Sunday, March 29, 2009

Police Chief Slams Obama for Making Joke of Marijuana

Guest Blogger, former Seattle Police Chief, Norm Stamper Speaks Out

The president is busy. He's got important things to do, like rescuing the economy, saving jobs and mortgages and industries. But we ought not to let him off the hook for his frivolous dismissal of a widely popular question he faced in Thursday's Online Town Hall

At the top of the televised event, the president announced that of the 3.5 million votes on the thousands of questions received in advance, one topic "ranked fairly high." It was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and encourage job creation. He responded: "The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy." He then asked rhetorically what the question says about "the online audience."

Get it? His in-the-flesh audience got it, chuckling politely at the allusion to a Stoner Nation plugged in to the "internets." The problem for Mr. Obama is that marijuana reform was at or near the top of the list of all questions in three major categories: budget, health care reform, green jobs and energy. Our leader doesn't seem to understand that millions of his interlocutor-constituents are actually quite serious about the issue.

Which is not to say that drugs, particularly pot, doesn't offer up a rich if predictable vein of humor. Cheech and Chong's vintage "Dave's not here!" routine is still a side-splitter. As Larry the Cable Guy would say, "I don't care who you are, that's funny right there."But there's nothing comical about tens of millions of Americans being busted, frightened out of their wits, losing their jobs, their student loans, their public housing, their families, their freedom...

And show me the humor in a dying cancer patient who's denied legal access to a drug known to relieve pain and suffering.

Having just returned from Minnesota whose state lawmakers are entertaining a conservative, highly restrictive medical marijuana law, I can tell you what's not funny to Joni Whiting.

Ms. Whiting told the House's Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee of her 26-year-old daughter Stephanie's two-year battle with facial melanoma that surfaced during the young woman's third pregnancy. The packed hearing room was dead quiet as Ms. Whiting spoke of Stephanie's face being cut off "one inch at a time, until there was nothing left to cut." She spoke of her daughter's severe nausea, her "continuous and uncontrollable pain."Stephanie moved back to her family's home and "bravely began to make plans for the ending of her life." The tumors continued to grow, invading the inside and outside of her mouth, as well as her throat and chest. Nausea was a constant companion. Zofran and (significantly) Marinol, the synthetic pill version of THC, did nothing to abate the symptoms. Stephanie began wasting away. She lost all hope of relief.

Joni's other children approached their mother, begged her to let their sister use marijuana. But Ms. Whiting, a Vietnam veteran whose youngest son recently returned from 18 months in Iraq, was a law-abiding woman. And she was afraid of the authorities. There was no way she would allow the illicit substance in her house. As she held her ground, her grownup kids removed Stephanie from the family home. Three days later, wracked by guilt, Joni welcomed her daughter back. "I called a number of family members and friends...and asked if they knew of anywhere we could purchase marijuana. The next morning someone had placed a package of it on our doorstep. I have never known whom to thank for it but I remain grateful beyond belief." The marijuana restored Stephanie's appetite. It allowed her to eat three meals a day, and to keep the food down. She regained energy and, in the words of her mother, "looked better than I had seen her in months."

Stephanie survived another 89 days, celebrating both Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family.

Shortly after the holidays, Stephanie's pain became "so severe that when she asked my husband and me to lie down on both sides of her and hold her, she couldn't stand the pain of us touching her body."Stephanie died on January 14, 2003 in the room she grew up in, holding her mother's hand. A mother who, as she told the legislative committee, would "have no problem going to jail for acquiring medical marijuana for my suffering child."

Following Joni Whiting's presentation, it was all I could do to hold it together during my own testimony. Such was the power of this one woman's story. And of the sadness and rage roiling inside me as I reflected on the countless other Stephanies who are made to suffer not only the ravages of terminal illness and intractable pain but the callousness and narrow-mindedness of their leaders.

When I finished my testimony, a local police chief, a member of the committee, angrily accused me of disrespecting the police officers in the room--who'd shown up in force, in uniform, to oppose medical marijuana. Wearing a bright yellow tie with the lettering "Police Line, Do Not Cross," the chief charged me with placing more stock in the opinions of doctors than of Minnesota's cops. Guilty, as charged. Who are we, I asked him, to substitute our judgment for that of medical professionals and their patients? Who are we, for that matter, to deny the will of the people.

There's much value in humor, even during times of pain and tragedy. So long as the joke is not at the expense of the suffering.

It's been a bad couple of weeks for the president. His Leno comment about the Special Olympics while self-deprecating and not malicious was certainly tone deaf, followed soon after by his casting gratuitous aspersions at serious advocates of marijuana reform. But Barack Obama is a decent and honorable man, compassionate and wise. I can't believe he would do anything other than what Joni Whiting did if, God forbid, he faced similar choices within his own family. I can't believe he doesn't realize the political value of taking a more reasoned, courageous stand on drug policy reform in general. Or of at least providing honest, thoughtful answers on the issue.Perhaps we should show him what's in it for him?

Perhaps we should make certain that in every future "town hall" the president is reassured of the seriousness of the legions of voters working to end cruel and ineffective drug laws.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Meet Me: I Am Patient Number 380206011

Meet Me: I Am Patient Number 380206011

By Norm Kent

Today I am going to come out of the closet as a Bi-Coastal pot consumer.

I lead two lives; one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast.

In Fort Lauderdale, I own a townhouse where I have resided for over a quarter of a century. In this community, I am a lawyer and a spokesman for NORML, very active in drug law reform. But I cannot practice what I preach. That would be illegal.

In California, however, I found a small town near Berkley, east of San Francisco Bay, where I may retire. It is Walnut Creek, a hamlet, I understand, that has more open public spaces than any other village in America. There, I may eventually choose to grow my own pot. I am allowed to do so.

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I practice law, and get people out of trouble for growing pot, I have to defend people who do what I am entitled to do in California legally. You see, the rules are different here. Life can thus be a bit conflicted.

In early 2006, my Florida roommate, after learning he was HIV positive, decided to move back to his hometown of San Francisco. As a pot consumer, he realized he could now get a medicinal recommendation for marijuana and grow pot legally under California law. The Florida laws are not so kind or generous. Cultivation of any amount is a second degree felony.

We went to San Francisco together, to a community I have visited and loved since the early 1970’s, from my first spectacular drive up the Pacific Coast highway. We found and rented a small apartment in the Haight.

It has been thirteen years since California voters enacted Proposition 215, which allowed citizens to utilize marijuana for medical purposes if a person had a legitimate need. As a recovering cancer patient, I more than qualified for a medical marijuana recommendation.

I sought out a legitimate physician, not one running a medical marijuana mill. I came with a full set of medical records tracking my unenviable medical past, including recent spinal surgery. The doctor thoughtfully reviewed with me the medical risks associated with the use of cannabis. Not that I did not have a little experience. I mean, I am 60 years old this year. My friends’ kids go to Bonnaroo. I lived through Woodstock.

After the screening, my physician then appropriately certified me as an individual who could benefit from the medical use of cannabis. Just like that, I became patient number 380206011. I then proceeded to a medical dispensary, proudly armed with a State of California Medical Marijuana Identification Card.

As a California patient, I am empowered to acquire cannabis lawfully at medical dispensaries. Under the California Health and Safety Code, I am also entitled to grow up to six plants of my own in my little apartment on the bay. I do not have to hide them from the authorities.

I joined the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, and was issued a Growers Certificate. It affirms that any herbs I cultivate at home would be grown for my personal medical use. I was now at liberty to grow my own medicine. It is still called pot in Florida. We call it medicine in California.

Today, therefore, the same medicine I can consume lawfully in California I have to prevent people from going to jail for in Florida. It makes no sense. Fourteen states and scores of communities across our country have either decriminalized or ‘medicalized’ marijuana. It is not good enough. Americans still face one very large federal stumbling block.

A state may pass its own laws, but so too may the federal government pass laws which preempt those state laws. In the case of marijuana, that is what Washington has done. Our federal government claims marijuana is not medicine. As such, it criminalizes all marijuana possession, use, or cultivation, regardless of what the states do.

At first, patients were lucky. In 2003, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal government had no right to arrest or prosecute medical marijuana patients- as long as what they possessed was for personal use. The United States Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 2005. Thus, as we sit here today, in 2009, federal law enforcement officials can prosecute medical marijuana patients, even if state authorities will not; even if they reside in a state where medical marijuana use is protected by state law.

Under our Constitution, the police power of the state is to be exercised by the state. California authorities are not disobeying federal laws by not enforcing them. They are not legally obligated to do so. Nor is Florida obligated to follow California laws. Just because you have a medical right to possess cannabis in California does not give you a legal right to grow or possess it in Florida. Though some clients of mine have tried, you can’t get stopped for smoking in Miami Beach and pull out a medical marijuana card from Santa Monica. It won’t fly. Tell it to your bondsman.

Welcome then to my conflicted life. I am permitted to grow my own medicine lawfully in my California apartment. If I were to do that in Florida, police could raid my house and the Florida Bar could seize my card. Instead of representing a grower, I would need a lawyer to represent me. Florida would not care that I am patient number 380206011 in California. What is wrong with that picture?

The cannabis I purchase in a dispensary in Berkeley I can carry in my car and consume in my living room. If I am flying back to Florida though, I cannot carry it with me. That would be a federal crime. But if I am relaxing at an airport bar in either San Francisco or Fort Lauderdale, I can order and consume Crown Royal and Coke. What I can’t get on both coasts is justice. That is far more elusive, and does not come in a bottle.

One national reform group has spent 40 years trying to stem the tide of repression and advance the rights of marijuana consumers. They say it is normal to smoke pot. Their name is NORML, the National Organization to Reform the Marijuana Laws. If there was ever a time to be part of their effort, it is now, as the new administration in Washington has said they are going to put an end to the drug war madness. They have said they will end the raids on medical dispensaries.

We need to see that deed and action follows words and promises.

We need to send a message to our legislators that the silent majority of Americans support vast and overriding changes to repressive drug laws which have incarcerated too many for too long. Join NORML in that effort.

We need to show that moral authority is on our side.
Spread the word and you will spread the seed.