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Federal Judge Delays Decision on Federal Suit to Close California Medical Marijuana Clubs; State Mayors Ask Clinton to Halt Suit


March-April 1998

After four hours of oral argument on March 24 in the Federal suit to shut down six Northern California medical marijuana clubs, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco asked for written arguments from both sides, due April 16 (Claire Cooper, "Federal judge delays ruling on pot clubs," Sacramento Bee, March 25, 1998; Associated Press, "Feds pursue closing marijuana clubs," Oakland Tribune, March 25, 1998, p. A1).

Judge Breyer said he hoped to find a compromise between the Federal government's action to enforce the 1970 U.S. Controlled Substances Act and California's 1996 medical marijuana initiative, but that he would have to choose a side because "the federal government is not going to change its position." He said he would consider whether Congress had medical marijuana in mind when it outlawed marijuana, and whether the federal government has ever used an injunction to regulate activity that is legal under state law.

The chief federal prosecutor in San Francisco, Michael Yamaguchi, said the suit was filed "to send a clear message regarding the illegality of marijuana cultivation and distribution." Mark Quinlivan, a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer, argued in court that "a state initiative cannot supplant the will of the people of the United States." In order to have legal medical marijuana, Quinlivan said, advocates must persuade Congress to change the law to allow for medical use of marijuana, or persuade federal health authorities to reclassify marijuana out of Schedule I.

Attorneys for six medical marijuana clubs argued that federal law may be violated to prevent a greater harm, such as the suffering and death of medical marijuana patients. Furthermore, they argued that privacy rights allow seriously ill patients to use marijuana medically to relieve pain and sustain their lives. Finally, the lawyers said that if marijuana is grown and distributed only within California, then the federal government has no constitutional jurisdiction over it.

About 200 supporters of medical marijuana rallied in front of the Federal courthouse while the case was being argued. Speakers at the rally included San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and San Francisco Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Gavin Newsom (Mary Curtius, "Backers of Medical Marijuana Hold Rally in San Francisco," Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1998, p. A23).


In letters to President Clinton, four California mayors asked the President to stop the Federal lawsuit which threatens to close down medical marijuana clubs in California. Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. of San Francisco wrote, "At stake is the well-being of 11,000 California residents who depend on the dispensaries to help them battle the debilitating effects of AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. If the centers are shut down, many of these individuals will be compelled to search back alleys and street corners for their medicine." The letter further states: "We are asking the Federal Government to drop its lawsuit and work with state and local officials to find an amenable solution that will put patients first." Joining Brown in similar letters were Mayors Elihu Harris of Oakland, Steve Martin of West Hollywood, and Celia Scott of Santa Cruz (William Claiborne, "Four California Mayors Urge Clinton to Stop Lawsuits Against 'Cannabis Clubs,'" Washington Post, March 19, 1998, p. A10; Maria L. LaGanga, "S.F. to U.S.: Back Off on Medical Marijuana Law," Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1998, p. A24; Sabin Russell, "Appeal to President on Pot Clubs," San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 1998; Vince Beiser, "Urban mayors lobby Clinton on pot club suit," Oakland Tribune, March 19, 1998)

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on April 8, Mayor Brown wrote: "Rather than censure this public health crisis with a lawsuit, the Justice Department should urge the Clinton administration to work with local and state governments to implement a plan for distributing medical marijuana that complies with both federal and state law and that puts the needs of patients first" (Willie L. Brown Jr., "Don't Bar a Pain Killer OKd by Voters," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), April 8, 1998, p. A11).


If the federal government shuts down California's marijuana clubs, city health workers could be called on to distribute the drug to patients who need it, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan said in his friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Federal suit (Zachary Coile, "Hallinan: Let the City Pass Out Pot If Clubs Close," San Francisco Examiner, March 15, 1998, p. A1; Claire Cooper, "DA to propose pot club alternative for S.F.," Sacramento Bee, March 17, 1998, p. A4; Maria L. LaGanga, "Duel Over Medical Pot Escalates," Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1998, p. A3).

"I would prefer that these clubs do it, but we're throwing out alternatives in light of what the courts appear to be saying and the lack of clarity in the proposition itself," Hallinan said. If the current system of medical marijuana distribution is disrupted, he said, "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."

Mitchell Katz, director of the San Francisco Health Department, said the proposal remains "a hypothetical," but he expressed support for the concept. "What you're hearing is that there is an absolute commitment to vigorously make sure marijuana is available to those who need it to alleviate their sickness," Katz said.


On April 15, Superior Court Judge David Garcia ordered Dennis Peron, author of Proposition 215, to cease operations of his Cannabis Cultivators' Club (CCC) in San Francisco. Judge Garcia said, "The court finds uncontradicted evidence in this record that defendant Peron is currently engaging in illegal sales of marijuana." The illegal sales, the court said, were to "primary caregivers," not patients as defined by California's medical marijuana law. Peron agreed to resign as head of the CCC in an effort to keep the operation open (Glen Martin, "Judge Orders Shutdown of S.F. Pot Club," San Francisco Chronicle, April 16, 1998, p. A1; Mary Curtius and Maria L. LaGanga, "Judge Orders Closure of San Francisco Cannabis Club," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), April 16, 1998, p. B1; Mary Curtius, "Cannabis Club Leader Resigns in an Effort to Keep Shop Open," Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1998, p. A3)

San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey closed down the CCC on April 20, but Peron turned over direction of the operation to 79-year-old Hazel Rodgers. The new club will be known as the Cannabis Healing Center. "I'm happy that we could stay open," said Rodgers, who was a longtime volunteer at Peron's club. Because Rodgers' club will only sell to patients, Hennessey said, "It could quite possibly meet the letter of the law and the judge's ruling. Peron will serve as a consultant to the Cannabis Healing Center (Glen Martin, "S.F. Cannabis Club Officially Shut Down, Grand Reopening Today," San Francisco Chronicle , April 21, 1998, p. A19; Tyche Hendricks, "Grandma, 79, takes over pot club," San Francisco Examiner, April 21, 1998; Steve Rubenstein, "Only the Name Has Changed at S.F. Cannabis Club," San Francisco Chronicle, April 22, 1998, p. A13).