Ready to Inhale

Photo by Jack GouldAlan Bock may know more about pot than your average Rastafarian. As senior editorial writer for The Orange County Register, Bock has spent much of the past several years following the never-ending battle over Proposition 215, the medical-marijuana initiative approved by California voters in November 1996. Bock covered the 1998 trials of David Lee Herrick and Marvin Chavez, co-founders of the Orange County Cannabis Co-op; despite the passage of Prop. 215, both were convicted of selling marijuana and sentenced to several years in prison. (Herrick's conviction was overturned after he spent two years in jail, and Chavez was released on bail last year, pending his appeal). Last month, Bock published Waiting to Inhale: The Politcs of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press), a book on Prop. 215 and the medical-marijuana movement. And he recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he sat in the U.S. Supreme Court as justices heard arguments in a case involving the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Collective. Bock says the Supreme Court hearing convinced him that there are still conflicts between the five-year-old Prop. 215 and federal law, but that the war is over in California, and medical-marijuana advocates have won.

OC Weekly: The title of your book isWaiting to Inhale. Is the waiting over in California?Alan Bock: In most jurisdictions in California, if you have a valid doctor's recommendation and a membership card in a cannabis cooperative, the police are not going to take you to jail. They may investigate to see whether your card is valid and create a certain amount of hassle, but they probably aren't going to charge you with possession. The main roadblock right now for patients is being able to find doctors who are willing to write prescriptions for medical marijuana. There are a few doctors in California who have not just been willing but eager to do this—but most aren't. Why?

In part because the California Medical Association has been very conservative in its instructions to doctors on this issue. But the real reason is that a lot of doctors aren't aware of how well they are protected under state law. Right after Prop. 215 passed, former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey threatened to take away licenses from doctors who wrote prescriptions for medical marijuana. But a group of doctors in San Francisco won a federal injunction against McCaffrey, so the federal government is now under a court order not to harass doctors who recommend cannabis in accordance with California law.

Prop. 215 said cannabis should be made available to terminally ill patients as well as those suffering from "any other illness for which marijuana provides relief." Why haven't state officials written up a set of regulations for doctors that spell out the medical conditions for which they can prescribe cannabis?

John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) has introduced several bills in Sacramento that would require the California Department of Health Services to set up a registry of patients who would be issued a card from the agency. The medical conditions outlined in those bills were more strictly defined than what was outlined in Prop. 215. But at every turn, it was obvious that the governor—first Pete Wilson, then Gray Davis—was going to veto the bill. So those bills never even left Sacramento.

Cannabis clubs in San Francisco, Oakland, Humboldt and West Hollywood that popped up shortly after Prop. 215 passed are still going strong. Meanwhile, the Orange County Cannabis Co-op is long-gone. Does the responsibility for this rest with local law enforcement, cannabis activists, or both?

Probably a little bit of both. A big part of the trouble in Orange County had to do with DA prosecutor Carl Armbrust, who handled both the Herrick and Chavez trials. During the Chavez trial, I spoke to Armbrust in the courtroom hallway for several hours. He was an old drug warrior on the verge of retirement. His last hurrah was to prove that this Prop. 215 thing wasn't going to work. So he prosecuted Marvin. On the other hand, Armbrust did so only after a judge warned Chavez not to dispense any more marijuana through his co-op, which Chavez ignored. Of course, it was an undercover officer who got Chavez to do this, by begging him and pleading with him because "the pain" was so terrible. So Marvin did what the guy asked him to do; he shouldn't have. It may be that his only crime was compassion, but under the circumstances, it was not a wise move.

Armbrust is out of the picture now; so are former OC Sheriff Brad Gates and District Attorney Mike Capizzi, both of whom campaigned vigorously against medical marijuana both before and after Prop. 215 became law. Are their replacements any better?

I think it's important to note that there have not been any medical-marijuana prosecutions in Orange County since the Marvin Chavez trial. Neither DA Tony Rackauckas nor Sheriff Mike Carona is likely to make any statements in favor of a government-supervised program to implement Prop. 215, but they're probably even less eager to prosecute any more patients. Maybe through their silence on this issue, they are acceding to the unruly will of the people.

That's a nice thought, but is the battle over medical marijuana really over?

The battle over medical marijuana has been fought, and for the most part, it's been won. Now the main focus among the cannabis co-ops is teaching people how to grow marijuana. I know of a marijuana patch out in Victorville that serves eight patients. Two guys live there, and the others show up on the weekend to help grow the plants. That kind of stuff is going on all over the state right now. There is still a threat of federal law enforcement going after cannabis co-ops and large-scale medical-marijuana growers, but studies show that 90 percent of drug prosecutions are carried out at the state level. And California's law on this matter is pretty unambiguous: if you have a doctor's recommendation, you have the right to possess and cultivate cannabis. If you cultivate it for personal use and aren't transporting it or distributing it, then you shouldn't have any problems.

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