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California and the West

Duel Over Medical Pot Escalates

Politics: San Francisco prosecutor vows that patients will continue to receive marijuana, while Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren warns of reprisals.

March 17, 1998|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan promised Monday that patients will continue to get medical marijuana--even if the city has to distribute it--prompting the state attorney general to threaten officials with prosecution if that happens.

The dueling statements--Hallinan's in court documents and Dan Lungren's on the gubernatorial campaign trail--escalated an already bristling controversy eight days before Northern California cannabis club operators head to federal court to defend their facilities.

Hallinan contended in court papers filed Monday that everyone from city residents to San Francisco officials supports the use of medical marijuana to alleviate the pain and suffering of patients with AIDS, cancer and other ailments.

If the current distribution of marijuana is disrupted, he said, patients will die, and "what is now a reasonably well-controlled, safe distribution system--one that has been characterized by cooperation with city officials and one that is inspected by the Health Department--will instead devolve into a completely unregulated, and unregulatable, public nuisance."

To preserve the health and safety of San Francisco residents, Hallinan wrote, San Francisco "may in the future authorize its officers to enforce a law or municipal ordinance . . . by distributing marijuana to seriously ill patients."

Lungren has long locked horns with Northern California cannabis club operators and San Francisco officials over the issue of medical marijuana. When asked Monday about such a city-run operation, Lungren retorted: "I'd like to say I'm surprised, but I'm not."

Speaking at a Sacramento campaign appearance, Lungren noted that Proposition 215, which legalized the use of medical marijuana in California, is strict about who may obtain and use the drug.

The California Supreme Court recently ruled that Proposition 215 does not provide protection for cannabis operations such as the Cannabis Cultivator's Co-Op in San Francisco. The initiative does, however, protect the rights of so-called primary caregivers to grow or obtain marijuana for approved patients.

"I'd have to see under what basis" the city is acting before cracking down, Lungren said, but "the city can't be a primary caregiver any more than a cannabis buyers club can."

Lungren's bottom line: "All I know is that I took an oath to uphold the law . . . and I would hope San Francisco officials do the same."

But the term "uphold the law" is open to considerable debate in a liberal city such as San Francisco. And Hallinan, as the city's highest law enforcement officer, made a kind of veiled threat in his legal filing about his city's unique interpretation of the term.

He noted that, if the medical marijuana distribution centers were to close, police officers would be forced into the arduous task of separating legitimate medical purchasers from nonmedical purchasers.

Short of that, he said, they may "simply give up on arresting anyone purchasing marijuana."

The federal government in January filed civil lawsuits against six cannabis clubs and 10 of their operators in San Francisco and four other Northern California counties in an effort to shut down the facilities.

The club operators are scheduled to appear in court on March 24. Hallinan made his Monday comments in a friend of the court brief on their behalf in the federal case.

Times staff writer Dave Lesher in Sacramento contributed to this story.

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