Medical Cannabis Policy Update: Oct 07
Coordinated Raids on Patient Coops and Threats of Property Seizure Now Common
California medical marijuana patients and those who provide their medicine are under increasing attack from federal agencies, despite continuing efforts by state and local authorities to establish workable regulations for the state's medical marijuana program.
Federal officials responsible for the raids - which have included agents from not just the Drug Enforcement Administration but also the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation - continue to claim that they are not targeting the sick and dying. But the law enforcement activities of just the past four months include a dramatic increase in the number of raids in California.
Since June, the DEA has raided 18 patient cooperatives where medical marijuana was being distributed. In four instances, federal agents have gone after small, state-legal personal gardens. And in three cases, local authorities turned prosecution of patients over to federal authorities after determining that the individuals they were investigating were in compliance with state law.
"These raids do not serve a law enforcement purpose; they are about a policy dispute over medical use of marijuana," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access. "California and 12 other states have decided doctors can be trusted to recommend a safe, effective medicine. The DEA is trying to interfere by intimidating patients and politicians with "shock and awe" tactics -- staging simultaneous raids on as many medical marijuana dispensaries as they can manage and kicking down doors of the sick and elderly."
On July 25 -- the day the Los Angeles City Council was meeting to take action on establishing a regulatory oversight process for medical marijuana dispensaries -- the DEA simultaneously raided 10 patient cooperatives in the area. This was similar to the January 17 raids on 11 dispensaries in LA, and the simultaneous raids on 13 dispensaries in San Diego last September.
"Drug kingpins aren't the ones being arrested. It's patients who help other patients," said Joe Elford, Chief Counsel for ASA. "The effect of these raids has not been increased public safety. It's been hardship and suffering for people with cancer, AIDS and other serious medical conditions, people whose access to medical marijuana is a right under state law."
In addition to paramilitary-style raids on patient cooperatives, the DEA has also sent in excess of 140 letters to the landlords of dispensaries in the Los Angeles area, threatening these law-abiding citizens with the loss of their property to federal asset forfeiture if they continue to allow patients to rent their buildings.
Los Angeles City Council members reacted to the latest federal incursions in local health policy by unanimously approving a resolution supporting the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment to the Commerce-Justice-State-Science appropriations bill, which would have eliminated funding for DEA interference in state medical marijuana programs.
In response to the DEA's new intimidation approach, three members of the Los Angeles City Council also sent a letter to DEA Administrator Karen Tandy, asking her to "abandon this tactic and allow this City Council to continue the important work of regulating these facilities without Federal interference." The letter was made public at a press conference by Councilmember Dennis Zine, a former Los Angeles police officer, who said the city council should be free to "uphold the will of our voters and adopt sensible guidelines to regulate the provision of medical cannabis in our communities."
The importance and effectiveness of a regulatory approach to medical marijuana dispensing collectives is outlined in ASA's report on the experience of California officials in communities around the state. You can see it at www.AmericansForSafeAccess.org/DispensaryReport.
ASA has been meeting with landlords to help explain their rights and their options for how to proceed. Lawyers suspicious of federal abuse of power have also come forward to help. One such lawyer, Eliot Krieger, is a former Assistant United States Attorney in Los Angeles experienced in asset forfeiture law.
"Quite simply, the federal government is placing innocent landlords, leasing space to tenants who are in full compliance with state law, at risk of losing their property." said Krieger. "Even if the government can legally seize the landlords' properties, this is a clear misuse of Department of Justice funds and taxpayer dollars."
Since June 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales v. Raich that the government had the discretion to arrest and prosecute medical cannabis patients and providers, the DEA has fully exercised that discretion by conducting scores of raids and, as a result, is currently prosecuting more than 100 patients and providers. Based on data made available by the DEA, Americans for Safe Access estimates that since June 2005, the DoJ has spent more than ten million dollars of taxpayers' money on federal arrests of medical marijuana patients and providers.
"This action by the DEA is an example of the insane use of scarce law enforcement resources," said Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) in a recent statement. "It is especially insulting the way in which these resources are being used to supersede the votes of local people to permit the legal use of medical marijuana."
For further information, refer to:
ASA Blog on West Coast medical marijuana raids: DEA Raid analysis 6/1-9/26/07
ASA press releases on recent LA raids and DEA threats:
Los Angeles City Council Votes to End Federal DEA Medical Marijuana Raids
DEA Raids and Threats Against Landlords Used to Thwart Vote in Congress
LA Councilmembers Letter to DEA Administrator Karen Tandy
Los Angeles City Council Resolution in support of Hinchey-Rohrabacher
The DEA letter to more than 140 landlords in the Los Angeles area
ASA's estimate of cost to taxpayers associated with DEA raids
Landmark Lawsuit Using 'Data Quality Act' Continues Despite Setback
For nearly three years, ASA has been pursuing landmark litigation to get the federal government to tell the truth about medical marijuana and admit what everyone knows: that many doctors routinely recommended marijuana to patients who might be helped by it, and they do so because it is a safe medicine that is effective in treating a wide array of illnesses and injuries.
Now a federal court has said that ASA's lawsuit may be able to force the federal agencies to respond in a timely manner. District Court Judge William Alsup dismissed the suit on a technicality, but said that ASA could argue that the government had engaged in "unreasonable delay."
ASA filed an amended complaint with the court on August 17. The government now has 60 days to respond; the case will likely be heard in late 2007 or early 2008.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stalled for two years and finally ducked answering ASA's 2004 petition filed under the Data Quality Act, a little-known federal law that says federal agencies must rely on sound science in the information they disseminate. ASA filed suit in February to get government action on the petition.
At issue are statements about medical marijuana issued by HHS and the FDA. Both insist that marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States," and "there have been no studies that have scientifically assessed the efficacy of marijuana for any medical condition."
Michael Teague, 37, was a small businessman with a work-related back injury. His allergy to conventional painkillers such as aspirin and Tylenol led his doctor to recommend medical marijuana, but following that advice landed him in federal prison. Even though there was no evidence that the small amount of marijuana he was growing in his garage was for anything other than personal use, Teague spent 17 months behind bars. Now the man who put him there has had a change of heart. U.S. District Court Judge David Carter terminated Teague's four years of supervised release fifteen months early, in response to a motion filed by Americans for Safe Access. Judge Carter not only commented on Teague's exemplary conduct but explained at length that it was tragic for this medical marijuana patient to have been harmed so severely for being caught in the conflict between state and federal law. With these statements, Judge Carter joins U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who has twice tried author and advocate Ed Rosenthal, as federal judges who have openly criticized or questioned federal criminal prosecutions of medical marijuana patients.
Michael Teague, before reporting to federal prison
45 Reps Sign Letter Urging Research Cultivation License
ASA lobbying was part of a successful, many-month effort by medical marijuana activists to get Congress to support research into cannabis therapeutics. On September 19, a letter signed by 45 members of the U.S. House of Representatives was delivered to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), urging the DEA to allow a UMass-Amherst professor to grow marijuana for approved research studies.
Over the past four months, ASA National Office staff, led by Governmental Affairs Director Caren Woodson, has been part of a campaign to get members of the House to sign the bi-partisan letter to DEA Administrator Karen Tandy. ASA members across the country contributed to a national grassroots campaign, contacting their representatives to ask them to sign on.
The letter, which was authored by U.S. Representatives John Olver (D-MA) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), asks Tandy to accept DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner's February 2007 Opinion and Recommended Ruling in support of the UMass-Amherst Medical Marijuana Research Production Facility. The law judge's ruling is non-binding and DEA has no deadline to decide whether to accept or reject it. The ruling is the result of legal action sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and other drug policy reform groups.
The DEA's handling of the UMass application to cultivate marijuana for research studies has already elicited congressional questioning. A DEA deputy administrator faced criticism on the subject during hearings this summer.
"The DEA is ignoring the vast scientific evidence that clearly shows medicinal use of marijuana benefits patients who are extremely ill," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who sits on one of the committees charged with oversight. "When it comes to providing the best treatment options to sick Americans, we should trust doctors and medical researchers and not federal bureaucrats."
Lyle Craker, who is the director of the Medicinal Plant Program in the Department of Plant, Insect and Soil Sciences at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, submitted his initial application to DEA in June 2001. Craker plans to cultivate marijuana that would be used in clinical trials to determine whether marijuana meets FDA standards for medical safety and efficacy.
Since 1968, the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse has maintained a monopoly on the supply of research marijuana. Judge Bittner found that NIDA has repeatedly refused to supply marijuana for FDA-approved studies that could develop marijuana as a prescription medicine. Federal law requires adequate competition in the production of such Schedule I drugs as marijuana, to ensure a supply for approved research.
Coburn Amendment to FDA Bill Defeated in Senate
An attempt to undermine state medical marijuana laws was turned back in September. A Senate addition to the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 threatened to obstruct the ability of states to implement medical marijuana programs by requiring federal FDA approval. But on September 20, the House and Senate approved a compromise bill without the language added by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).
Senator Coburn, a staunch medical marijuana opponent, introduced an amendment to the FDA bill in April that would have required that, "state-legalized medical marijuana be subject to the full regulatory requirements of the Food and Drug Administration." Advocates objected to removing state control of the medical marijuana programs that have been instituted in 13 states.
While the stated purpose of the Coburn amendment, "To evaluate the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana," is laudable, in practice the amendment would have given the FDA authority to regulate medical marijuana (cannabis) at the state level. Despite hundreds of scientific studies to the contrary, the FDA continues to state that there is no currently accepted medical use for marijuana in the U.S.
"We are thankful that Congress saw the virtue of maintaining state control of medical marijuana laws," said Caren Woodson, Director of Government Affairs for Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy group that worked to defeat the amendment. "Yet, Congress should take decisive action to develop and adopt sensible federal policy on medical marijuana. Why should seriously or chronically ill patients in only thirteen states get to take advantage of the medical benefits of cannabis?"
Despite laws restricting the authority of the FDA to "new drugs" that cross state lines, the Coburn amendment attempted to expand that authority to cover medical marijuana grown and consumed inside a state in accordance with state law. Though its impact if enacted was uncertain; the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reviewed the legislation and found that it was "poorly drafted" and said that "the effect of the amendment appears unclear."
The Coburn amendment passed out of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in May, despite opposition by Committee Chair Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and others, and was subsequently approved by the full Senate. This spurred medical marijuana advocates such as Americans for Safe Access, as well as HIV/AIDS patient groups, to lobby the House to exclude similar language in its companion bill. This effort succeeded, and Congress overwhelmingly passed a compromise bill that excluded the Coburn amendment.
"It's bad enough that the federal government has a monopoly on medical cannabis research, preventing proper investigation," said Woodson. "If Congress wants to address this issue effectively, it must allow for unfettered research and access in all states for those that benefit from medical marijuana."
Retirement Living Television Segment Airs; Poll Shows Nearly All Support Legal Access
Medical marijuana was the subject of a news magazine program in August, aired on the country's largest television network devoted to retired Americans. The "Viewpoint" program on Retirement Living Television (RLTV), a cable channel that boasts 29 million viewers, included interviews with patients, medical researchers, dispensary operators, and federal officials.
Among those featured in the program were Florida medical marijuana patient Irv Rosenfeld, who receives his medicine free from the federal government; Dr. Bertha Madras, the Deputy Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; and Dr. John Benson, one of the co-investigators for the 1999 Institute of Medicine report, which concluded that there are medical uses for marijuana. ASA's Director of Government Affairs, Caren Woodson, was part of an RLTV promotional program that aired the day before.
The focus of the RLTV programs was "the relationship between seniors living with chronic pain and their choice to use medical marijuana to alleviate their constant discomfort," according to RLTV, which offers additional information at www.rl.tv.
Recent DEA raids in Los Angeles made the program unexpectedly timely, as RLTV had visited one of the raided medical cannabis dispensaries, the California Patients Group (CPG), which served more than a thousand patients over the age of fifty. As the result of the DEA raids, which occurred just before the program aired, CPG had its assets seized and was forced to close.
A poll of RLTV viewers showed near unanimous support for access to medical marijuana with a physician's recommendation; only one respondent opposed it. This is consistent with a December 2004 poll conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which found that 72% of their national membership "agree that adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if a physician recommends it." Nearly one-third of those surveyed said that they smoked marijuana.
Many of the ailments commonly associated with aging - such as arthritis, cancer, glaucoma, and chronic pain - can be effectively treated with cannabis, as outlined in the ASA booklet on medical marijuana and aging.
On September 23, the Emmy-award-winning CBS news program 60 Minutes aired a segment on California's medical marijuana dispensaries that highlights how the federal government is interfering.
To illustrate that interference, 60 Minutes focused on the recent DEA raid of the California Patients Group, a patient collective in West Hollywood that is one of dozens that have been targeted. Ever since June 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court said the federal government has the authority to arrest medical marijuana patients and those who help them grow or obtain their medicine, the DEA has been conducting paramilitary-style raids. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of raids in the state this year.
Don Duncan of California Patients Group addresses the media and supporters
The 60 Minutes program also featured the Rev. Scott Imler, a leading proponent of the original voter initiative, who now alleges people without medical need are getting protection from it. Why Rev. Imler, like many law enforcement officials, feels he is a better judge of medical necessity than a trained physician is not clear from the program.
California's medical marijuana law was drafted to be inclusive of illnesses and conditions for which cannabis was known to be effective, a determination the law leaves in the hands of doctors. In the handful of cases where law enforcement has alleged doctors have behaved improperly - no patients have filed complaints - the doctors have been investigated by the California Medical Board, which has its own medical cannabis guidelines for physicians.
The California law voters passed in 2006 directs "federal and state governments to implement a plan for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana." Eleven years later, the federal government still denies there are medical uses for the drug, and more states have decided to take matters into their own hands. As more states have joined California in removing criminal penalties for patients who use marijuana on their doctors' advice, questions of how to ensure safe access for those patients are coming to the fore.
The solution for many communities in California has been patient collectives where medical marijuana can be purchased.
For more on dispensaries, see ASA's
ASA Blog on the program: 60-Minutes Highlights Medical Cannabis Dispensaries and Interference by the Feds
A study published in the European Journal of Neurology found that cannabis effectively controlled painful spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. The randomized controlled trial of 189 subjects with definite MS and spasticity found that 40% of subjects achieved a better than 30% improvement in their spasticity, a common problem for MS patients that is difficult to treat. The study used a standardized oromucosal whole plant cannabis-based medicine known as Sativex. A forthcoming overview of research on MS and cannabis in the Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics concludes that "the majority of studies are beginning to suggest that cannabinoids are useful in the treatment of MS in at least a subset of individuals."
The British Journal of Pharmacology has a review forthcoming that holds out hope for those suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The authors suggest that anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects of cannabinoids, the key constitutive components of the cannabis plant, may help combat the neurodegeneration that is the hallmark of such debilitating diseases as Alzheimer's, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, and Parkinson's. The broad-spectrum effects of the compounds are particularly promising. As the authors from Trinity College Dublin note, "cannabinoids offer a multi-faceted approach for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease by providing neuroprotection and reducing neuroinflammation, whilst simultaneously supporting the brain's intrinsic repair mechanisms by augmenting neurotrophin expression and enhancing neurogenesis."
The Journal of AIDS reports that researchers have shown cannabis and its primary psychoactive component, THC, can help HIV patients eat more and gain weight. A double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study at the New York State Psychiatric Institute with 10 HIV-positive cannabis users found that both cannabis and Marinol are effective, though patients required 8-times the standard dose of Marinol to get the same benefit as smoking low-grade cannabis. The subjects gained more weight when they were given more cannabis or Marinol. Higher doses created psychic effects all classified as positive, and none showed cognitive impairment in learning, memory, vigilance or psychomotor ability. Those who smoked cannabis experienced better sleep patterns than those who were given Marinol.
While the respiratory problems associated with even long-term chronic cannabis smoking are minor and manageable, alternatives to smoking have been urged by many, including the investigators for the 1999 Institute of Medicine report, Marijuana and Medicine. A study on vaporizers reported in the Harm Reduction Journal measured the self-reported respiratory problems of a group that included both cannabis and cigarette smokers. Researchers found that the more cannabis smoked, the greater the reduction in reported problems among those who used a vaporizer for consuming cannabis. The authors conclude that their " data suggest that the safety of cannabis can increase with the use of a vaporizer." The researchers note that "vaporizers heat cannabis to release active cannabinoids, but remain cool enough to avoid the smoke and toxins associated with combustion."
Angel Raich, using a vaporizer in her hospital room.