President Clinton's drug policy chief said in a television interview to be broadcast this week that the federal government would prosecute California doctors who recommend the use of marijuana if the state legalizes it for medical use.
Barry McCaffrey, Clinton's drug czar and the administration's most vocal critic of Proposition 215, said during a TV appearance taped Monday that federal officials would continue to enforce U.S. laws against marijuana and called the ballot measure "a hoax."
During a campaign swing through California on Tuesday, McCaffrey also released letters from former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and former Presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford urging a vote against the California measure and another marijuana initiative in Arizona.
The presidents said it sends "the erroneous message that dangerous and addictive drugs such as heroin, LSD, marijuana and methamphetamine are safe."
Republican activists were quick to point out that President Clinton had not signed the former presidents' letter. But McCaffrey said Tuesday that Clinton is against the measure too.
But it was McCaffrey's comments during a taped interview on the Court TV program "Washington Watch" that were drawing the most attention Tuesday as the drug czar visited the Phoenix House Academy in Los Angeles.
During the program, which airs Friday, McCaffrey was asked if he would enforce the federal law against marijuana possession and distribution even though California might make it legal for medical purposes.
"Without question," McCaffrey said. "A physician who tries to prescribe a Schedule 1 drug, with or without these referendums in California and Arizona, is subject to prosecution under federal law--and we will uphold the law."
Dave Fratello, a spokesman for the pro-Proposition 215 campaign, said McCaffrey's comments were not surprising, but could prove "chilling" for California physicians.
"We think that statement was just vicious," Fratello said. "That the feds are talking about going after doctors who are simply trying to take care of patients with an alternative they think works, that's exactly the climate of illegality that made 215 necessary."
Officials with the California Medical Assn., which opposes Proposition 215, have said a more pernicious problem than prosecution of doctors could be federal efforts to pull their licenses to prescribe certain drugs.
"There is something at stake for physicians who might be pursued by the federal government," said Sandra Bressler, CMA director of scientific affairs. "I understand there are lots of physicians willing to take that risk, but the truth is it is a risk."