One Toke over the Line

The feds vs. medical pot

Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the feds could shut down six California co-ops that were distributing medical marijuana in accordance with state law. Back in 1996, Golden State voters had overwhelmingly passed Proposition 215, allowing patients with a doctor's recommendation to use pot for serious medical conditions such as chronic pain and severe nausea. In effect, the nation's highest court decided that state laws legalizing cannabis for medical use weren't worth a dime bag.

In the aftermath of the May ruling, patrons and proprietors of California's 50-odd medical marijuana clinics waited anxiously to see how aggressive the federal crackdown would be. In October the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began to answer that question. Agents surveilled or busted several co-ops, finishing their tour with the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, a West Hollywood clinic that provided pot on site to 960 patients suffering from AIDS, epilepsy, cancer, glaucoma, and other serious illnesses. Thirty armed federal agents seized 400 marijuana plants, computers, financial documents, and medical records.

On December 10, authorities informed Scott Imler, the co-op's director and founder, that he would face a grand jury on December 20. At press time, he was still awaiting its decision on whether to indict him for defying the Supreme Court ruling, a charge for which he could face hard time.

"I don't want to whine or duck here," says the 43-year-old Imler, his voice suggesting the bemusement of someone who's facing up to 10 years in prison for helping sick people. "I knew what I was getting into, and I'm prepared to take whatever responsibility comes my way. But I would imagine...they're focusing on me because the minute they raise the issue of conspirators, it would be a whole different kettle of fish."

Imler is referring to the co-op's wide swath of supporters. In addition to employing several staff members, the Cannabis Resource Center was created with the close cooperation of the city council and local law enforcement agencies. If the federal government tries to hone in on "co-conspirators," it may well have to indict the entire paid staff of the city of West Hollywood (an independent municipality surrounded by Los Angeles).

Elsewhere in California, co-ops continue to treat the patients who depend on them amid growing uncertainty. Says the Rev. Lynnette Shaw, founder of the Marin County Alliance of Medical Marijuana: "Mostly, we're all very worried on behalf of the patients. If the DEA closes everybody, it will throw all those patients back into the arms of the gangsters. And that's exactly what the gangsters want. So in a sense, the DEA is working for the gangsters."

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