Pot Club Crackdown

In this time of national emergency, federal law enforcement agents are pulling out all the stops to nail suspected hijackers, anthrax-mailers … and medical marijuana clubs.

Image: AP/Wide World Photos


Each day, as he has since 1996, Mirron Willis swallows an assortment of prescription HIV-treatment drugs — drugs that keep his viral load down, but also make it hard to keep a meal down. The only effective antidote Willis has found for this drug-induced nausea is another drug — marijuana.

At first, Willis, 36, bought his marijuana from dealers on the street, a system he was familiar with from his earlier recreational use. Then, in early 1997, he joined the newly-formed Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in hope of finding a stable marijuana supply to combat his nausea. For almost five years, the West Hollywood club provided him with reliable access to the drug and a comforting community.

“Going to the club affords people the opportunity to be safe,” Willis says. “Plus, it’s about being around people who are doing something proactive about their health.”

Now, Willis is back to buying his marijuana on the street, as are many of the club’s 960 other members. On Oct. 25, 30 federal agents raided the facility, seizing the center’s computers, patient records, and about 400 marijuana plants. President Scott Imler says the effects on club members — who suffer from ailments such as AIDS, epilepsy, cancer and chronic pain — have been pronounced.

“People are already hurting,” he says. “They can’t eat, they can’t sleep, they can’t take their medication.”

The West Hollywood raid was just the latest move in a new federal campaign against medical marijuana clubs and growers in California. California voters in 1996 passed a ballot initiative making it legal for people suffering from specific maladies to grow or consume marijuna if the treatment was recommended by a doctor. Still, marijuana use of any sort remains illegal under federal law, and a May Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for federal agents to begin their crackdown on medical marijuana clubs operating under the California provision, formally known as Proposition 215.

On Sept. 28, Drug Enforcement Agency agents raided a medical marijuana clinic run by Dr. Marion Fry near Sacramento. Agents reportedly destroyed 32 marijuana plants that belonged to Dr. Fry, a cancer patient, and left with some 6,000 patient records. The same day, DEA agents in southern California raided a rural garden that supplies plants to the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, seizing 273 plants — a crop which growers Judy and Lynn Osburn estimate to be about a third of the center’s annual supply.

While nobody has been arrested during any of the raids, advocates for medical use of marijuana say the timing of the raids is particularly questionable, as federal law enforcement agents supposedly have their hands full trying to catch terrorists.

“The feds need to worry about things that are actually dangerous, like anthrax,” says Dale Gieringer, coordinator for the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “With all the other national security issues, it’s depressing that they should focus on this,” says Richard Schmitz, of the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project.

Attorney General John Ashcroft recently announced a “wartime reorganization” of the Justice Department, and DEA head Asa Hutchinson said last week that his agency is busier than ever “picking up the slack” for FBI agents reassigned to terrorism duties. Still, drug enforcement officials say they have no plans to ease up on clubs that distribute medical marijuana.

“The Supreme Court has made it very clear that there is no accepted medical use for marijuana,” says Justice Department spokesperson Susan Dryden. “The administration has made it a priority to prevent illegal drug use, and where there is illegal drug use, we will enforce the federal law.”

In the May high court ruling which cleared the way for the crackdown, justices rejected an argument, presented by lawyers for the Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Cooperative, that medical necessity should override federal anti-drug laws. As US Attorney John Gordon explained in a statement released on the day of the West Hollywood raid: “The United States Supreme Court recently held that, under federal law, marijuana is an illegal drug which Congress has determined has no currently accepted medical use. Proposition 215 is a California state law that has no bearing on the applicability of federal criminal laws.”

Although no arrests have been made, the US Attorney’s office says that they are “conducting a criminal investigation at this time” of Imler and other Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center staff members. Which has put the medical marijuana community on alert. A few clubs have closed. Others are taking precautions such as moving patient records to a separate location, or placing a hold on any new applicants. Many clubs are encouraging members to grow their own marijuana at home.

Staff members at the clubs which remain open say most of their energy has been focused on their patients — reassuring them that they will still get the medicine they need, and that their medical records will remain private information.

“I see a lot of anxiety among our patients,” says Don Duncan, director of the Berkeley Patient’s Group. “They’re very concerned about going to the black market.” Michael Bellefontaine of the ACT UP San Francisco dispensary, which provides marijuana to those with doctor’s approval, says he is trying to calm his patients, many of whom have AIDS.

“We don’t really want people to panic,” he says. “That creates a lot of stress that isn’t healthy, especially in people who are immuno-suppressed.”

With polls indicating that more than 70 percent of Americans support allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana, many advocates believe that the courts or Congress — not the Justice Department — will ultimately decide medical marijuana’s fate.

“The DEA and the Feds are at a completely different point than the public,” the Marijuana Policy Project’s Richard Schmitz says. “It would be very difficult for (federal officials) to win a jury trial” if someone like Imler were to be prosecuted as a drug dealer, Schmitz says. In Congress, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced a bill to reclassify marijuana as a drug which doctors could prescribe.

“The courts have ruled, and the executive branch has clearly acted,” Frank says. “Only Congress can stop the harassment of medical marijuana patients now.”

Still, critically ill patients say they can’t wait for the courts or for Congress.

“I have to live every day, regardless of what the Feds do,” Mirron Willis says. “It’s about the quickest way to relieve suffering. This is not about a plant. This is about human beings.”