Feds clash with SF authorities over medical marijuana law

By Martha Mendoza, The Associated Press
Friday March 15, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — “Liar! Liar!” came the voices from the crowd. 

Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson stopped short, caught midsentence. He had started by saying: “Science has told us so far there is no medical benefit for smoking marijuana ...” 

Hutchinson pushed on with his message, reiterating President Bush’s newly aggressive anti-drug policy, which links casual drug use to terrorism and objects to state laws like California’s that allow the medicinal use of marijuana. 

Just hours before Hutchinson’s appearance Feb. 12, federal agents — with no help from police — seized more than 600 pot plants from a medicinal marijuana club. They also arrested the group’s executive director and three suppliers, including pot guru Ed Rosenthal, author of “Ask Ed: Marijuana Law. Don’t Get Busted.” 

The federal raids have angered and alarmed local officials in San Francisco. 

On the day Hutchinson spoke, a half-dozen city officials joined a boisterous street protest against the DEA. Even District Attorney Terence Hallinan grabbed a bullhorn and criticized the raids, as demonstrators, some in wheelchairs and on crutches, chanted, “DEA, Go away!” and pot smoke wafted through the air. 

Opponents of Washington’s stand on marijuana said the raids may be a precursor to showdowns in at least seven other states that have also passed laws in conflict with the federal ban on pot. 

“I think the goals here are to stomp out this emerging political movement once and for all,” said Keith Stroup, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “The way they’re trying to do that is to come into San Francisco, at the heart of the legalization movement, and arrest, prosecute and jail the major players.” 

DEA spokesman Richard Meyers in San Francisco countered: “You know, personally my heart goes out to someone who has cancer or AIDS, and I’m sure they’re just trying to alleviate their pain, but federal law does not make a distinction between medical marijuana and marijuana, and the DEA has a commitment and duty to the public to enforce the law.” 

In recent months, federal agents have raided three other cannabis clubs in California, seizing a garden of marijuana grown for sick people in Hollywood and taking away the records of 5,000 medical marijuana users from a doctor’s office near Sacramento. 

But for nine months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last May that there is no medical exception to the federal law against marijuana, federal agents had avoided San Francisco. 

Now that the United States is facing unprecedented challenges to homeland security, Hutchinson said the time is right to crack down on drugs. 

“History teaches us that in a time of national emergency, and we have seen that since Sept. 11, a nation’s moral values are clarified,” he said during a recent debate with New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who advocates legalizing marijuana. 

Under a law passed by California voters in 1996, marijuana clubs can dispense pot to people with cancer, AIDS or other chronic illnesses to relieve pain and nausea. 

But the Supreme Court ruled that federal anti-drug laws supersede laws allowing medicinal marijuana in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. 

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said DEA officials are being “asinine and disingenuous” when they say they cannot back off the federal law. He has gathered 25 co-sponsors for a bill to give states the right decide their own medical marijuana policies. But he conceded there is little chance the bill will even make it out of committee. 

“It’s going nowhere because politicians are afraid of being seen as soft on drugs,” Frank said. “The people are way ahead of the politicians here.” 

As for Hutchinson, he said he was not surprised by his reception in San Francisco. 

“Maybe it is not such a bang-up idea to defend our nation’s drug policy in the city of San Francisco,” he said, “which has such an extraordinary tradition of toleration toward drug use, from the popularity of the opium dens of the late 19th century to the drug culture thriving in the Haight Ashbury district of the ’60s to the cannabis buyers club of the new century.”