SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge ordered six Northern California cannabis clubs to shut down Thursday after finding them in violation of federal law for selling marijuana to patients with AIDS and other illnesses.
The ruling prompted the U.S. Justice Department to urge other California cannabis clubs to close their doors too.
"Federal law is clear, and [U.S. District] Judge [Charles] Breyer's opinion is clear--the distribution or cultivation of marijuana is unlawful," Michael Yamaguchi, the U.S. attorney for the state's Northern District, said in a statement.
Breyer issued the first federal court ruling in the wake of California's much-disputed medical marijuana law, finding that pot is an illegal drug under federal law and that federal law supersedes the initiative passed by state voters.
Breyer ordered the Northern California clubs to close by Monday.
But operators of the two largest clubs vowed to defy the judge and keep selling pot.
"We have no plans to shut our agency down," said Jeff Jones, director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-operative.
Dennis Peron, spokesman for the San Francisco Cannabis Healing Center, said he looks forward to being held in contempt of court.
"Then, at last, we will finally get out in front of a jury. It is our chance to reach out to the common people," said Peron, a Republican candidate for governor.
There are about a dozen cannabis clubs across the state selling marijuana to thousands of people with AIDS, cancer and other illnesses. The largest Southern California club, the Cannabis Resource Center, is in West Hollywood.
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said prosecutors will review the judge's ruling to see if it affects Southern California clubs. Mrozek said the office has not filed lawsuits against any Southland club.
"I'm sure they will go after the rest of the clubs now," said Peter Baez, former director of the Santa Clara cannabis club.
That club, once touted as a model by Santa Clara County officials, closed this month after Baez was arrested on suspicion of selling marijuana to someone who did not have a doctor's recommendation. Baez is now facing several felony drug counts.
"The government made the Northern California clubs their test case because it is the main stomping ground for medical marijuana," Baez said. "They figured that if they could be victors over those clubs, the rest will be easy targets."
In his ruling, Breyer said Proposition 215, passed by California voters in 1996, could not take precedence over federal drug laws. The judge rejected the arguments of club operators who said they are entitled to furnish the drug because their customers cannot survive without marijuana to ease pain and the side effects of therapy.
Breyer said a "medical necessity" defense might be available in individual cases, but can't be used by a club that distributes marijuana to many patients with different diseases.
"A state law which purports to legalize the distribution of marijuana for any purpose . . . even a laudable one . . . directly conflicts with federal law," the judge wrote.
Proposition 215 allowed patients with certain serious illnesses to possess marijuana for medical use.
The initiative said patients who have a doctor's recommendation, or the patients' caregivers, could grow and use marijuana for treatment. Some advocates for medical marijuana say that eating or smoking the drug quells nausea and combats wasting sickness common to AIDS sufferers by improving their appetites.
Despite the initiative, the state attorney general's office has opposed the operation of medical marijuana clubs and has mounted legal battles against Peron's and others.
In January, federal prosecutors filed civil lawsuits to halt operation of six clubs--two in San Francisco and one each in Oakland, southern Marin County, Santa Cruz and Ukiah. Two clubs, one in San Francisco and another in Santa Cruz, have since closed.