Tokin' Resistance

Proposition 200 -- the Drug Medicalization Act -- is causing high anxiety among politicians and lawmen

Following the Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., Thomas Constantine, head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Los Angeles Times he would look into the possibility of deputizing California and Arizona lawmen as federal agents who could then arrest people carrying drugs under prescription.

"Can state or local officials seize marijuana as contraband under federal law and turn it over to federal law enforcement? That's the one we are looking most closely at," Constantine said. "It remains to be seen."

But Constantine stopped short of promising to send additional federal agents into Arizona and California. Critics of the plan pointed out that even if he did, he would only heap more work onto already swamped federal prosecutors.

Besides, Marvin Cohen says, the feds have traditionally steered away from smalltime users of the kind that would likely be snared in such a move.

Without additional federal agents, and without local cops deputized to act as federal agents, it is unlikely that those carrying Schedule 1 drugs prescribed by a doctor would ever face arrest or prosecution in Arizona.

As for Proposition 200's other provisions--steering users away from prison and into treatment programs--Cohen says there's nothing the Legislature or Congress can do, short of grumble.

"It's not like the medical provision," he explains. "There's no question of pre-empting the federal law whatsoever."

That may be, but one Capitol insider says the Arizona Constitution gives legislators broad powers when it comes to interpreting the draft legislation contained in ballot initiatives and making it jibe with laws already on the books.

"They could theoretically make both technical and substantive changes," the observer points out.

Whatever the case, legislators and other state officials will soon face some thorny issues. Republican Sue Gerard chairs the House Health Committee, which will be responsible for determining how much the law's education and treatment provisions will cost the state.

"My feeling is, it's going to be an awful lot [of money]," she says. "And I'm also wondering how many people are going to be going into these treatment programs.

"My initial feedback is that most of it will probably be handled through the courts. And there are already laws for overprescribing, so any doctor who just started handing out joints would still be subject to punishment.

"Besides, isn't it all sort of meaningless until the feds take it [marijuana] off Schedule 1?"

Gerard has a point. Even if local doctors come forward to prescribe medical marijuana, their patients will still have to turn to the black market to get them filled.

And as long as pot remains a Schedule 1 drug, no pharmacists will fill prescriptions for it, says Lynn Lloyd, executive director of the state Board of Pharmacy.

"There are no pharmacies in Arizona and none nationally that I can think of that the DEA authorizes to distribute Schedule 1 substances," says Lloyd, noting that the DEA only authorizes a select few physicians engaged in research to administer Schedule 1 drugs.

So what, exactly, was the point of including a provision giving physicians the power to prescribe Schedule 1 drugs in Proposition 200?

"I think's it blatantly obvious we were trying to send a message to the feds, to get them to rethink some of the reasons why marijuana is listed on Schedule 1," says Sam Vagenas.

While legislators mull their options, officials at the state Board of Executive Clemency, who must determine which of the 900 inmates eligible for parole under the new law should be released, will also be scratching their heads.

Duane Belcher Sr., the board's chairman, says that within 90 days the state Department of Corrections will forward him a list of the inmates eligible for parole under the new law.

"We will comply with the law," he says. "The board shall parole someone, providing he's not a danger. But by some people's definition, a burglar can be dangerous.

"But if it's clearly someone whose only crime is that they're an addict, they'll probably be released."

There is irony in the fact that Arizona--a state whose Legislature embraced Freon and whose voters once rejected a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and approved a get-tough juvenile-crime initiative--now finds itself in the national limelight for a more liberalized approach to the war on drugs.

And there has been no shortage of national media attention. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and several national TV news programs all have weighed in on Arizona's groundbreaking move.

Somewhere, Carl Hayden must be doing backflips.
"It is kind of strange, because we are, after all, talking about Arizona," concedes Sam Vagenas, chair of Arizonans for Drug Reform. A savvy politico, Vagenas quickly catches himself and goes into spin cycle.

"But I think it just goes to show that the people are way out front on this one. I think everyone realizes that our current drug policy is a failure."

One of Vagenas' favorite anecdotes involves prison inmates who have taken the "Do Drugs, Do Time" stickers that adorn the bumpers of many cop cars, sliced them down the middle and pasted them back together to say: "Do Time, Do Drugs."

"Really, what happens is we send these guys to jail, and all they learn is how to become better dealers, how to cook the stuff up," he says. "We're paying to house all of these people so they can learn how to use, make and sell drugs. It's crazy."

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