Pothole Awaits Calif. Attorney General in Drive for Governor
By William Claiborne
Backed by a new court ruling barring sale of medicinal marijuana even though California voters approved its use by the ill in a 1996 referendum Lungren has vowed to shut down nearly two dozen "cannabis clubs" still providing patients with the pain-easing drug.
But in some liberal Northern California counties, including San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Mendocino, local police and prosecutors are all for the cannabis clubs, and they have shown little enthusiasm for helping Lungren close them. In Mendocino County, local officials even debated whether to use a vacant lot next to a police station to grow marijuana for distribution to sick people. And in San Francisco, a lawyer in the City Attorney's Office sued the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to prevent it from punishing physicians who recommend marijuana for medical use.
On top of that, the founder of San Francisco's thriving Cannabis Cultivators' Club, Dennis Peron, is Lungren's opponent in the Republican primary election in June. He takes glee in pointing out that if the attorney general jails him for disobeying the court order, people might think there was a political motive lurking somewhere. Since Peron's campaign headquarters and his psychedelically decorated, marijuana smoke-filled emporium are one and the same, Lungren could find himself in the position of having shut down his opponent's campaign office.
"I feel sorry for him. He just doesn't want to accept feedback from the people. He just wants to close my campaign headquarters like some South American dictator," said Peron, who says that for years he has been the marijuana supplier of choice for many San Francisco homosexuals seeking relief from the symptoms of AIDS.
Lungren shut down Peron's club for five months in 1996, before the state referendum allowed it to reopen. He has frequently said he thinks Peron must have been smoking too much of his own product when he entered the Republican primary in the first place. But the attorney general, through a spokesman, declined to comment directly on Peron's allegation about closing his campaign office.
"He won't touch that one," said Rob Stutzman, Lungren's press secretary.
But Stutzman said: "The attorney general has a court order to enforce the law, and Mr. Peron is breaking the law by distributing marijuana from that address. If his campaign headquarters is there, he'd probably be well advised to relocate his political operation."
On Feb. 25, the state Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that, despite the 1996 ballot initiative, cannabis clubs cannot sell or give away marijuana to ill people because the clubs are not "primary caregivers" as defined in the new law. The next day, a San Francisco Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Peron from selling or giving away marijuana, after which Lungren said he would enforce the injunction.
In deft semantic footwork, Peron immediately announced he is no longer selling marijuana, but seeking "remuneration" for fertilizer, labor costs and fluorescent lighting that go into producing marijuana in the basement of his five-story cannabis club a few blocks from San Francisco City Hall. A new sign went over the club's marijuana bar proclaiming it a "Remuneration Station."
"We don't sell marijuana. We accept reimbursement for cultivating it, as the law says we can do," Peron said, referring to a state Court of Appeals ruling that a bona fide caregiver may seek reimbursement for expenses in providing marijuana to a patient.
While no accurate statistics on medical marijuana use are available, backers of the ballot initiative estimate that about 10,000 patients, with diseases ranging from AIDS and cancer to glaucoma and arthritis, buy the drug to reduce pain and control nausea.
Lungren argues that the ballot initiative, which was drafted by Peron, allows for only three things: a doctor to recommend marijuana, a patient to use it with a doctor's recommendation, and a primary caregiver to provide it if the patient is unable to obtain it. The voters did not intend, and the law still does not allow, commercial enterprises to distribute marijuana, even in return for remuneration of costs, Lungren insists.
Matt Ross, another Lungren spokesmen, said the Feb. 25 court ruling applies not only to Peron's club but to other clubs as well. "We will advise district attorneys and law enforcement officials of each county of that," Ross said. When asked what the attorney general will do if local authorities balk at closing the clubs, he said, "I can't get into that. But I can tell you that we will ensure that the [court] order is enforced."
In politically conservative areas of Southern California, like Orange and Ventura counties, local authorities wasted little time, in spite of the ballot initiative, in shutting down cannabis clubs and even jailing their employees. But some areas of Northern California are a different matter.
"We're all together on wanting to make [medical marijuana] work in San Francisco. Eighty percent of the people voted for it," said District Attorney Terence Hallinan, a self-described "Old Prog" who long has advocated decriminalizing marijuana.
The Oakland and Santa Cruz city councils unanimously passed resolutions defending local cannabis clubs. The resolutions condemned a lawsuit brought last month by the U.S. Justice Department and the DEA against six San Francisco Bay area clubs seeking to close them for violating federal laws against cultivating, possessing and distributing marijuana. A hearing on the case was set for March 24.
What disturbs some cannabis club operators is that Peron appears to have backed Lungren into a corner and forced him to try to shut down clubs that operate more discreetly than the flamboyant San Francisco Cannabis Cultivators' Club and with the tacit approval of the local authorities.
"These clubs don't claim they are protected legally," said David Fratello, spokesman for Americans for Medical Rights, sponsor of the 1996 ballot initiative. "They have sought to negotiate nonenforcement arrangements with their local law enforcement agencies because they think it's worthwhile for them to be above ground."
Fratello said Peron's situation is different because the 1996 state narcotics raid closed his club and he needed to reopen, even if it meant going head-to-head with the attorney general. But he said the federal civil lawsuit brought by the U.S. attorney for Northern California, Michael Yamaguchi, on behalf of the DEA and Attorney General Janet Reno is more threatening because it could lead to an end to above-ground distribution even in local jurisdictions where the authorities resist Lungren's attempts to close the clubs.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company