While Californians consider a popular ballot initiative that would provide a legal defense under state law for patients who use marijuana medicinally and doctors who recommend it, law enforcement officials opposing the measure have shown they are willing to use not only deception but even brute force to defeat it.
The war of words from the cops began at a low level, when Orange Country Sheriff Brad Gates formed "Citizens for a Drug-Free California" in early July and falsely claimed the initiative, Prop. 215 is really about overall marijuana legalization. Gates' claim was countered by Californians for Medical Rights and state Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, who said the No on 215 committee was "cynically employing conspiracy theory because they have no legitimate grounds to oppose the bill on its merits." Since then, the No on 215 committee has repeatedly been caught making false or misleading statements, listing endorsers who had made no endorsement, reportedly even using taxpayer-funded public employee time to lobby against the initiative, a violation of state law.
But the most outrageous conduct has been by state Attorney General Dan Lungren, a co-chair of No on 215. Across the state, Cannabis Buyers Clubs have been providing marijuana to patients for a number of years. Though illegal, they have enjoyed official sanction in many cases from local and county governments and even police officials who see arresting patients and interfering with medical care as their lowest possible enforcement priority. The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, serving more than 10,000 patients, has been protected by local officials, and except for one threat of a federal raid that never materialized, has operated openly and without interference. Early Sunday morning, August 4, a strike force of officers from the state bureau of narcotics, the highway patrol and other agencies raided the five story building at 1444 Market St. Apartments of staff members were also raided and searched, and five staff members were arrested, booked and released on bail. Over 12,000 member records were taken, and a quantity of marijuana and cash was seized.
In theory, the state police could conduct such a raid solely for law enforcement purposes. But after all the years the CBC had been in operation, the timing of the raid -- just as Prop. 215 was entering its campaign season -- is suspicious. At a press conference, a spokesman for Lungren said that undercover agents had been keeping the operation under surveillance for two years. When asked why it had gone on so long, he said "it was a very complicated investigation." One wonders what was complicated about it, given that the activities of the CBC had been open to the point of menus on the walls listing different grades of marijuana and their prices, and had been reported about on national news programs multiple times. If the narcs were trying to figure out whether marijuana was being sold there, and wanted to stop it, they had sufficient evidence long before Prop. 215 hit the ballot.
The raid prompted protests on Market St., and at the State Building and State Courthouse. On Tuesday, August 5, Yes on 215 held a news conference with assemblymembers Vasconcellos and Carol Midgen, denouncing Lungren's use of his police powers to interfere with the vote on Prop. 215. Police spokespersons indirectly acknowledged that validity of a medical exception by focusing on allegations on non-medical sales. CMR communications director Dave Fratello stated "This weekend's events simply highlight the need for Prop. 215 to pass this November. Prop. 215 expresses the sense of Californians that patients who use marijuana in their treatment are not criminals. It will make that fact explicit under state law."
At a Board of Supervisors committee meeting on August 15, club member Dixie Romagno said she was considering suicide if she couldn't get marijuana to stimulate her appetite and ease the pain of multiple sclerosis, according to an article in the San Francisco Examiner. "I have Dr. Kevorkian's address and if I can't get what I need I plan to use it," said Romagno. The board had considered declaring a state of emergency, similar to that used to protect needle exchange programs, in order to allow the Buyers Club to continue operating, but decided it could not. District Attorney Terence Hallinan, a supporter of Prop. 215, explained that "The marijuana situation does not fit within the narrow and specific concerns of (state) public safety laws" allowing medical emergencies; but promised the crowd that his office would make the prosecution of medical marijuana cases its lowest priority. Several days earlier, Sheriff Michael Hennessey said he would enforce a judge's order closing the club.
Perhaps emboldened by the San Francisco action, Special Operations detectives raided and closed a cannabis buyers club in Key West, FL, arresting two people, including club founder Zvi Baranoff, according to the NORML Weekly News report. The Key West club served about 90 patients and had existed for one year. In mid-September the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyers Club was raided as well.
The popular comic strip Doonesbury focused on medical marijuana and the San Francisco raid during the week of Sept. 30 to Oct. 4. But the real comedy took place at the Attorney General's office, when Dan Lungren issued a public statement criticizing the comic strip and requesting that papers not run those episodes. Both the United Press Syndicate that distributes Doonesbury and major California newspapers took the position that the comic strip is a legitimate part of political debate and that it is appropriate for it to comment on an issue that California voters will be deciding in November.
As this issue of The Activist Guide went to press, the first arrests in the SF Buyers' Club raid had recently been ordered by Lungren, including club founder Dennis Peron. The timing of the arrests -- more than two months after the raid, but less than four weeks before the election -- dispels any remaining doubt about the raid's political purpose. In an Oct. 11 press release, Fratello charged "Dan Lungren is again showing that he will do anything to defeat Prop. 215, including abusing the police powers of his office to try to influence this election. For two months, he has tried the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers' Club in the media, without making arrests. Now Lungren has taken the next logical step -- milking his public allegations against the club by making high-profile arrests less than four weeks before the election." Fratello called Lungren's strategy a "diversionary tactic," explaining "Prop. 215 is not about buyers' clubs at all. It is about the patients who need medical marijuana, and how we shall treat them under state law."