Medical pot advocates celebrate Prop. 215
by Heather Cassell
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the passage of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Care Act, which received 56 percent of California voters' support in 1996. Since that time, 10 other states have passed similar laws, and support for medical cannabis is growing, according to a report by the Marijuana Policy Project.
The report, "Proposition 215: Ten Years Later," finds that legalization of medical marijuana is overwhelmingly supported by the public, but continues to face significant opposition from the federal government, despite the fact that 11 states, including California, passed medical marijuana legislation during the last decade. South Dakota has an initiative on the November ballot and if passed will make it the 12th state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.
"It's a kind of bittersweet anniversary," said Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who is working on legislation that will be presented to the board's city operations committee on November 6 to make possession of medical marijuana a low priority for arrests in San Francisco. "We still encounter 10 years later the same blind prejudice."
"There's been a lack of leadership from our California elected officials on this," said Bruce Mirken, director of communications of the Marijuana Policy Project. "[Senator Dianne] Feinstein was actively opposed and sort of has moved to neutral over the years. [Senator Barbara] Boxer, despite pleas from patients, has been continually missing in action, not overtly working against it, but not being helpful with our ongoing problems with the feds."
Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is one of a few California lawmakers in Congress who consistently supports marijuana laws for medical use and the protection of patients. She has defended Proposition 215 and other legislation supporting medical marijuana as well as patient rights to safely acquire and possess marijuana on the House floor on four separate occasions.
Dennis Peron, who wrote Proposition 215 as a eulogy for his deceased partner, Jonathan, and for patients suffering from life-threatening diseases who use marijuana for medical purposes, said that after 10 years, "A lot of people are getting medical marijuana and are not going to jail. I wrote it so sick people wouldn't have to be hassled, go to jail and have to hire lawyers when they're ill."
"It's made it possible for sick people to obtain relief better than they used to. They haven't had to be paranoid about being arrested. They don't have to go to the park to buy marijuana any longer; they can go to a safe dispensary," stated Terence Hallinan, former district attorney.
Despite the legal status of Proposition 215 in California, using marijuana for medical purposes remains in a complex paradigm between federal, state, and local laws depending mostly on law enforcement attitudes toward cannabis. Patients are often caught in the middle.
In an attempt to assist law enforcement with identifying valid patients of medical marijuana, California developed the Medical Marijuana Program to issue identification cards to patients who have proper prescriptions for medical cannabis. In January, San Francisco implemented the state program through the Department of Public Health at San Francisco General Hospital. Since January, 2,500 cards have been issued. Prior to that, the city had its own medical marijuana ID card, which has now been incorporated into the state program.
According to Dr. Joshua Bamberger, medical director of the health department's Housing and Urban Health program and adviser to the state, "The main objective of the card program is to identify medical marijuana users to peace officers, police departments, sheriffs, and so forth so if someone is carrying marijuana for medical purposes the police might be less likely to arrest them for possession," he said.
He added that law enforcement officials, however, may make their own determination whether to arrest someone. Right now, he added, he believes the program is working well in San Francisco.
While some activists are surprised that 10 years later with increased public support and scientific knowledge about the benefits of medical marijuana more progress hasn't been made, Peron isn't. "I'm not surprised that it has taken this long, but I'm also optimistic that it will happen and I know it will happen in my lifetime."
To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Proposition 215, a party is being held on Saturday, November 4, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center, 1800 Market Street in San Francisco. For more information contact Wayne Justmann at (415) 441-3859.