Defiant California City Hands Out Marijuana
SANTA CRUZ, Calif., Sept. 17 — Christopher Krohn, mayor of this laid-back beach town, wore his pinstriped suit to work today because he wanted to appear serious before the television cameras. Mayor Krohn, several City Council members and two former mayors gathered in front of City Hall this afternoon to witness a medical marijuana giveaway in protest of a federal raid two weeks ago on a local cannabis collective. It was a direct challenge to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and though the mayor did not physically handle the marijuana today, he was unsure whether he would be going to jail. "We are not California wackos," the mayor said in an interview. "We are trailblazers. We are normal. This is not an attempt to embarrass the D.E.A. but rather a compassionate gathering in support of sick people who need their medicine." Since the United States Supreme Court ruled last year that the 1996 California voter initiative legalizing medical marijuana did not provide a defense against federal prosecution, the state has become the target of Bush administration efforts to crack down on the cultivation and distribution of the drug. The federal authorities have raided marijuana clubs in West Hollywood, San Francisco, Oakland and Sebastapol. Nine states have enacted laws allowing medical marijuana use in some circumstances since 1996; in addition to California, they are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Why California plays such a central role is the subject of debate. Its law is the earliest and vaguest, and advocates here are more vocal, visible and provocative. Its climate is better suited to the crop than, say, Maine's, so the larger-scale distribution here is more likely to meet informal federal guidelines for what warrants prosecution. "Most of the raids we've executed in California have involved 100-plus plants," said Will Glaspy, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "We're not talking about small growers." Also, big raids in California are more likely to receive national attention. "I think maybe we're more visible and further along in this process," said Prof. Gerald Uelmen of the Santa Clara College School of Law, noting that there is no allowance in the state law for distribution of marijuana beyond the primary caregiver, although local governments interpret that broadly. Professor Uelman represents the owners of the nationally known marijuana collective outside Santa Cruz raided on Sept. 5 by the Drug Enforcement Administration. That raid may have been one of many but the reaction was particularly emotional, and it inspired the rally here. The target was the farm belonging to Michael and Valerie Corral, who helped draft Proposition 215, California's 1996 medical marijuana initiative. The Corrals were arrested on charges of conspiracy and suspicion of intent to distribute marijuana. Agents seized three rifles, a shotgun and 167 budding marijuana plants. The couple, fearful of federal harassment, are now in hiding. "It's hard to tell the difference between a so-called club and an operation that cultivates and traffics in marijuana," said Mr. Glaspy of the D.E.A. "What you really have in California are people fattening their pocketbooks under the disguise of medicine." Valerie Corral, in a cellphone interview, said of the accusation, "That's outrageous," adding: "I live off the land. They can check my bank accounts. I'll take a lie-detector test. We're here to help dying people." The raid was a surprise to local officials, who said the Corrals' farm complied with the state's marijuana law and had been publicly operating for 10 years. "It's a shock," Mayor Krohn said. "We've worked with the D.E.A. here on our heroin problem. We appreciate their assistance in those cases. But this raid was unannounced and against the will of the people." The California attorney general, Bill Lockyer, a strong proponent of Proposition 215, sent a pointed letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, asking for a meeting and criticizing "punitive expeditions" against "locally authorized medical marijuana operations." Kevin Ryan, the new United States attorney in San Francisco, has yet to seek an indictment in the Corral case. A spokesman said he would not comment on the investigation. In the case of the West Hollywood cooperative, prosecutors have sued to seize the property, considered the biggest medical marijuana operation in Southern California, though no criminal charges have been brought. Special Agent Richard Meyer, a spokesman for the San Francisco bureau of the D.E.A., would not say whether anyone would be arrested in connection with today's protest but questioned why city elders would interject themselves into such a stunt. "What kind of message are city officials sending to the youth of Santa Cruz?" Mr. Meyer asked. "The law of the land is that marijuana is an illegal drug. We will enforce those laws. You cannot pick and choose what laws apply to you and those that don't." Daniel N. Abrahamson, the director of legal affairs of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates less strict drug laws, said the federal government may be sending its own counterproductive message. "To what extent does the federal government's policy backfire by emboldening state and local officials to engage in what amounts to civil disobedience?" Mr. Abrahamson asked. The crackdown in California comes as fall elections will enable citizens across the country to vote on a variety of marijuana proposals. In San Francisco, voters will decide whether the city should go into the marijuana growing business to supply patients. Nevadans will decide whether to allow adults 21 and older to possess as much as three ounces of marijuana, whether they are sick or not, with no threat of criminal penalty. They would not be allowed to smoke it in public or operate a motor vehicle. Under current state law, anyone caught with that much marijuana could face four years in prison. Arizona, Ohio and Michigan have initiatives on the ballot that would reduce penalties for possession. In July a bipartisan bill was introduced into the House of Representatives to legalize marijuana for medical use, removing any conflict between state and federal law, though the legislation seems to have little support. As the rally got under way today, the sick and needy gathered in front of the City Hall steps: one-legged men, people in wheelchairs, AIDS patients, women with breast cancer. While people smoked marijuana on the lawn in front of City Hall, cigarette smokers were asked to move to the sidewalk. There were others with more dubious intentions. A man in a fraternity sweatshirt came with a photocopy of a generic prescription entitling the bearer to marijuana. The man claimed he had chronic headaches and joint pains. When asked his name, he demurred. "I don't want my parents to find out," he said.