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Task Force M 

State officials set to green-light medical marijuana

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

"This is my thirty-third year in law enforcement. When I first started, one seed was a felony," says Pete Herley, chief of police of Tiburon, California, located in Marin County. "I was laughing during the meetings and I said, ‘If you’d’ve told me 33 years ago that I would be sitting at a meeting like this, I would have serious concerns about your sanity.’"

Herley is referring to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s Medical Marijuana Task Force, a wildly diverse group made up of 30-odd cops, D.A.s, doctors and weed advocates. Convened in February by Lockyer, the task at hand is to fulfill the voter’s Proposition 215 mandate which encouraged "the federal and state government to implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution to all patients in need of medical marijuana."

Co-chaired by Democratic State Senator John Vasconcellos of Santa Clara (who was pro-215 prior to its passage) and George Kennedy, district attorney of Santa Clara County (who was anti-215), the group is expected to issue its recommendations as soon as this week. The text will be amended into a bill sponsored by Vasconcellos, SB 848, which passed the state Senate on June 2 (as did SB 847, which appropriates up to $3 million for med-mar research at the University of California). "The voters of California have placed us on the cutting edge of this issue," Vasconcellos declared. Both bills are expected to become law on January 1, 2000.

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While everyone is zip-lipped as to the substance of the recommendations, the Weekly has learned the centerpiece will be a voluntary statewide registration card for legitimate patients that will provide a legal shield to protect sick people from the selective law enforcement they’ve been subject to since Prop. 215 passed two and a half years ago. Other concerns addressed by the task force have been quantity of medicine, physician guidelines, specific illnesses, requirements for card documentation and a set of definitions for those who are about to enter this brave new world where the old rules of health and drug policy have been redefined.

Cannabis centers and cooperatives, which many believe were enabled by Prop. 215, may be protected and subject to inspection by county health departments. All parties say that the final draft is in no way etched in stone until approved by the task force, Lockyer, the Legislature and Governor Gray Davis.

Heartening as all this may be for those in medical need of the herb, the process of the task force, as echoed by Chief Herley, may end up as avant-paradigmatic as the end result. "Those who worked together and thought through the issues have come to a pretty remarkable consensus," says Lockyer.

Vasconcellos, who has sponsored three prior med-mar bills that either died natural deaths or were vetoed by Pete Wilson, is even more effusive. He also apparently began his career at the same time Herley began his. "I’ve not, in my 33 years in the Legislature, taken part in a more collaborative, good-willed operation," says the Silicon Valley maverick. "Fifty folks, of profoundly contrary viewpoints, came to the table, sat at the table and really stretched themselves to find common ground."

Scott Imler, the director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, co-author of Prop. 215 and one of the two patients on the task force, agreed that the negotiations have surpassed ideology: "Whatever happens with this bill, California will never be the same. Patients and police are no longer faceless enemies. Vilifying each other serves no useful purpose." Chief Herley, who was representing the California Police Chiefs Association and is still answerable to his board of directors, was also pleased with the conciliatory tone of the proceedings: "We’re not here to write law, we’re here to enforce law," he said in a concession to the new winds of public opinion. "It seems as if everybody is here to reach consensus while we may not agree on every point."

None of this state-level action directly affects federal law, which doesn’t recognize any medicinal benefits of pot. "Federal law is supreme," admits Lockyer. "We can’t create a system that violates federal law." But wouldn’t any system that designates marijuana as medicine violate federal law? "Probably," answers Lockyer, "but one of the problems in getting changes in federal attitude is the vagueness included in Prop. 215."

Stories have circulated that at a private meeting back in March in Washington, federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey personally threatened Lockyer with arrest if he tried to implement Prop. 215. "That didn’t get reported accurately," says Lockyer. "I asked for more support for medical research and also suggested that consideration be given to rescheduling marijuana medicine so that it isn’t the same as heroin. The particular issue dealt with the fact that there are research businesses in California that believe they can develop an inhalator as a better way than smoking to deliver the medicine. I mentioned to General McCaffrey that I may have some authority under California law to authorize that sort of experimentation, and he indicated that one should be careful to not goad or provoke federal enforcement officials."

While Lockyer downplays any threatening intention on McCaffrey’s part, the general’s spokesperson, Bob Weiner of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, contributes his own cryptic two cents concerning the task force. "It’s all hypothetical at this stage," says Weiner. "I’m sure we’ll look at it when it’s written and see what it means. As will other departments, including the Justice Department."

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