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Feds silent on marijuana strategy

The Associated Press
Thursday June 14, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — In the month since the U.S. Supreme Court said it’s illegal to sell or possess marijuana for medical use, the decision appears to be having little effect in the eight states with medical marijuana laws. 

“I dispense a couple pounds a month,” said Jim Green, operator of the Market Street Club, where business has thrived even after the May 14 ruling. “All of my clients have a legitimate and compelling need.” 

Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon and Washington allow the infirm to receive, possess, grow or smoke marijuana for medical purposes without fear of state prosecution. 

Those states have done little to change since the Supreme Court ruled federal law prohibits people from dispensing marijuana to the ill. Some states have even moved to expand marijuana laws despite the ruling. 

State prosecutors say it’s up to federal authorities, not them, to enforce the court’s decision. 

“If the feds want to prosecute these people, they can,” said Norm Vroman, the district attorney in Northern California’s Mendocino County, where the sheriff issues medical marijuana licenses to residents with a doctor’s recommendation, or to people who grow the marijuana for them. 

In Maine, “state prosecutors aren’t too involved with enforcing the federal law,” said state attorney general spokesman Chuck Dow. 

In response to the high court’s decision, however, Maine lawmakers shelved an effort to supply marijuana to the ill. 

The Bush administration, which inherited the medical marijuana fight from President Clinton, has taken no public action to enforce the ruling and has been silent about its next move. 

“There’s generally no comment about what the government will do in the future in any context,” said Mark T. Quinlivan, the Justice Department’s lead attorney in the Supreme Court case. 

Leslie Baker, head of the U.S. attorney’s Portland, Ore., drug-enforcement unit, said last week that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s office has not given her guidance on how to respond to the ruling. Oregon allows “caregivers” to grow and dispense marijuana for patients who have a doctor’s recommendation. 

Baker declined to say what federal authorities may do in the state. 

Meanwhile, Nevada lawmakers, abiding by a voter referendum, on June 4 adopted a medical marijuana measure that Gov. Kenny Guinn said he would sign. 

In California, the nation’s first state to approve medical marijuana in 1996, the Senate approved legislation June 6 legalizing marijuana cooperatives for the sick. 

Three days earlier, Colorado expanded its medical marijuana law, complying with a state voter initiative that requires the state to license medical marijuana users. That was despite the opposition of Gov. Bill Owens and the state’s attorney general, who urged federal authorities to prosecute anybody who sells, distributes or grows medical marijuana, even if they qualify for the state program. 

At the Market Street Club in California, the marijuana goes to patients such as Grant Magner, 49, of Novato, who says it reduces nausea and headaches resulting from AIDS and gives him enough of an appetite to eat. 

“It gives me a slight feeling of wellness. I can not smoke marijuana, and watch my body waste away,” he said. 

The absence of federal action has led to speculation about the Bush administration’s strategy. 

“I think they are biding their time and are being very careful for which organizations or persons they are going to target first after this U.S. Supreme Court decision because that is what is going to get all of the media attention,” said Tim Lynch, the Cato Institute director of criminal justice studies. 

The Justice Department may take no action in hopes that the decision will scare medical marijuana providers out of business, said Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at the University of California at Los Angeles. 

The public silence also may reflect that the White House has more important issues to handle. 

“That is not what they’re talking about in the Capitol and the corridors of the White House,” said presidential analyst Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. 

Any federal crackdown may open a Pandora’s box of new legal questions, said Robert Raich, the lawyer for the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative. 

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the Oakland club could not defend its actions against federal drug laws by declaring it was dispensing marijuana to the medically needy. 

But the justices said they addressed only the issue of a so-called “medical necessity defense” being at odds with a 1970 federal law that marijuana, like heroin and LSD, has no medical benefits and cannot be dispensed or prescribed by doctors. 

Important constitutional questions remain, such as Congress’ ability to interfere with intrastate commerce, the right of states to experiment with their own laws and whether Americans have a fundamental right to marijuana as an avenue to be free of pain. Justice Thomas wrote that the court would not decide those “underlying constitutional issues today.” 



The U.S. Supreme Court ruled May 14 that dispensing or possessing marijuana for medical use is illegal. Here’s what has happened since in the states that have medical marijuana laws in effect or pending: 

Arizona: Attorney general’s spokeswoman Pati Urias said doctors, even before the high court’s ruling, were not recommending marijuana as the state law required for the infirm to obtain medical marijuana. Activists estimate that several hundred people are using marijuana for medical purposes. 

California: Senate approved a sweeping bill that would implement a statewide registry of medical marijuana patients, bar state prosecution of doctors who recommend marijuana to their patients and allow so-called caregivers to the infirm to cultivate marijuana cooperatively for medical purposes. 

Colorado: Expanded its medical marijuana law, complying with a state voter initiative that requires the state to issue license medical marijuana users. Governor and state attorney general oppose the expansion, urging federal authorities to prosecute anybody who sells, distributes or grows marijuana, even if they qualify under the state program. The local acting U.S. Attorney said it’s up to local law enforcement to prosecute medical pot cases. 

Hawaii: Governor said he’ll lobby for federal legislation to legalize marijuana use for medical purposes nationwide. 

Maine: Lawmakers scrapped a pilot project in which the state would dispense medical marijuana. 

Nevada: State lawmakers, abiding by a voter referendum, approved a medical marijuana law, which governor said he would sign. Lawmakers also relaxed penalties for possessing small amounts of non-medical marijuana. 

Oregon: Attorney general cautioned that “Oregonians engaged in the manufacture and distribution or who are in possession of medical marijuana may be subject to federal criminal prosecution.” But he added that federal prosecution was unlikely. 


On the Net: 

Supreme Court site: 

Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative: