WASHINGTON — In their most specific response yet to California's marijuana initiative, federal officials warned Thursday that under federal law a doctor's prescription does not excuse pilots, engineers or bus or truck drivers who test positive for drugs.
"If you are entrusted with the safety of the traveling public and you test positive, these propositions don't mean a thing," said Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. "You will be removed." The initiative makes marijuana legal for medicinal purposes.
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House office of National Drug Control Policy, said that the warning for transportation workers is just the first in a series of federal responses to California's Proposition 215 and to a similar ballot initiative approved by Arizona voters. Other responses will be issued in a package before Christmas, he said at a White House briefing.
The administration is rolling out the announcements with much fanfare, at least in part because of criticism that the White House failed to fight drugs aggressively during President Clinton's first term, when surveys showed that drug use doubled among youths 12 to 17.
The transportation warning does not represent a change in current federal law. Rather, it serves as a strong reminder for operators of public transport that the California and Arizona propositions will not protect them from federal requirements.
Drug testing of 8 million transportation industry employees nationwide--from school bus drivers to airline pilots--has been required by the federal government since 1988. Employees are tested before being hired, are subject to random testing throughout their employment and are tested if they are involved in serious accidents.
California state officials and supporters of Proposition 215 said that the White House announcement was an empty gesture.
"We're glad to see that the federal government reads the law the same way we do," said Steve Telliano, a spokesman for California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren. "This is in line with what they've always said--that the state law will not affect federal rules and policies."
"This is unsurprising non-news," said Dave Fratello, a spokesman for Americans for Medical Rights, the group that sponsored Proposition 215. "To say that federal laws still apply doesn't surprise anybody. To say safety rules still apply is obvious to anyone who read the proposition's text. It certainly doesn't invite abuse by airline pilots, truckers, bus drivers and railroad workers."
But opponents of the proposition cheered the federal government's action. Assemblyman Bob Margett (R-Arcadia) said he is "pleased that the Department of Transportation recognizes the seriousness of Proposition 215."
Margett said that he still intends to introduce legislation in the Assembly to ensure that the proposition is narrowly interpreted. His measure would specify the illnesses for which marijuana could be prescribed, set an age limit on its use and control its cultivation.
McCaffrey, who campaigned aggressively against voter approval of the initiatives, said Thursday that they are "a threat to the national drug strategy."
For one thing, they bring into question the U.S. commitment to fight drugs, he said. Mexican officials who are working with the United States on cross-border drug problems "are enormously disappointed" by the initiatives because they see them "as a signal of our seriousness to confront the drug issue," he said.
Emerging from a White House meeting with several Cabinet members on the president's Drug Policy Council, McCaffrey wondered aloud about the implications of the propositions for joint federal-state programs like Medicaid and Medicare.
"If drug addiction goes up in California, does that mean we give them more money to reward sort of dysfunctional behavior?" McCaffrey said. "We've got some very serious legal issues."
The main worries, he added, are that the propositions will lead to increased drug use among children and teenagers and undermine the Food and Drug Administration's jurisdiction over the approval and certification of medications.
Fratello criticized McCaffrey for continuing to link Proposition 215 with increases in youth drug use.
"It was wrong for Bob Dole to blame Bill Clinton personally for increases in drug use," Fratello said. "And it's wrong for Gen. McCaffrey to blame Proposition 215 for increases that occurred before this was even on the ballot."
Also on Thursday, Clinton announced that the Justice Department is sending guidelines to states for carrying out new federal legislation that requires them to test prisoners and parolees for drug use. States must submit plans for testing and sanctioning prisoners and parolees by March 1, 1998, or become ineligible for federal prison funds.
"There is a huge connection between crime and prison population and drug use, which we are now strongly determined to break," Clinton said at the beginning of the Drug Policy Council meeting.
Times staff writer Eric Bailey in Sacramento contributed to this report.