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In Calif., Medical Marijuana Collective Loses Hope,
Patients State Law Provides No Shelter From DEA

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 7, 2003; Page A03

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- The line began forming 45 minutes before the doors to the meeting hall opened, with those who could stand on their own making way for those with wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes.

A favorite weekly ritual, small talk and political debate, had barely started before word of an unexpected death began to spread. As the news rippled through the line, nearly everyone was shaking.

"I thought I'd go long before she did," a gray, twig-skinny man of late middle age said with a cough.

"That's three in one week," said a pale young man, bundled fat in three sweatshirts and a windbreaker on a mild night this week.

Meetings of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana -- WAMM, to everyone who knows it -- are not always so grim. But these are times that try the most resilient souls. The patients' cooperative, which made news around the world last fall when federal agents arrested its founders and seized the collective's plants, has been losing members at an alarming clip. Twenty-nine people have died over the past 14 months -- including three in an eight-day stretch recently -- and two more are on their deathbeds.

Beyond their own mortality, WAMM members worry whether their collective will survive. It exists to dispense marijuana to the sick and dying, which California law allows it to do. Federal law, however, does not, and the Drug Enforcement Administration considers what WAMM does no different from dealing heroin or cocaine.

Just last week in San Francisco, a man who had been deputized by the city of Oakland to grow marijuana for a local patients' cooperative was convicted by a jury in federal court on three felony charges of cultivating drugs. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.

True, half the jurors in that case stood on the steps of the federal courthouse in San Francisco on Tuesday with the defendant, Ed Rosenthal, and renounced their decision. The jurors said they had been duped into convicting Rosenthal because the judge had not allowed the defense even to mention the phrase "medical marijuana," since the federal government does not recognize medical use of the drug. But the jurors' regrets are small comfort to WAMM.

"If a jury in San Francisco will convict in such a case, then where are we safe?" said Valerie Corral, stunned and shaken after she heard the verdict. Corral and her husband, Mike, helped draft California's groundbreaking 1996 medical marijuana law, Proposition 215, which allows patients whose doctors recommend it to consume the drug. They have lectured all over the world on the benefits of marijuana in alleviating pain and improving the lives of the seriously ill, such as by increasing appetite. They also care for the sick and dying as though they were family.

In Santa Cruz, they are heroes.

Last Sept. 5, the Corrals were handcuffed and jailed after DEA agents raided the farm near here where WAMM had been growing marijuana for its 225 members, 85 percent of whom are terminally ill with cancer or AIDS. The U.S. attorney has five years to prosecute the Corrals for cultivating banned drugs with intent to distribute.

But the Corrals, and WAMM, are fighting back on two legal fronts. In the first case -- WAMM's attempt to sue the DEA for the return of its marijuana plants -- they lost a decision but are appealing. In the second, which their attorneys plan to file in U.S. District Court in San Jose within the next two weeks, WAMM will seek an injunction telling the DEA to leave the collective alone. The city of Santa Cruz, by a unanimous vote of the city council, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, on the grounds that it cannot provide the kind of hospice care that WAMM provides members of the community.

"The biggest argument is that it is a violation of these people's constitutional rights of due process under the Fifth Amendment to deprive them of this medicine that is making the last days of their lives more tolerable and, in some cases, literally keeping them alive," said Ben Rice, one of WAMM's attorneys. "Since the September raid, a number of patients have died, and their lives ended in a less comfortable way because of the DEA raid. We also have the issue of states' rights."

Despite the DEA raid, WAMM has not stopped distributing marijuana to its members, who range in age from 8 to 92. "We have very generous friends," Valerie Corral said with a smile when asked where the marijuana comes from these days. About 150 members show up at the weekly WAMM meetings to pick up their doses. Housebound members have theirs delivered.

But Corral said members have had less than their usual weekly doses of the drug. The cause of the unexpected death of member Kathy Nicholson, who suffered from paralyzing rheumatoid arthritis, was still being investigated, but Corral said she suspected that Nicholson accidentally overdosed on painkillers she began taking to compensate for the much smaller amount of marijuana she had received over the past several months.

It was Nicholson's death, two days before this week's meeting, that was the talk of the night.

Members -- who did not want their last names published because of their jeopardy under federal law -- were particularly upset because Nicholson's life partner, Tony, a blind WAMM member, would be left to fend for himself. The couple had been inseparable. They had met in the weekly line for the WAMM meeting about four years before, and their common-law union had been celebrated at WAMM's office by scores of members.

"Who's going to take care of Tony now?" a man in the back of the room wailed.

"We will!" some one else shot back.

One member reminded the group of the importance of writing a will. Nicholson had not left one, leaving Tony with no legal right to anything connected to her.

As Tony stood before the group, weeping, Corral reminded members to tell him their names as they consoled him, "so Tony knows who's hugging him."

That got a laugh. But the overall mood of the evening was despair. Richard, one of the most active members, was disconsolate. "The season is supposed to start soon, and we don't have anywhere to grow," he said, referring to the marijuana they usually begin planting in March. "What are we going to do? Who is going to help us? Are the feds just going to keep busting us?"

Another member, Lenny, suggested that federal agents might be infiltrating WAMM.

"Guys," Corral said, "let's get a grip!"

Later, privately, she said that the spate of deaths was clearly getting to the members. But, she added, she did have some good news.

"WAMM is going to be opening a hospice facility," she said. "We've been wanting to do this for years."

2003 The Washington Post Company


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