Monday, May 12, 2008


Ever since California voters became the first in the nation to
legalize medical marijuana in 1996, the state has faced unyielding
opposition from the federal government, which insists it has the
power to prohibit a drug it considers useless and dangerous.

That could all change with the next presidential election.

As the candidates prepare for a May 20 primary in Oregon, one of 12
states with a California-style law, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has
become an increasingly firm advocate of ending federal intervention
and letting states make their own rules when it comes to medical marijuana.

His Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, is
less explicit, recently softening a pledge she made early in the
campaign to halt federal raids in states with medical marijuana laws.
But she has expressed none of the hostility that marked the response
of her husband's administration to California's initiative, Proposition 215.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee-in-waiting, has
gone back and forth on the issue - promising a medical marijuana
patient at one campaign stop that seriously ill patients would never
face arrest under a McCain administration, but ultimately endorsing
the Bush administration's policy of federal raids and prosecutions.

Political battles over exempting medical patients from marijuana laws
have been fought mostly in statehouses and at ballot boxes since
1996, when California voters repealed state criminal penalties for
those who used the drug with their doctor's approval. But the federal
government has played an important role in limiting the scope of
those state laws, and their effectiveness over the next four years
may be determined by the next president.

Bill Clinton's Position

President Bill Clinton's administration opposed the California law
from the start and won a court case allowing it to shut nonprofit
organizations that supplied medical marijuana to members. Clinton's
Justice Department also tried to punish California doctors who
recommended marijuana to their patients by revoking their authority
to prescribe any drugs, but federal courts backed the doctors.

The Bush administration has gone further, raiding medical marijuana
growers and clinics, prosecuting suppliers under federal drug laws
after winning a U.S. Supreme Court case, and pressuring commercial
property owners to evict marijuana dispensaries by threatening legal
action. The administration has also blocked a University of
Massachusetts researcher's attempt to grow marijuana for studies of
its medical properties.

Since 2001, federal prosecutors have won convictions in at least 28
California drug cases where defendants claimed they were supplying or
using medical marijuana, according to the National Organization for
the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Prosecutors have filed charges in 22
more cases, and authorities have raided 10 growers or dispensaries
without filing charges, the group says.

The presidential candidates haven't discussed the issue in speeches
or debates, but medical marijuana advocates regularly questioned them
in Iowa and New Hampshire. The most sweeping changes were proposed by
second-tier candidates - Democrats Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich and
Chris Dodd and Republican Ron Paul called for repealing federal
criminal penalties for marijuana - but of the remaining contenders,
Obama has been the friendliest to advocates of medical marijuana.

At a November appearance in Audubon, Iowa, Obama recalled that his
mother had died of cancer and said he saw no difference between
doctor-prescribed morphine and marijuana as pain relievers. He said
he would be open to allowing medical use of marijuana, if scientists
and doctors concluded it was effective, but only under "strict
guidelines," because he was "concerned about folks just kind of
growing their own and saying it's for medicinal purposes."

Obama went a step further in an interview in March with the Mail
Tribune newspaper in Medford, Ore. While still expressing qualms
about patients growing their own supply or getting it from
"mom-and-pop stores," he said it is "entirely appropriate" for a
state to legalize the medical use of marijuana, "with the same
controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors."

In response to recent questions from The Chronicle about medical
marijuana, Obama's campaign - the only one of the three contenders to
reply - endorsed a hands-off federal policy.

"Voters and legislators in the states - from California to Nevada to
Maine - have decided to provide their residents suffering from
chronic diseases and serious illnesses like AIDS and cancer with
medical marijuana to relieve their pain and suffering," said campaign
spokesman Ben LaBolt.

"Obama supports the rights of states and local governments to make
this choice - though he believes medical marijuana should be subject
to (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) regulation like other drugs,"
LaBolt said. He said the FDA should consider how marijuana is
regulated under federal law, while leaving states free to chart their
own course.

Obama Would End DEA Raids

LaBolt also said Obama would end U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
raids on medical marijuana suppliers in states with their own laws.

Those raids have been the focus of Hillary Clinton's comments on the
issue. At a July campaign event in Manchester, N.H., she told a
medical marijuana advocate that she would end the federal raids,
according to Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana, which recorded
the exchange.

But the candidate was less absolute in a more recent interview with
the Willamette Week newspaper in Hillsboro, Ore.

"I don't think it's a good use of federal law enforcement resources
to be going after people who are supplying marijuana for medicinal
purposes," Clinton said in the April 5 interview. But when asked
whether she would stop the raids, she replied, "What we should do is
prioritize what the DEA should be doing, and that would not be a high
priority. There's a lot of other, more important work that needs to be done."

Clinton has also said she opposes repealing criminal penalties for
marijuana, but told advocates in October that the government should
conduct more research "into what, if any, medical benefits it has."

McCain has taken a variety of positions, according to comments
recorded by medical marijuana advocates.

At an April 2007 campaign kickoff event, when asked if he would end
federal raids, he said, "I would let states decide that issue." But
less than two months later, he said he would not end the raids. Then,
in November, he promised a man who described himself as a seriously
ill marijuana patient that he would "do everything in my power" to
make sure the man was never arrested for using the drug.

No Policy Paper

While maintaining that medical experts considered marijuana
ineffectual and potentially dangerous, McCain promised at the same
November event in New Hampshire to consult with experts and issue an
"in-depth policy paper" on the topic within a few days. McCain's
campaign has not responded to media inquiries, and marijuana
advocates say the policy paper was never issued.

He was also asked during a November conference call whether the
federal government should override the will of the people in states
with medical marijuana laws. "Medical marijuana is not something that
the, quote, people want," McCain replied.

Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the advocacy group Marijuana Policy
Project, said he remains hopeful that the federal climate will
improve, no matter who becomes president.

"All it takes," he said, "is for the Justice Department to say,
'Leave these states alone.'"

Newshawk: Help for LTE writers
Pubdate: Mon, 12 May 2008
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: A - 1, Front Page
Copyright: 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)

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