Grown in Santa Cruz

Posted: Apr 28, 2003 12:00 AM

Alan Brady of Santa Cruz carried a flag emblazoned with a snake that read, "Don't tread on me." He was part of a double-digit size crowd that turned out to support a lawsuit filed by the Santa Cruz Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) against the federal government. Brady wasn't a member of WAMM, he said, but he took medical marijuana for an injured knee. (Well, that's what he said.)

The group announcing the lawsuit in front of the Santa Cruz County Courthouse Wednesday had its share of gray-haired, pony-tailed and wool-sock-and-sandal-clad participants. But it wasn't a smoke-filled celebration of recreational users claiming dubious illnesses. There was no contact high.

The lawsuit, which is being paid for with private dollars, reflected a sense of resolve, not revelry. Last September, federal agents raided WAMM, seized 167 marijuana plants and booked WAMM founders Mike and Valerie Corral. The U.S. Attorney has yet to charge the Corrals, but according to local Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman Rich Meyer, the Corrals could face a sentence of "not less than five years" if charged and found guilty.

With the threat of prosecution hanging over her, Valerie Corral nonetheless is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. She uses marijuana to control epileptic seizures. Other plaintiffs include cancer and HIV patients, whose doctors have prescribed marijuana on top of a laundry list of high-powered drugs. One patient listed "Vioxx, Protonix, Vicodin, Donnatal, Immodium, Ativan, Wellburtrin, Flexeril, Zofran, Paxil, Morphine, Oxycodone and Prochlorperzine." The oldest member of WAMM, 93-year-old Dorothy Gibbs, suffers from post-polio syndrome. She had been taking morphine and other drugs when her doctor prescribed marijuana to ease her severe nausea, according the WAMM brief.

According to Corral, 15 WAMM members have died since the DEA raid. (With the help of San Francisco Chronicle researcher Kathleen Rhodes, I was able to verify 13 of those deaths before my deadline, although one occurred a month before the raid.)

The DEA raid depleted WAMM's marijuana stash. Because its 200-plus members must pledge not to buy medical marijuana outside of the cooperative -- that's how serious these people are about defying and changing the law, but by acting within local law -- the lawsuit charges that some very sick people have at times had to go without a drug which they believe relieves their pain.

Attorney Judith Appel of the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors legalizing marijuana, explained, "(Drug czar) John Walters and the federal government are picking on sick people, and this lawsuit gives them the opportunity to fight back."

For the DEA's part, it is charged with enforcing federal drug law, which does not recognize a medical use for marijuana. Neither, the DEA's Meyer notes, does the American Medical Association.

Even still, San Jose Police Chief William Lansdowne was so angered by the WAMM raid that he yanked his officers off a DEA task force. He told The Chronicle that the feds' "priorities are out of sync," as methamphetamines were a bigger problem than medical marijuana, which voters were right to legalize.

I can't imagine this lawsuit succeeding, even though attorneys were creative in claiming that since WAMM doesn't sell marijuana to members and since it is a -- pardon my pun -- homegrown operation, WAMM engages in no interstate commerce, which is the legal justification for federalized drug laws.

As a conservative, I tell Appel, I love watching the left argue in favor of local control, because local control is good for conservatives who want to opt out of onerous federal laws. Alaskans who want to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can point to their buddies in the medical-marijuana community.

Except that the Supreme Court has been steadfast in its rejection of claims that state and local laws -- like Proposition 215, which California voters approved in 1996 -- can undermine federal drug laws. That's a job for Congress, Justice Clarence Thomas has maintained, and he has a point.

Congress should change federal law to accommodate medical marijuana use in states that have legalized it. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., has written a bill toward that end.

Sadly, many of the members of WAMM won't live long enough to see the day, if it ever comes, when Congress does the right thing. So they gathered in Santa Cruz to announce: Don't tread on me.