," says DEA spokesman Will Glaspy. "However, if we develop any information on somebody trafficking drugs, we are still responsible or obligated to follow-up on that issue."

Be that as it may, the DEA’s stepped-up attacks on medical marijuana seem hardly worthy of the federal government’s attention and resources in fighting its War on Drugs, a point not lost on California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. In his letter to John Ashcroft, Lockyer noted: "A medical marijuana provider such as the Santa Cruz collective represents little danger to the public and is certainly not a concern which would warrant diverting scarce federal resources away from the fight against domestic methamphetamine production, heroin distribution or international terrorism, to cite just a few more worthy priorities." That’s not to say that the federal law enforcement should never interfere with state issues. "There are many instances in history when the federal government stepped in," Sam Farr says. For example, "Kennedy’s federalization of the national guard in Alabama during the civil rights movement. Shouldn’t the federal government be able to come in and usurp violation of civil rights? So it can go both ways." Yet raiding medical marijuana operations "isn’t a civil rights issue," Farr says. "It’s simply about an administration of justice. In this case you have a law, by initiative, presented by the people and adopted by the people. The details of that law have been established in California, and local law enforcement and state authorities have been a part of that. "This is a case where you have a conflict between a state approach and a federal approach, and the federal government ought to respect that," he says. "The federal government ought not to be working against the will of the people."

Cultivating Change

Federal indictment or not, the Corrals will have their day in court. On Sept. 24, their lawyers, Benjamin Rice and Gerald Uelmen, filed a motion in federal court to return WAMM’s property taken by the DEA -- namely, the 167 pot plants, a computer, a video, photo albums and two antique guns -- on the grounds that the couple’s constitutional rights were violated during the raid. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Nov. 4. While Rice has been successful in convincing state courts to return marijuana, nobody contacted for this story could recall an instance when a federal court had handed back pot.

The Corrals still face possible indictment and time in prison, and they could lose their home and farm. The federal government could initiate civil forfeiture proceedings against their property. "That’s what dictatorships do," Mike Corral says. "They come into your house, they take all your possessions, confiscate what they want, and then they either kill you they let you go. You’re never charged or anything. That’s exactly what happened here." For now, the DEA shows no signs of slowing its attack of medical marijuana cooperatives. In a Sept. 30 response to Bill Lockyer’s letter,

DEA Administrator Hutchinson vowed to continue his mission. "Until Congress decides otherwise … when marijuana is observed in the ordinary course of law enforcement duties, DEA is legally mandated to seize it, even if no prosecution results," he wrote. Santa Cruz County’s congressman, meanwhile, is doing his part to keep the DEA at bay. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Sam Farr is attempting to rein in the feds. Farr has introduced limitations on the DEA’s funding, which would prohibit the agency from using federal funds to conduct raids on medical marijuana operations in state’s that have legalized medical marijuana without first checking with that’s state’s attorney general. Besides California, those states include Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska, Maine, Colorado. Farr doesn’t expect the funding limits to be voted on before the November elections. As for legalizing medical marijuana on a national level, a bill to legalize it, introduced by Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, has languished in Congress for the past 10 years. Farr, at least, remains hopeful nonetheless. "State laws are changing, and federal law simply hasn’t caught up," he says. "It’s interesting that Congress is not so much a leader of the nation as it is a follower of the people. I think once you start changing people’s attitudes, people come around to a common sense approach."

Laurel Chesky and Bruce Willey are editors for the Good Times, a weekly in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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