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High Emotions : Measure's Passage Stirs Strong Support and Harsh Criticism

ELECTIONS '96

November 07, 1996|DAVID FERRELL and DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Call him one of the, ah, grass-roots campaigners. He sings and tells jokes for pocket change. His sign--"World's Greatest Wino"--features a bumper sticker supporting Proposition 215, in no small part because Clarence Bobby Brown has been treating himself with pot for some time now.

"I'm nearly blind," Brown, 59, said Wednesday on the Venice boardwalk, proudly sporting an "I voted" sticker. "Therapeutic purposes is what I use marijuana for. When I want to get high, this is what I use."

He hoisted a pint of vodka and swigged his own impromptu toast to the surprising state ballot measure, which voters approved by a solid margin Tuesday to legalize the use of marijuana for the medically ill.

Even while political leaders and law enforcement officials were still debating how, or if, the measure would work, emotions over pot for pain were running high.

Supporters threw parties, exchanged hugs and high-fives, and envisioned further liberalization of drug policy. AIDS and cancer patients gave thanks. Opponents spoke bitterly about drug abuse and wondered what the voters would try to do next.

"I think it's going to mess up the world," said Pete Sisco, 36, a construction worker from Marina del Rey. "Little kids are going to start smoking it and say they've got a medical problem. And if you've got a medical problem, what are you going to do, start smoking it in a restaurant?"

At the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyers Club, an underground organization that dispenses raw "bud" and marijuana brownies to those who are ill, AIDS patient Jim Stone, 31, of Pasadena showed up Wednesday to fill out the necessary paperwork and buy two Baggies containing 3/8 of an ounce of high-grade marijuana.

Afterward, he shook hands with club founder Scott Imler, who uses marijuana for a seizure disorder. TV cameras rolled.

"It's kind of exciting. I always wanted to be a trendsetter," Stone said, estimating that he uses $6,000 to $7,000 worth of prescription medications a month for his illness. In addition, he says, he needs to smoke about a gram of marijuana a day to help reduce the side effects of those drugs and prevent nausea so he can eat.

"It absolutely does work," he said. "My appetite is better. A 10-pound difference in the weight of someone with AIDS can mean the difference between life and death."

Stone's purchase came only one day after a more dramatic scene at the club, which illustrated the clash of ideological views. With election returns coming in and television cameras in place to record the organization's aptly timed reopening, a squad of Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies showed up on bicycles and busted brownie chef Babaji Zeiger on suspicion of possession as he left work for the night. The deputies also confiscated $70 to $80 worth of marijuana that Zeiger was carrying in a breath mint tin.

Except for that low point, supporters of the ballot measure had little to complain about. Some, like longtime Venice activist Kenya Winchell, got together in bars and living rooms, celebrating.

"I must have cried three or four times, I was so happy," said Winchell, who collected signatures for the initiative while working at a sidewalk stand selling hemp baseball caps, T-shirts, twine, lip balm and gourmet roasted (and sterilized) hemp seeds.

"It's a great day when you can grow your own medication for pennies," she said.

Winchell's co-worker, Christina Renee, sat with her 5-year-old son, Blake, and watched the returns come in. "We both kind of sat here and hugged," she said. "It was a heavy moment."

Renee, who suffers from fibromyalgia, a disorder similar to rheumatoid arthritis, said she uses marijuana to ease her pain and anxiety. Her son understands about marijuana's medical benefits, and he has been exposed enough to casual marijuana use that he does not equate it with hard drugs.

"He knows that heroin is a very bad, yucky drug," Renee said.

In the old hippie haven of Topanga Canyon, where you can find fliers advertising Taoist healing and asking for tepees to rent, a group of young men outside the Topanga General Store swapped high-fives over news of the measure's passage.

Commercial painter Randy Lo Guercio, who admits to inhaling now and again, said it's just a matter of time before marijuana is fully legalized. He said he thinks all drugs should be made legal.

"Pot grows from the ground. I don't see anything wrong with it," said Lo Guercio, 34.

Plumber Richie Stethem, whose faded T-shirt bore the lyrics of a Grateful Dead tune, gobbled the last bite of a candy bar and called for a "slow" path to the legalization of marijuana. He worried that people might "get a little too happy" if marijuana was made legal today.

Sierra Madre gardeners Mike Franco and Larry Steele are not so willing to favor all-out legalization; each used marijuana during his teens and believes it can lead to the abuse of more dangerous drugs.

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