“It makes a lot of sense,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca says of the medical-marijuana bill currently in the state Legislature.
Perhaps the most extraordinary element of SB 848 is that it was created by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s Medical Marijuana Task Force, with direct input from representatives of California‘s major law-enforcement agencies. The Weekly was curious to hear what the sheriff had to say about the Vasconcellos bill and the contentious issue of therapeutic cannabis. Baca didn’t mince words.
“This is a matter of human decency,” the freshman sheriff said in a phone interview last week. “Society doesn‘t benefit by perpetuating an attitude where people who are ill, possibly terminally ill, are left to their own resources to deal with their problems. Unless you can walk in an HIV-positive person’s shoes, you do not have the right to deny that person the ability to find some level of hope.”
Baca‘s main concern is that cannabis not be used recklessly: “Obviously, marijuana is a psychotropic drug and therefore affects your ability to drive, so if you’re going to take your medicinal marijuana, you‘d better not drive. That’s the only area I would make sure of in this kind of legislation, that the person use marijuana in a manner that is safe to the rest of society.”
Baca has developed a strong working relationship with the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center and its director, Scott Imler, dating back to a “peace conference” at the Crescent Heights United Methodist Church in West Hollywood, held immediately after the 1996 passage of Proposition 215. The LACRC is a 650-member patient self-help group providing information and legal assistance, and maintaining a cooperative cannabis-cultivation project. Eighty percent of the membership has HIV. According to Baca, L.A. County Sheriff‘s deputies honor the existing registry cards issued by the LACRC as proof of legitimate medical use.
“The issues of law, [if] they conflict with appropriate humanism, then we have to make some changes. That’s why I stand up in support of what Scott has been doing,” Baca said. “And he‘s done an excellent job.”
The sheriff explained how the relationship with the L.A. cannabis center works: “Our policy is, one, we have open communication; two, we recognize the importance of the work they’re doing; three, we respect the right of people to privately respond to their medical needs; four, [that] there is no public danger associated with the center . . . People who are going to the center are getting their HIV needs met, and to me it‘s done on a level that’s respectful to the general society‘s concerns, and there’s no need for reactionary, alarmist behavior to occur on the part of people who don‘t understand this problem [or] those who are trying to solve it.
”All of the alarmists who want to say that we’re just turning drugs loose, creating a bigger problem for ourselves, are wrong. The ability to help people who need help is important. And quite frankly, when you look at marijuana, it has somewhat of a controversial reputation, but so did every other psychotropic drug that‘s [now] used medically, before it was certified federally by the FDA.“
As Baca warmed to his subject, he sounded more like a medical-marijuana advocate than the county’s top lawman. ”Let‘s not mistake the fact that drugs are chemicals that have been invented by man. Ironically, marijuana is a chemical as well — not necessarily invented by man,“ he chuckled. ”But the important thing is that those who have HIV-positive experiences understand the effect that marijuana has on them. Science often does not catch up to common sense, and I’m going to let [HIV-positive people who use medical marijuana] tell me that they feel better. It relieves them of a significant amount of their pain, and that‘s good enough for me.“
Certainly, for a cop, Baca takes progressive political stands. The afternoon he was interviewed, Baca attended the signing of the so-called ”junk gun“ bill by Governor Davis the following day in Mission Hills. And Baca is on record as supporting needle exchange to inhibit the spread of HIV.
Baca said he’d lean on Davis to sign SB 848. The governor is ”very open about doing the right thing,“ the sheriff said. ”He‘s a resident of West Hollywood. I’ll see him tomorrow, and I‘ll mention it to him then. If there are some things that the bill needs to tighten up to ensure public safety, then I can understand the governor’s reluctance. On the other hand, as the sheriff of this county, I‘ve not had any federal agencies come in and pre-empt the Sheriff’s Department‘s policing efforts when it comes to the [cannabis] center.“