Monday, February 09, 2009

Audience Packs Library for “Waiting to Inhale”

Crowd of 300 Cheers Medical-Marijuana Film and Its Director


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

TOP, L to R: Jed Riffe, Aaron Smith, Rick Reyes
Middle: Donna
Bottom: Jed Riffe

The film Waiting to Inhale, a 2006 documentary on the medical marijuana controversy produced and directed by Jed Riffe, begins with Mike and Valerie Corral, the couple who founded the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana growers’ cooperative in Santa Cruz. They describe in detail the day in 2002 when agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided their garden and broke into their home in full protective gear, with their guns drawn, and terrorized the Corrals until they had finished their business: stripping the garden bare of its 167 marijuana plants and notifying the Corrals that the federal government intended to prosecute them as drug dealers.

A woman named Donna ended the post-film discussion at the San Diego Public Library’s February 8 screening of Waiting to Inhale by saying that just a few days earlier she’d been the victim of a similar experience. “There were multiple caregivers arrested this week, and multiple raids going on at the time they were invading my house,” she said. “I have no criminal record, but on Thursday morning [February 5] I had 10 people in my house with semi-automatic weapons, ready to murder me for using legal marijuana.”

What made Donna’s experience unusual is that the people at the other end of those guns weren’t DEA agents; they were local law enforcement, sent by the San Diego County Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices. According to Aaron Smith, California public policy coordinator for the Medical Marijuana Project (a lobbying position) and one of the three panel members who spoke after the February 8 screening, that in itself is illegal. Smith said that the California courts have repeatedly ruled that state and local law enforcement officials don’t have the right to go after people whose conduct is within California’s landmark medical marijuana law, passed in 1996 as Proposition 215 — but in San Diego they do that anyway.

Indeed, according to Smith, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors have been scofflaws throughout the entire medical marijuana controversy. While the city of San Diego passed a local ordinance allowing medical marijuana patients to get I.D. cards certifying them as such before the state legislature passed a similar bill, the county not only refused to implement the state legislation, they filed a lawsuit to have Proposition 215 invalidated as a violation of federal drug law. Smith said that “all counties have to issue state I.D.’s,” but the flaw in the law is that it put the job on the counties instead of having the state issue the I.D.’s themselves through their own offices.

What’s more, the law did not set a deadline for the counties to create the program locally — leaving an “out” for San Diego and six other California counties to refuse to implement the program at all. Also, under the state law you can’t go to another county to obtain a card; it has to come from your “county of residence,” which led to some discussion about how people who spend part of their time in San Diego and part in another California county could legitimately claim, as their “county of residence,” a county that’s already on board with the program.

In addition to Smith, the post-film panelists included Jed Riffe and Rick Reyes, a local medical marijuana patient and advocate. Asked why San Diego County has been so retrograde on the issue, Reyes said, “You’ve got some very strong Republican and conservative groups that want to retain power.” Later, asked why there is such inequality in law enforcement between San Diego and other California cities and counties, Reyes said, “Again, it’s prejudice. We are being persecuted.”

Riffe was somewhat more optimistic, saying that the medical marijuana issue hits home because “everyone knows someone with AIDS or cancer” — diseases for which marijuana is considered particularly useful, both in controlling the actual pain of these conditions and counteracting the side effects of chemotherapy and anti-HIV medications. “Susan Wright, the speaker of the Kansas state senate, refused to let a medical marijuana bill come up for a vote five times until she met Susan Hughes, a multiple sclerosis patient. Wright asked her, ‘What do you really want?’ We said, ‘All we want is for people like Susan Hughes not to go to jail.’”

But even if the hearts and minds of elected officials in conservative Kansas could be moved on this issue, many audience members were skeptical that that could ever happen with the reactionaries in charge of San Diego County. “The thing you have to remember in dealing with ideologues is the Right has always used fear,” one audience member said. “You have to use education, and the government and people who don’t want this will always use fear.” This person warned against allowing medical marijuana advocates to look like hippies who just arrived from the 1960’s in a time machine, and said, “The only way we will ever soften their hearts is with people who look, walk and talk like them” — a lesson Aaron Smith, short-haired, clean-shaven and dressed in a suit and tie, seemed to have taken to heart.

Waiting to Inhale is a surprisingly comprehensive documentary on medical marijuana, starting in the 19th century when it was a common ingredient in patent medicines — as were cocaine, opium and morphine. In fact, marijuana remained a legal medicine in the U.S. until 1937, when as part of an anti-drug campaign by Harry J. Anslinger (head of the federal anti-drug agency for 32 years and a sufficiently well-known figure in the demonology of marijuana that the audience booed and cat-called when his image appeared) marijuana was made illegal for virtually all uses.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, pushed through Congress by the Nixon administration, made things even worse for medical marijuana advocates. It placed marijuana, along with LSD and heroin, on Schedule I, officially defining it as a drug with “no established medical use” and “high potential for abuse.” Morphine and cocaine are on Schedule II — “some established medical use” and “high potential for abuse” — while amphetamines and steroids are on Schedule III (“established medical use” and “some potential for abuse”)

It was this act on which the U.S. Supreme Court relied in its 2001 and 2005 decisions asserting that the federal government could prosecute medical marijuana users no matter what their state’s law had to say on the matter. The court ruled that since Congress had found that marijuana was medically useless, that was therefore legally true regardless of what research evidence actually existed for marijuana’s medical efficacy. Some medical-marijuana advocates have compared these rulings to the Roman Catholic Church’s proclamation in the early 1600’s that the earth was the center of the universe and anyone who said otherwise could be prosecuted for heresy, despite the growing evidence from scientists like Copernicus and Galileo that the earth actually orbited the sun.

According to Smith, the federal government is not only insisting on the basis of a Congressional proclamation that marijuana has no medical use, they’re actively blocking research that might indicate otherwise. “The Drug Enforcement Administration is obstructing research as best they can,” he said. “University of Massachusetts researcher Lyle Kranker has continually applied to grow marijuana on campus and has been refused several times.” Smith is hopeful that the appointees of the Obama administration won’t be as hard-nosed about this and will actually facilitate research into marijuana’s medical uses — as well as ordering DEA agents not to raid medical marijuana collectives, which Obama spokesperson Nick Shapiro already pledged in a February 5 press conference.

Though its filmmaker clearly has his own point of view on the issue, Waiting to Inhale is a surprisingly fair documentary. Opponents of medical marijuana, including former Office of National Drug Control Policy head Barry McCaffrey (via a film clip) and special assistant David Murray (interviewed for the film), are given the opportunity to state their case. The film is also surprisingly sympathetic to the so-called “parents’ groups,” organizations of people whose adult children have died from complications of drug use and who have responded by banding together to advocate for a tough anti-drug policy, targeting marijuana as the so-called “gateway drug” to the more potent substances — heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine — that actually killed their children. Some of the audience members said that San Diego County was actually giving money to these parents’ groups to help fund their anti-drug message.

“I appreciate the work of the national Medical Marijuana Project, but we have local issues here and we need to talk about this,” said a man in the audience who identified himself as another of the caregivers who had been arrested and raided several days earlier. “They [San Diego county officials] are completely flouting the law and have come down in the last six months with an entrapment scheme and wiped us out.” The reference is to the county’s policy to infiltrate undercover officers into medical marijuana dispensaries to pose as customers and give the county an excuse to close down the dispensaries and arrest their proprietors. The attacks on caregivers were the next step in the county’s drive to eliminate all medical marijuana use in San Diego without the bad P.R. of directly targeting sick people, medical-marijuana activists in the audience argued.

“They came to my house and left me with nothing,” the caregiver continued. “This is injustice. This is organized crime. We must stand up against the County Board of Supervisors, [San Diego County district attorney] Bonnie Dumanis, the sheriffs and the people who are pulling their strings. Five years ago, the San Diego County Grand Jury said they were refusing to enforce a state law because of their personal biases — and they still are.”

“What happened last week is tragic,” Smith replied, “but overall 2008 was our most successful year since we passed Proposition 215 in 1996. We past a medical marijuana bill in Michigan, and we elected a new president who’s called off the dogs. [Smith claimed that Obama’s spokesperson had stated publicly that he’s ordered the DEA not to stage any more raids on medical marijuana facilities.] We’re litigating; Americans for Safe Access (a grass-roots medical marijuana organization), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the state of California have won a lawsuit over the ID cards. We’re setting our sights on the outlaw ‘law enforcement’ in San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.”

Addressing some of the tactics used by San Diego County and these other “outlaw” jurisdiction, Smith added, “We will be sponsoring legislation to license dispensaries and provide clear protections from arrest on the state level, and also say that local law enforcement can’t just call in the DEA to stage enforcement actions that are illegal under state law. Last year we were within one to two votes of getting that to the governor’s desk/ We’re making progress, and I know it doesn’t seem like it, but it’s getting better.” Smith also mulled over the irony that while San Diego County is ferocious in its opposition to medical marijuana, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) has been a national leader on medical marijuana research since the 1960’s.

Web links

Waiting to Inhale film:

Marijuana Policy Project:

Americans for Safe Access: