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Up in Smoke

Santa Rosan Al Martinez is the first to test the state's new medical marijuana use law

By Fred Gardner

AT THE CANNABIS BUYERS CLUB in California the sigh of relief seemed more pronounced than the cry of triumph as the Nov. 5 election results came in: San Francisco, 78-22, yes; Los Angeles 54-46, yes. . . . There was hardly a joint being passed around the second-floor office, where club founder Dennis Peron and friends instead were exchanging hugs and expressions of pride at having made history--until Orange County came in at 51-49 percent, yes.

California would now permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes by a 56-44 margin.

"All our opponents kept saying that Prop. 215 was a vote to legalize marijuana," Peron told Channel 4 news, pushing the baggie, as always. "Are they going to keep saying that now that the votes are in? I'm sure they're right: a lot of people voted yes because they think the marijuana laws are too harsh and severe."

Marijuana, like heroin and LSD, is on the Drug Enforcement Agency's "Schedule I," which means it cannot be prescribed by doctors and no research is permitted without a special license. Although the wording of Prop. 215 was derided as "loose," the initiative was crafted with help from lawyer William Panzer of Oakland to free doctors from the responsibility of writing marijuana prescriptions in direct violation of federal law. Under the law, a doctor can testify that he or she recommended marijuana as a treatment for, say, epilepsy.

One test case on the fast track involves Al Martinez, 40, an in-home caregiver who was arrested in Santa Rosa in August for cultivation of six plants. He has been using marijuana for nearly 20 years to prevent seizures, ever since a Southern California neurologist recommended that he try it. "I found that I felt more debilitated by the phenobarbitol I had been taking," says Martinez, who had never smoked pot before trying it for medicinal use. "After a seizure, I usually smoke a pipeful to relax."

Now that the Santa Rosa Police Department has confiscated his stash, Martinez purchases marijuana at the Marin Cannabis Buyer's Club.

Martinez will be the subject of a state Health and Safety Code hearing Dec. 17 in Sonoma County Municipal Court to determine the guidelines of his case. "It should be interesting," says Panzer, his lawyer. "We're going to be tackling a lot of interesting issues. For instance, is it up to the state to establish that a defendant does not qualify for medical use? Or is it up to the defendant to prove that he does qualify under that category?"

Panzer also will ask the court to allow Martinez's doctor to testify confidentially, so that the physician is not subjected to possible federal prosecution.

Another possible test case involves Peron and five other people who bought and sold pot for the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. The club was closed down Aug. 4 after a raid by agents of the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. A lengthy investigation by undercover agents had revealed that people could buy pot there under false pretenses (with a fake doctor's letter, for example). Peron says that Prop. 215 is, in part, a referendum on his right to operate the club, and that he expects the case against him to wither away. "I hope to reopen by New Year's Eve," he says, "as a Cultivator's Club, where sick and dying people can come and hang out and water their plants under the grow lights."

Peron expects his Cultivator's Club to be a model for others, and that within a year there will be hundreds of thousands of members. "I expect the price of marijuana to come down by half," he says.

The founder and maitre d' of the Cannabis Buyers Club is the perfect Puck to preside over such a green world--wiry, charming, mischievous, compassionate. Now 50 and white-haired, he has been challenging the marijuana laws by direct action since 1969, when he arrived in San Francisco from Vietnam with two pounds of the illegal herb in his Air Force duffel bag, and by legal and political means since 1970, when he was first arrested. In the '70s and '80s, he was busted for selling pot more than a dozen times. After each bust, including one in which he got shot in the thigh and served seven months at a San Bruno jail, he would resume selling out of his living room or a nearby flat that in due course turn into a legendary salon.

Peron was a libertarian who refused to accept that he didn't have a right to smoke marijuana. "And the right to smoke it means the right to get it," he would argue, "which means people have to have the right to grow and sell it."

He became serious about making marijuana available for those in medical need when his longtime companion, Jonathan West, was dying of AIDS in 1990. "Marijuana was the only drug that eased his pain and restored his appetite and gave him moments of dignity in that last year," Peron recounts. "And of course I had hundreds of friends with AIDS who relied on marijuana for the same reasons."

In 1991, Peron founded the Cannabis Buyers Club, which over the years outgrew a couple of locations and evolved into a cozily decorated fern bar/floating support group occupying a five-story building on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. More than 11,000 people--including Sonoma County residents--became members by bringing letters from doctors stating that they suffered from an illness the weed could help treat.

The biggest seller, at $5 per eighth of an ounce, was leafy Mexican, which many cancer patients said they preferred because it suppressed nausea without getting them too high.

The club employed more than 90 workers, most of whom had AIDS, as budtenders, food servers, carpenters and custodians, and all clerical staff, as well as buyers who dealt with the dealers and growers. Peron paid $300 a week in cash, plus pot. He had 16 bakers working at home as independent contractors. "It was all I could do to keep up with the demand," he says.

"I would get the leaf from growers and provide it to the bakers. I was selling between 300 and 500 baked goods a day--brownies, Rice Krispies, pudding--every baker had a different specialty." The club also served $1 plates of simple, wholesome fare like curry or spaghetti. The cooler was stocked with liquid nutritional supplements for members who couldn't keep their food down.

All this, however, was at risk on election day.

PROP. 215 SANCTIONS the use of marijuana in treating "cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, mi-graine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief." It was written mainly by Peron, who insisted on the bit about "any other illness" over the strenuous objections of allies in the reform movement.

"I wanted the initiative to reflect the reality we were seeing every day at the club," he says. "Am I supposed to turn away a gentle woman who has epilepsy? 'Hold it, you're not on the list.' What about people in wheelchairs? People with asthma? The treatments they try should be up to them and their doctors."

As of 12:01 a.m. Nov. 6--at which point the party of the Cannabis Buyers Club was going strong--Article 11362.5 of the Health and Safety Code became available as a defense to "seriously ill Californians" busted for possession or cultivation of marijuana. Dennis Peron looked into a camera and said, "We're looking forward to giving [state] Attorney General Lungren all our cooperation as he enforces the will of the people."

The next morning the attorney general announced plans for an emergency "All Zone Meeting" at which sheriffs, police chiefs, and district attorneys will consider the "implications of this new law for the 'cop on the beat' and the filing deputy in the prosecutors' offices."

Lungren released interim guidelines to the BNE, advising officers to keep the "medical necessity" defense uppermost in mind when making an arrest. "The officer should ask early whether the person is taking medication, what medication, for what condition, at which doctor's direction, and the duration of treatment.

The officer should attempt to verify the information when possible. An officer should ask whether the individual is a patient or caregiver. If he or she says patient, then ascertain name of doctor and caregiver. If caregiver, ascertain for whom, for how long, and on what basis [responsible for housing, health or safety of the patient].

"The officer should attempt to verify the information when possible."

In Washington, President Clinton's drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, met Nov. 13 with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and is promising a federal enforcement effort. The old prohibition refrain "The revenuers are comin', Pa!" may soon be heard if DEA agents start trying to bust small-time growers as well as doctors willing to testify in connection with a medical marijuana defense.

Those who question the validity of the evidence for marijuana's medical effectiveness charge that it is "merely anecdotal." Proponents counter that the reason the voluminous anecdotal evidence has never been rigorously tested is that the federal government stands in the way.

In 1994, Donald Abrams asked the DEA for a license to conduct a rudimentary study of marijuana's effects on people with AIDS. Abrams is professor of clinical medicine at San Francisco General Hospital and head of the Community Consortium, an organization of caregivers who treat the majority of Bay Area AIDS patients.

He intended to test marijuana at three different dosages (joints per day) and compare its effectiveness to Marinol--an expensive, corporate-developed, government-approved pill containing synthetic 9-delta-THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana.

Patients told Abrams and his colleagues that smoking marijuana made it easier to fine-tune for dosage and in many cases seemed more effective than Marinol in reducing nausea. "We were very concerned about safety and were also going to look at pulmonary function, at the impact on patients' immune systems, and on their viral load," he says.

His protocol was critiqued, tweaked, and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the California Research Advisory Panel, and the UC San Francisco Institutional Review Board, but in April '94 the DEA turned him down, objecting to his plan to import marijuana that a Dutch firm had offered to donate. So Abrams went through channels, requesting 5.7 kilograms for research purposes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "I didn't hear back from them," he recounts.

In April '95, NIDA rejected Abrams' request for marijuana on scientific grounds. "They didn't like the idea of doing an outpatient study," he says. "How did I know how much marijuana the patients were really smoking? How did I know they weren't giving it away? We weren't controlling for caloric intake."

WHEN NIDA director Alan Leshner indicated that a favorable peer review would prompt a reconsideration, Abrams designed an in-patient study to be conducted at his hospital and applied to the National Institutes of Health for a grant--i.e., peer-review approval. Two colleagues who had studied the HIV wasting process signed on as co-investigators, and highly regarded scientists agreed to do the pulmonary-function tests, pharmacology, HIV viral-load testing, and immune studies.

In August, Abrams got a rejection notice, soon followed by a detailed critique, of which he says, "people are unduly prejudiced by their own baggage. How can they have it both ways? They say there is no information that marijuana does anything, and then they don't allow you to study it."

"Western medicine has forgotten almost all it once knew about the therapeutic properties of marijuana," laments Tod Mikuriya, a Berkeley psychiatrist who was the first director of marijuana research at the National Institute of Mental Health back in 1967. In the Cannabis Buyers Club, Mikuriya saw a unique research opportunity.

Hoping to confirm or add to descriptions in the pre-prohibition literature, he began inter-viewing club members in 1994, and he has since collated the anecdotal evidence from more than 200 respondents. "Cannabis appears to be a unique immunmodulator analgesic that is useful in the control of autoimmune inflammatory diseases throughout the body," Mikuyira generalizes.

He also thinks it has great potential as a "gateway drug back" for alcoholics and heroin addicts, a use Mikuriya traces back to Scotland in 1843. With the passage of Prop. 215, he expects many doctors and patients in California to try it.

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From the December 5-11, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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