SACRAMENTO — A visit Wednesday to the California capital by President Bush's drug czar prompted a placard-waving protest by medical marijuana supporters angry over the federal government's opposition to use of the drug by the ill.
The demonstration by about a dozen activists came as John Walters, director of the president's Office of National Drug Control Policy, met in a downtown office building with members of law enforcement and leaders of the drug treatment effort to discuss the U.S. effort to stem abuse.
"The czar belongs in Russia, not in California," said state Sen. John Vasconcellos, a Santa Clara Democrat who remains one of the Legislature's most vocal supporters of medical marijuana.
Walters, who encountered similar pickets during appearances in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, said the protesters were part of a broader movement to legalize recreational drugs.
"It's not the AMA. It's not a major medical group," Walters said. "These are the people who want to legalize drugs."
At a news conference before the protest, Vasconcellos and several patients who use cannabis as medicine criticized the federal government's stance against medical cannabis, which in recent years had included the arrests of prominent activists and raids at some of the state's medical marijuana dispensaries.
Vasconcellos said "marauding" federal drug agents are wasting taxpayer dollars. He said marijuana was not a gateway drug but instead had been proven to be a worthy medicine for a variety of afflictions.
"They're frightened by freedom," Vasconcellos said. "They've got no science, no compassion."
"Without cannabis, I would be dead right now," said Angel Raich, who in December prevailed in a pivotal federal court case that allowed her to continue using marijuana for a brain tumor and other illnesses. "Our federal government says we're criminals and better off dead."
Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) recounted how her close friend, writer and actress Marlene Rasnick, turned to medical marijuana after her weight had dropped precipitously because of cancer. The drug helped restore her appetite and health, Goldberg said.
Rasnick took a turn for the worse, Goldberg said, after federal agents in October 2001 closed down the West Hollywood center where she had obtained marijuana. She died three weeks later, Goldberg said. "That made me understand this issue in a very powerful way," she said.
After the protest, Walters said that marijuana had not been shown to be a safe and effective medicine, and that marijuana was continuing to be the single most prevalent cause of drug treatment in the nation.
"Some people who use marijuana say it makes them feel better," Walters said. "But feeling better is not the standard of modern medicine."
He said that a small group of wealthy businessmen led by billionaire financier George Soros, one of the most aggressive foes of President Bush heading into the 2004 election, was using the medical marijuana movement to promote efforts to legalize recreational drugs.
"They are using the sick and suffering as a prop for political action," Walters said. "I think that is immoral and improper. I think this con has gone on long enough."