Federal marijuana decision may prove problematic for Berkeley efforts

Megan Kang/Staff
The Berkeley Patients Care Collective has a very large selection of marijuana products available on its shelves.

A recent federal decision determining that marijuana has no accepted medical use and should be classified as dangerous as heroin may prove to be another obstacle for Berkeley’s Medical Cannabis Commission as it prepares for its first meeting.

The commission, which will meet July 21 for the first time since its reconstitution, is responsible for making recommendations to the Berkeley City Council regarding the implementation of Measure T. The measure was approved by 64 percent of voters last November and allows for the opening of six 30,000-square-foot cultivation sites as well as a fourth dispensary while also calling for the commission’s reconstitution.

However, the commission’s plans may come into conflict with the position of the federal government.

On Friday, the Drug Enforcement Administration concluded that marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical treatment use in the United States and lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision. The decision comes nearly nine years after supporters of medical marijuana requested that the government reclassify the drug.

Similarly, a June 29 letter from the U.S. Department of Justice opened the door for a potential federal crackdown on marijuana, stating that those who are involved with the cultivation, sale and distribution of marijuana violate the Controlled Substances Act “regardless of state law.”

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said the decision will give the commission and the council “some degree of caution” on how to proceed.

“As the commission is considering how to move forward with the dispensary and the six sites for cultivation, this decision is going to hang over the heads of all the commissioners in terms of what it really means and whether the federal government will really crack down,” Arreguin said.

He added that the decision is a step back not only for providing safe access to medical marijuana but also for the ability of local governments to regulate and ensure access to marijuana.

“I was really disappointed in hearing about this memo and the new policy of the Department of Justice,” he said. “I think it goes against what many of us thought was the position the Obama administration would take.”

In terms of the extent to which the decision will affect the commission’s future actions, Arreguin said the commission should still move forward on implementing medical marijuana policies in the city “to ensure that patients have safe access to this medicine.”

Dale Gieringer, the state coordinator of California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the decision has no scientific merit.

“The government has created a Catch-22 situation,” Gieringer said. “What the DEA said was that ‘we aren’t going to look at any evidence without FDA-approved studies.’ The problem with that response is that the FDA has also deliberately prevented any FDA-approved studies.”

Despite the federal government’s opinion, James Benno, chief executive director of Northern California NORML, said that the decision “is not going to stop anybody.”

“They can put a law on paper, but enforcing it will be an entirely different aspect,” Benno said. “The federal government does not have time to eradicate marijuana.”

According to a statement from California NORML, medical marijuana advocates are planning to challenge the DEA decision with a bill by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., which could let states regulate marijuana’s medical availability and end its classification as a dangerous drug.

Patient advocate Bill Britt, a court-qualified cannabis expert and founder of the Association of Patient Advocates for Medical Marijuana, said the federal government should “back off” and is in favor of states’ rights supporting the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.

“I’ve heard so many horror stories about people who are suffering and could be helped by cannabis,” Britt said. “It’s not a miracle drug, but it’s pretty damn close.”