Victory in California!

Victory in California!

California votes to allow the medical use of marijuana

It was a nerve wracking campaign with a glorious finish, as
5 million Californian voters chose compassion over incarceration, beginning
the end of the war on drugs

By Rose Ann Fuhrman

The Failure of Rhetoric & Dirty Tricks

As the Proposition 215 campaign was gearing up, California Attorney General Dan Lungren ordered a raid on the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club and vilified its staff to the press. Then, just weeks before the election, he arrested club founder and 215’s best known spokesperson, Dennis Peron.

Federal drug warriors joined the fray, recognizing the national implications of a successful 215. They rolled out their heaviest political cannons, including three past presidents, to lob rhetoric in a near-election attempt to confuse and frighten voters. Yet five million Californian voters made history and said yes to medical marijuana.

Lungren’s Gifts to 215

Early in the morning of Sunday August 4, almost 100 officers from the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement raided the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club, as well as the homes of several people connected with its operation. Officers reportedly broke into the club with a battering ram, pointed guns at the heads of unarmed club members, left seriously ill people handcuffed for extended periods of time, and broke into rooms and cabinets for which keys had been offered them.

City officials responded in splendid San Francisco style: they confirmed support for medical marijuana and expressed outrage at California Attorney General Dan Lungren for authorizing the raid.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said the agency used “Gestapo Tactics” and that he wished Lungren would “refrain from political grandstanding at the expense of the health and welfare of the people of San Francisco.”

The SF Board of Supervisors also denounced Lungren, and announced an investigation into the alleged seizure of Proposition 215 campaign records by agents during the raid. Sheriff Hennessey refused to enforce a restraining order issued against the club, and District Attorney Hallinan said he would not prosecute Buyers’ Club cases.

The city reluctantly abandoned plans to declare a state of emergency and re-open the club, out of fear that the move might legally jeopardize the city’s needle-exchange program, which operates under a similar declaration.

“Lungren’s trying to ride to the governor’s office on the backs of sick and dying people,” said club founder and well known Proposition 215 spokesman Dennis Peron to nearly 1000 protesters, “but we’re going to take this to the courts and win.”

Some state legislators agreed, and more than a dozen complained to US Attorney General Janet Reno that Lungren “may have used the powers of his office for purely political reasons.”

Lungren argued that the raid was simply the product of a two-year investigation, but the timing was more suggestive of a well-laid foundation for career advancement. Lungren hopes to be the Republican candidate for governor in 1998, and he ordered the raid the week before the Republicans’ national convention was held in Southern California.

Lungren has also been an arch-enemy of the medical marijuana initiative ever since it evolved at the club. He was co-chair of the “No on 215” campaign, and his officers raided the club soon after the initiative qualified for the ballot, before the election campaign was up to speed.

Dennis Peron

The Public Backs Tolerance

Media coverage of the raid indicated that most people, including the editorial boards of most major newspapers, agreed with Californians for Medical Rights, who said “Surely the dozens of police officers who participated in this morning’s arrests can be better employed chasing hard criminals, even on a Sunday morning.”

The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized, “This enlightened community has all but decriminalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes and does not want or need the heavy hand of state Attorney General Dan Lungren to enforce his puritanical anti-drug notions that defy common sense.”

Apparently Lungren wanted name recognition, and he got it. Yet while the spotlight was on Lungren, it also shone on the suffering people whom he had deprived of their club and their medicine. The public chose sides and expressed themselves in concrete form: donations to 215 began pouring in. The diversity of well-known donors illustrates the broad support medical marijuana has gained. Donors included Gail Zappa (Frank Zappa’s widow), former Reagan administration Secretary of State George Schultz, economist Milton Friedman and former California Senator Alan Cranston.

Lungren’s Logic

Lungren argued that it was his duty to raid the club because it sold to people who had not demonstrated legitimate medical need. He said people had purchased marijuana for “vaginal yeast infections, insomnia, sore backs and colitis, hardly terminal diseases.” He also claimed that sales were made on the strength of “phony doctors’ names.”

While club supporters did not accept Lungren’s allegations, they loved his line of reasoning. By acknowledging a distinction between seriously ill patients with a physician’s letter and people with what he considered dubious need and questionable authorization, Lungren had recognized marijuana’s medical value and had implicitly endorsed the need for 215.

Activists who predicted that the raid would backfire never could have predicted the size of the explosion. The more Lungren did and said, the better 215’s prospects looked. Media coverage of the raid did a very large portion of the campaign’s work, awareness of the proposition and of the need for 215 grew rapidly after Lungren’s gaffes. Within days 215 had come from relative obscurity to become one of the best known propositions on the ballot and most voters who became aware of it favoured it.

Lungren vs Doonesbury

Lungren had still more gifts to give to the 215 campaign. Garry Trudeau was about to devote six days of his nationally syndicated “Doonesbury” cartoon to the raid and the merits of Proposition 215. Lungren asked newspapers not to run the strips, but the strips ran and so Lungren and his cohorts whined about it publicly.

One of them even referred to Doonesbury’s pot-friendly character Zonker as a real person who belonged in jail. This was too good for other cartoonists to pass up, and some great editorial cartoons resulted, featuring Lungren and Zonker.

Donations to 215 rolled in all the while. Campaign managers credit Lungren with raising $1 million in campaign funds for them. Those opposed to 215 raised less than $50,000.

The Perfect Martyr

Less than a month before the election, Lungren made arrests in connection with the Buyers’ Club raid he had ordered two months before. Dennis Peron was indicted along with club director Beth Moore and four others. They were all charged with conspiracy to maintain a place where marijuana is furnished, and released pending court dates.

They were brought before an Alameda County court, across the bay from the city and county in which the events took place. Apparently Lungren was looking for a friendlier court, yet since then Alameda county voters have overwhelmingly passed a municipal medical marijuana proposition of their own.

Friends of the defendants were optimistic about the outcome even before the overwhelming passage of the Alameda County and state propositions. Some felt confident that Peron (who could face life in prison if convicted under California’s “Three Strikes” law) would not actually be brought to trial, because he would make a perfect martyr. Some believed Lungren’s only goal was to maintain an association of “criminality” between the accused and 215 long enough to hurt the proposition at the polls.

Other court delays could almost be counted on, but “guilt by association” did not kill 215. “No jury in California is going to convict these people,” said Peron’s lead attorney, Tony Serra, “the defense of medical necessity would prevail.” The defendants were arraigned before the election and their next court date is December 17.

California’s Next Governor

Within a few days of the indictments, additional evidence appeared which supported accusations that Lungren had used his office for political purposes. Less than three weeks before the election, a letter from Lungren’s gubernatorial campaign appeared in certain targeted mailboxes. The letter, dated just prior to the Buyer’s Club raid and apparently mailed immediately immediately after it, touted Lungren’s credentials as a drug warrior and announced his campaign to be California’s next governor.

“. . .over the past five years, we have:

removed nearly $3 billion worth of drugs from our streets and arrested more than 37,000 drug traffickers. . .

Election Day 1998 is when we choose the Governor who will lead California into the next century. And quite frankly, I hope to be that Governor. . .

Sincerely, Dan Lungren Attorney General

Save Our Jobs

The polls indicated that Prop 215 was leading 2 to 1 or better, so the “generals” in the War on some Drugs ratcheted up the Reefer Madness rhetoric. The list of prominent opponents read like a “save our jobs” roster: US Drug Czar, Drug Enforcement Administrator, California Narcotics Officers Association. None of them had any significant effect on 215’s lead, so past presidents Ford, Carter and Bush and former Surgeon General Koop took a turn.

CMR spokesman Dave Fratello said, “At a certain point, the other side needs to stop trying to scare people and confuse voters and we need to start thinking seriously about how this is really going to work in California.”

California voters may have finally made a connection between incarceration rates that more than double each decade and the arrest of people for marijuana “crimes.” Medical marijuana won handily, and a proposition that would have authorized bonds for new county jails and juvenile “facilities” lost.

The Calm between Storms

No wonder the drug warriors are dazed and confused. It’s going to take more than their worn out slogans; they aren’t working anymore.

There are rumblings about a federal court challenge, as successful California initiatives often end up in court. One of the prominent people who would like to see it struck down is Lungren, yet now that it has passed into law he is largely responsible for implementing it. As strange as this is, it is no stranger than many of the other odd twists that 215 has encountered on its path.

Right now there’s a deceptive silence in the state. The post-election flurry of commentary has subsided, and it feels like California is holding its breath. Yet beneath the relative quiet there is furious activity. Faxes and email are flying, meetings are frequent and discussions are intense, as both sides speculate and strategize.

The 215 crew is not naive. They know the other boot is going to drop, and the uncertainty accompanying that knowledge flows like an underground river beneath their joy over winning. Activists are concerned, but most are far too elated and determined to be afraid.

Responding to the Challenge

The drug warriors are losing their grip, and their feet are slipping on what must feel to them like the top of the proverbial slippery slope. Their “gateway drug,” and “what about the children” arguments didn’t work this time, and a remarkably powerful and populous state has delivered a strong message to those who speak often of sending the right message about drugs.

Lungren has faxed interim guidelines and notification of an “All-Zone Meeting” to district attorneys, sheriffs and chiefs of police throughout the state. They must, he says, “respond to the challenge that the new law presents to law enforcement and prosecutors.” Lungren’s office says he will “take the lead for consultations with the federal government to see what role US government agencies plan to take.” In Lungren’s view, “the proposition may create an affirmative factual defense in certain criminal cases.”

US Attorney General Janet Reno says the federal government will continue to prosecute, but federal courts are not usually involved in small cases of growing or possessing marijuana for personal use. However, there is concern that if a physician recommends marijuana to a large number of patients, the feds might step in.

Activists wonder: If California’s attorney general generated $1 million in donations by going after patients and advocates, how much could the US attorney general generate for the cause by going after patients and physicians?

A Smooth Transition

Activists are working in their respective areas to bring patients, caregivers, advocates, medical professionals, law enforcement, attorneys, and county and city governments together to make a smooth transition, and a statewide meeting of the California Medical Marijuana Council (CMMC includes representatives of the state’s cannabis buyers’ clubs) will meet this fall. They plan to help patients obtain marijuana and they will also collect medical data which should be helpful to researchers.

“We want Proposition 215 to work as effectively and responsibly as possible in meeting the needs of patients and researchers, with appropriate safeguards to prevent abuses,” says Lynnette Shaw, co-chair of CMMC. “215 is not the last word on the subject, just the first.”

Politicians at the federal level would be wise to take a lesson from Governor Wilson’s mistake. Two years in a row he vetoed narrower medical marijuana bills that had been passed by the California legislature; now, regarding 215, he is conspicuously silent. If they wish to survive, politicians had better jump in the front seat of this locomotive for change. It’s on its way with them or without them.

Californians for Medical Rights are taking their cause national, and are becoming Americans for Medical Rights. This movement is reaching the stage of critical mass, November brought landmark drug law-reform successes in California and Arizona, and Texas is at work on theirs for the next election.

“These votes demonstrate that the public are ahead of the politicians when it comes to reforming our drug policies, specifically medical access to marijuana,” said NORML Executive Director R. Keith Stroup. “Americans do not believe that denying medicine to the sick and dying should ever be a part of the drug war.”