California County's Plan Heightens Medical Marijuana Debate

A former San Francisco police officer wants cops to give away the marijuana they confiscate in drug busts - to the medically needy.

Michael Nevin, now a supervisor of San Mateo County just south of San Francisco, is sparking statewide debate by proposing that his county distribute seized dope to the seriously ill through public-health agencies.

Even here in California, Mr. Nevin's idea is a leap into the unknown. Although Golden State voters last year approved Proposition 215, enabling physicians to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes, the measure did not clarify how the drug could be distributed to patients. Now, one year after Prop. 215 was passed, Nevin's plan is forcing the first discussion on how to implement this groundbreaking law.

"It's a practical dilemma for counties - Prop. 215 suggests marijuana is legal for medicinal purposes but doesn't allow for growing and distribution," says Nevin. "We haven't had any statewide leadership on this yet."

If approved by California Attorney General Dan Lungren and the state Legislature, the pilot plan, passed unanimously last week by San Mateo supervisors, would make this county of 670,000 the first in the nation to use government agencies to dispense marijuana.

Under Nevin's plan, patients or caregivers would register with county hospitals and clinics, that would provide the drug free of charge. "When it's confiscated it would be photographed, identified, and released to the hospital system and the health department," explains Nevin, "where pharmacists would separate the good product from the bad product."

But many officials and marijuana-access advocates say the plan is bad medicine. They cite a host of concerns about the proposed program, and foremost among them is the idea that using confiscated drugs of unknown origin is unsafe. "The real issue is quality control," says Terence Hallinan, San Francisco district attorney and a supporter of privately run cannabis buyers' clubs. "With marijuana coming out of storage like that, you wouldn't know where it came from."

Other critics, including the chief architect of Prop. 215, point to the plan's reliance on illicit sources as a potential problem. "It's relying on illegal activity," says Denis Peron, founder of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers' Club. And perhaps more important, he says, it may encourage more seizures to keep supplies up: "What do they do when they give all the confiscated marijuana away?"

Still, supporters insist that government-run distribution is a safe approach - medically and politically. "I'm trying to carry out Prop. 215 in an aboveboard way," Nevin adds. "This takes it from the underground and puts it up front."

But this effort to regulate marijuana distribution through the county government worries many critics. A government program could "make it very hard for anybody to get medical marijuana," says Rose Braz, a criminal defense attorney who regularly handles marijuana cases. "There is a potential for intimidation of patients. Would you want to give your name to the state that you're using marijuana?"

The issue of intimidation has become especially poignant. In August 1996, Attorney General Lungren, an ardent opponent of medicinal marijuana, raided and shut down the San Francisco cannabis club. It has since reopened under a court order, and a ruling from California's First District Court of Appeals is imminent.

"We still believe cannabis clubs are illegal," says Lungren spokesman Matt Ross. Nevin's idea involves "an almost identical situation except you have the government doing it." Mr. Ross declined to comment on whether Lungren will support the San Mateo County plan.

Experts say Lungren's lawsuit has had a chilling effect on counties that want to move forward on Prop. 215. And many welcome San Mateo's effort.

"It has opened the door for the rest of the state to consider public dispensing of the drug," says Margaret Pea of the California State Association of Counties. "Maybe it's something that we should all consider at the state level."

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