SAN FRANCISCO – Public pot gardens in San Francisco may be more than just California dreaming.
Voters here will decide Tuesday whether they want the city to consider growing and distributing marijuana for medical use.
Passage of the citywide initiative, the first of its kind in the country, would not see green thumbs out Wednesday morning planting public pot patches. Instead, the proposal is a “sense of the voters” measure that would make it city policy to explore establishing a marijuana growth-and-distribution program.
The proposal comes in response to a series of raids by the Drug Enforcement Agency on marijuana distribution centers that give or sell pot to people with a doctor’s recommendation.
“Of course we’re pushing the point here, but we’re forced to do this because the federal government has continued to proactively interfere with our most ill and vulnerable citizen’s access their medicine,” said San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, the initiative’s author.
DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson said it’s not good public policy.
Providing marijuana to sick people is not only against the law, he said, but could be harmful because “the scientific and medical communities have concluded that there is no future in smoked marijuana as medicine.”
“When it comes to deciding what is safe and effective medicine, I think it would be wise to follow the guidance of science,” Hutchinson said.
The American Medical Association and the San Francisco Republican Party are also opposed, but the initiative is widely supported by state and local leaders and most San Francisco political organizations.
Tuesday’s vote is the latest salvo in a community fight to legalize marijuana for medical use.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but legal under California law and San Francisco ordinance if it’s part of a medical treatment.
“It’s pretty much OK to smoke pot here,” said Clark Sullivan, who lit up openly with dozens of other marijuana law reform advocates at a fund-raiser last weekend.
Snacking on hors d’oeurves and smoking marijuana, Sullivan pointed to the city’s police headquarters just a block away.
“If a cop rolls by and sees you smoking a joint, you’re OK,” said Sullivan. “That’s one of the reasons I live here.”
A few feet away, District Attorney Terrence Hallinan, the prosecutor who routinely refuses to prosecute medical marijuana cases, said the initiative sends an important message but could be difficult to carry out.
“The idea that the city would actually grow marijuana is to my mind a little dangerous in that it could provoke a direct confrontation with the federal government,” he said.
DEA agents have already raided several of San Francisco’s medical marijuana providers, as well as providers in other California communities during the past year. For the most part, those raids took place without support from local law enforcement.
“This has been a political hot potato for the Bush administration” said Tim Lynch, director of the conservative Cato Institute’s project on criminal justice. “The president talks about federalism, and yet the stance of the administration in these drug cases undermines what he says.”
In 1996, California became the first state to approve the use of marijuana for medical ailments. Since then, eight other states have passed medicinal marijuana laws.
San Francisco’s health department issues medical marijuana use cards to patients who have a doctor’s recommendation. Police have refused to participate in raids and last year city leaders declared San Francisco a sanctuary for medical cannabis use.
“We’re not expecting our mayor or our board of supervisors to become part-time agriculturists growing this herb,” said Wayne Justmann, who’s been HIV positive for more than 15 years, carries the first city-issued ID card and operates one of San Francisco’s 11 remaining pot clubs.
Justmann said there are other people in San Francisco – patients and caregivers – who are experienced at growing pot and could help the city’s government.
“San Francisco is on the front line on the war against drugs,” said Keith Stroup, a Washington, D.C. public interest attorney who founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in 1970 and currently heads the organization.
Marijuana law reform initiatives are also on the ballots in Arizona, South Dakota and Nevada and several legal cases challenging federal authority are working their way through state courts.