By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
"I have no idea what’s going on," says a frustrated state Senator John Vasconcellos (D–Santa Clara), summing up the purgatory in which California’s medical-marijuana policy is mired. Like characters in a Samuel Beckett play, patients and advocates anxiously await the arrival of a humane resolution, only to learn that the elusive Godot may yet again be waylaid by reefer madness, this time in the form of Governor Gray Davis.
The continuing legal limbo was announced almost as an aside in the July 14 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, when Davis’ press secretary, Michael Bustamante, was queried about Senate Bill 848, which would codify regulations to legally protect the sick and dying who use cannabis. Bustamante responded that "given the governor’s long-standing position, I would be hard-pressed to see him sign it." Bustamante cited federal law, which schedules pot as a dangerous and medically useless drug.
Vasconcellos, who authored 848, was irate. Not only had he learned of the governor’s position by reading it in a newspaper, but he says that Mike Gotch, Davis’ legislative secretary, went behind his back to Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D–Baldwin Park), chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, and tried, to no avail, to persuade Gallegos to postpone a vote on the bill (calls to Gotch and Gallegos were not returned). "If I’m going to tamper with your stuff, I’ll always tell you first," said Vasconcellos in a phone interview. What about the feds? "I have some word of what [Clinton drug czar Barry] McCaffrey’s position is. The czar," Vasconcellos muttered, then added, "This is not Russia. Press secretaries and czars have no place in my world."
Vasconcellos’ anger is rooted in the tortuous history of the state’s med-mar policy. After Proposition 215 passed in 1996, former Governor Pete Wilson vetoed corollary legislation, and then–Attorney General Dan Lungren refused to enforce the new law, leaving the choice of whether to recognize it to local cops and district attorneys. While federal agencies moved to close several cannabis clubs serving medical users, local authorities tended to honor the new state law, though many patients, particularly in rural counties, continued to be busted and/or had their medicine confiscated.
When Davis and Bill Lockyer replaced Wilson and Lungren this year, medical-marijuana users were hopeful that the state would finally challenge the federal authorities and honor Prop. 215’s mandate to "implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution to all those in need of medical marijuana." Lockyer had supported 215 (citing the cancer deaths of his mother and sister as the primary motivation for his compassion) and got labeled soft-on-dope for it during last fall’s campaign. Davis, who as lieutenant governor had opposed 215 and who had participated in an anti-215 press conference with drug czar McCaffrey, was more of a question mark. Vasconcellos moved to test the new political waters with Senate Bill 848, which puts forth regulations to legally protect the sick and dying who use cannabis. "All we knew was, we did not have to deal with Pete Wilson," recalls Rand Martin, Vasconcellos’ chief of staff.
Almost immediately after his inauguration, Lockyer — with Vasconcellos — convened the Medical Marijuana Task Force, a pluralistic committee of three dozen, representing historically unbridgeable biases (patients, cops, D.A.s, doctors, lawyers) with the goal of protecting sick people from erratic and ambiguous enforcement of 215. The task force released a set of recommendations on July 12, the heart of which is a patient-registration card. The recommendations were promptly slotted into SB 848, which had already passed the Democratic state Senate (along with its companion, 847, which calls for up to $3 million for med-mar research in the UC system). But Bustamante’s declaration threw into doubt hopes for a cogent new state approach.
In an interview with the Weekly, Bustamante stood by his statement to the Chronicle: "The federal laws still make the possession and use of marijuana illegal, and the state shouldn’t be in the business of sanctioning it." Bustamante said that Davis opposed 215 in part because "at the time, which was two and a half years ago now, there really wasn’t any scientific evidence that would demonstrate the medical use of marijuana." But Scott Imler of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center isn’t buying this. "Just because Davis still thinks the world is flat doesn’t mean there isn’t scientific evidence to the contrary."
Imler, a co-author of 215 and one of two patients on the task force, maintains that the federal-vs.-state argument is another nonissue: "It’s not the state’s job to enforce federal law. California’s always in court with the feds over something. So why is this any different? Because it’s marijuana. The governor is playing games with people’s lives."
Under SB 848, county health departments would process applications for patients and their caregivers and require written documentation by physicians of the condition. Patients and caregivers who qualify would receive a photo identification card. Qualified patients/caregivers can collectively cultivate, allowing for tightly restricted versions of cannabis cooperatives. The state Department of Health Services (DHS) would issue regulations to ensure quality, noncontamination and nondiversion of medicine, and county health departments would have the right to inspect cooperatives in order to ensure compliance.