By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
This tactic doesn‘t always work. In 1996, California passed Proposition 215, making marijuana available with a note from your doctor, like any other prescription drug. In the ensuing years, nine other states legalized medical marijuana. George W. Bush promised in a 2000 campaign speech to leave medical marijuana as a states’-rights issue, saying, inimitably, ”I believe each state can choose that decision as they so choose.“
But in May of 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative ruled against the 10th Amendment, and in 2001 the Drug Enforcement Agency started raiding California‘s buyers clubs and growers organizations, confiscating wares and imprisoning owners.
It doesn’t take an astute political analyst to realize that two of the engines driving the Republican Party are economics and morality. There are many different ways of looking at the conflicting tales of emissions and medical marijuana. The least cynical is to believe that the country was ready for cleaner air and not ready for legalized drug use. A more jaundiced view says that pollution laws had two things going for them -- they didn‘t contradict federal law and, since Californians buy more cars than anyone else, compliance carried an enormous economic incentive. Medical marijuana, on the other hand, goes against federal law and also lacks an economic impetus since you can’t tax its sale. Most important, it offends the moral standards of the right.
The California biotech industry is a huge economic impetus. In 2001, when President Bush limited stem-cell research to the 60 previously existing stem-cell lines, he effectively yanked a huge segment of biotech research to a dead halt. Moneys were drying up, and America‘s top scientists began leaving the country and moving to places with fewer restrictions -- an effect that analysts quickly dubbed the ”brain drain.“
Almost immediately following Bush’s August announcement, University of California at San Francisco stem-cell pioneer Roger Pedersen packed his bags and lab and moved to England, where stem-cell research is permitted. Other countries, including Israel, Japan, France and Australia, have made themselves friendly to the work. Last year, Singapore took an even more aggressive stance, declaring itself a center for stem-cell study, breaking ground on a $15 billion research park and quickly poaching top U.S. minds including Edison Liu, once a leading researcher at America‘s National Cancer Institute and now the head of Singapore’s new Genome Institute. There‘s even talk of an international consortium for stem-cell research similar to the one that cracked the human genome.
To combat the brain drain and bring more biotech money into California, state Senator Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) introduced Senate Bill 253. The bill allocates the use of state funds and private donations for stem-cell research within California.
If your idea of a senator includes gray hair, a stentorian voice, pinstripes and steely eyes, then Senator Ortiz does not fit the bill. She looks like a suburban housewife and acts like an endearing grandmother. On the day we met, she arrived carrying Greek pastries that looked like failed geometry experiments oozing filling. She is an easy woman to underestimate. One gets the feeling that she spends her days nudging legislation into law.
In her day, she has nudged quite a bit of legislation into law. In 1993, she was elected to Sacramento’s City Council and fought a nasty fight for safer neighborhoods and tougher gun control. In 1996, she was elected to the state Assembly. That same year her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In the Assembly, Ortiz gave state workers a long-overdue pay raise and created a statewide after-school learning program for at-risk students. At home she became an armchair cancer specialist. ”I read all the studies and I read the footnotes.“ But there was no cure in the footnotes, and her mother died in 1999 during Ortiz‘s first state Senate term. Knowledge led her toward advocacy. Ortiz earmarked $25 million for ovarian-cancer research, but felt that wasn’t enough.
”From the footnotes I came to believe that the cure for cancer has to exist at the cellular level,“ Ortiz says. ”Stem-cell research is the next wave.“ When she was re-elected to the state Senate in 2002, she turned her attention to stem cells. It wasn‘t just a cure for cancer that drove her decision. She knew that California took a $12 billion hit in the dot-com crash, and recent studies claim that the state’s budget deficit will exceed $35 billion in the next year and a half. On September 22, 2002, Gray Davis signed SB 253. Ortiz had nudged perhaps her biggest bill into law. California became the first state to legalize stem-cell research.
”By signing SB 253, we have opened the door to important life-saving research in California,“ said Davis, when asked about the bill. ”There are strict parameters to stem-cell research built into the bill, but the possibility of some of the industry‘s top science researchers finding a cure to fatal diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson‘s diseases, spinal-cord injury, stroke, burns, heart diseases, diabetes and arthritis is priceless. We fully expect stem-cell research to attract world-renowned scientists to our state. Currently, there are 2,500 biomedical companies in California that employ 225,000 people. During 2000, this industry paid its employees $12.8 billion. While this life-saving research will continue to bring the necessary [private] funding into the state, it will more importantly save lives.“
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