SACRAMENTO — Californians who use medical marijuana remained defiant Monday in the face of a Supreme Court decision that allows the federal government to prosecute patients who use the drug with a doctor's recommendation.
The decision caused ripples across the state, the first in the nation to approve medical marijuana with passage of Proposition 215 in 1996.
Few expected to see federal drug authorities renew an aggressive war on medical marijuana in the Golden State. "This would be like the Oakland Police Department focusing on busting jaywalkers," said Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group.
Indeed, federal officials were quick to say after Monday's decision that they did not expect to begin routine prosecutions of individual marijuana users.
But advocates of medical marijuana, and some patients, expressed worry about what might happen to the organizations that have sprung up to distribute the drug in the state. The court victory might embolden federal prosecutors to go after such groups, they said.
Dr. Frank Lucido, a Berkeley family practitioner who specializes in medical marijuana recommendations, predicted the federal government might raid a few "high-profile clubs, probably those with lower standards."
California has about 120 medical marijuana cooperatives. An additional 300 organizations are scattered around the nation, mostly in the nine other states with laws legalizing the herb with a doctor's recommendation, Sherer said.
Valerie Corral, founder of a Santa Cruz medical marijuana collective known as WAMM, said the ruling will mean the end of the group's wind-swept communal garden up the coast. Federal agents raided the garden in 2002.
After that raid, outraged Santa Cruz officials let ill and infirm members of the collective ceremoniously distribute medical marijuana on the steps of City Hall. Corral said the group, which has seen 155 members die of AIDS, cancer and other illnesses over a dozen years of operation, will split up the responsibility of growing marijuana among its members.
"It's not as if this decision wipes out cancer and ends AIDS and everyone in a wheelchair can now get up and dance," Corral said. "Where are people supposed to go if we shut down?"
Authorities in San Francisco were grappling with how to plan for tighter regulations on cannabis clubs. Regulating an enterprise that the federal government considers criminal could place the city in a difficult legal situation, they said.
"This puts us in a state of temporary paralysis," said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. "I don't want to flout the law, but at the same time it would be irresponsible of us to turn our backs on patients."
Keith Vines, a former San Francisco deputy district attorney who had to retire last year because of complications from AIDS, said he worries that the dispensary where he purchases medical marijuana could be shut down.
"How would I get it?" wondered Vines, who smokes pot a few times a week to slow the wasting effects of AIDS. "I don't think you'd see me out on the street corner trying to buy it. There's too much risk."
Some government officials also expressed concern the decision would slow a state program, approved in 2003, to provide identification cards for patients whose doctors have prescribed marijuana for their ailments.
On the other hand, some activists expressed hope that the decision could actually help in their long fight to legalize medical marijuana in the U.S.
"Medical marijuana advocates have been urging the federal government for years to have an objective, science-based, sane conversation about marijuana as medicine," Sherer said. "Now the Supreme Court is urging them along as well."
Angel Raich of Oakland, one of two women who sued to keep her medical supply, said she planned to carry the battle to Congress in hopes of seeing federal laws changed so physicians can prescribe medicinal pot.
"I've still got some breath in my body, so I'm going to stand up and fight," said Raich, who smokes pot every few hours to counteract the effects of a brain tumor and other illnesses. "I can't stop using this medicine. I don't have that choice."
Legislation before Congress would prohibit the use of federal tax dollars for raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, a past target of U.S. drug agents. In addition, a petition before U.S. health officials would allow doctors in all 50 states to consider prescribing marijuana to patients in need. A decision could come as soon as this summer. Given the Bush administration's strong opposition to medicinal use of marijuana, both efforts face long odds.
California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer urged the public to pressure Congress to look anew at legalizing medical marijuana.
"Taking medicine on the recommendation of a doctor for a legitimate illness should not be a crime," Lockyer said. "There is something very wrong with a federal law that treats medical marijuana the same as heroin."