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Patients flock to Cannabis Club for medicinal fix

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January 15, 1997
Web posted at: 11:00 p.m. EST

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SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- It was a straightforward purchase: Milahhr Kemnah handed over a $10 bill and got two plastic bags of low-grade Mexican-grown pot.

In the process, Kemnah, an AIDS patient, became the first person in the United States since the 1930s to buy marijuana under the protection of state law.

"I feel glad and I feel lucky. History is being made," Kemnah said before rolling and firing up a joint.

The Cannabis Cultivators Club reopened Wednesday, five months after state narcotics agents raided it and shut it down. But voter approval in November of Proposition 215 -- a measure legalizing marijuana for medical uses -- and a judge's ruling last week allowed the club to reopen.

Complex legal fight

But that is just one aspect of an increasingly complex legal fight over medical marijuana.

The federal government is threatening to revoke licenses and to prosecute doctors if they recommend the use of marijuana to their patients. This week a group of doctors filed suit against the federal government, claiming it's their constitutional right to recommend marijuana use if needed.


Some physicians feel they are becoming the new casualties of the drug war.

"There's been a threat that I'll be under surveillance, that spies will be sent in. I wonder if new patients are truly new patients," said Dr. Virginia Cafaro, a plaintiff in the case.

The debate also unsettles patients who are asking doctors to recommend pot. "It's pretty scary for the doctors and might even discourage them from participating."

At the center of the dispute, the Cannabis Cultivators Club had operated illegally for years, but police in San Francisco looked the other way.

Pot smokers line up

Would-be pot-smokers lined up to get membership cards on opening day of the Cultivators Club, which will sell marijuana to people with AIDS, glaucoma and other serious illnesses to relieve their symptoms.


Some researchers say marijuana can relieve eye pressure in glaucoma, reduce nausea in cancer patients on chemotherapy, and combat wasting, a severe weight loss associated with AIDS.

Patients must present a written recommendation from their doctor before they can buy pot. Club organizers called doctors to confirm the documents were legitimate before issuing computer-generated ID cards with photos and a bar-code strip.

The club's "bud tender," Randi Webster, has six types of marijuana available, from Mexican-grown to top-quality California "quad." Prices range from $5 to $65 per one-eighth-ounce bag.

Also for sale are marijuana cookies, truffles and vials of marijuana tincture that can be dropped into tea or coffee.

Officials on the alert

Federal drug czar Barry McAffrey says there will be a rigorous review of studies about medical marijuana, but wouldn't say whether doctors will be prosecuted.


"I do not expect there to be problems with medical doctors violating the law. I just simply can't believe that's at stake," McAffrey said.

State law enforcement officials said they will watch clubs like the San Franciscan one closely to make sure only those with real medical reasons get marijuana.

The United States outlawed marijuana in 1937 except for approved research. Possession of marijuana remains a federal crime, but it remains unclear how federal drug officials will react to the club's reopening.

State Attorney General Dan Lungren reluctantly acknowledged he is bound by Proposition 215, but warned he will keep watch on the club to prevent abuses. The club's attorney, J. David Nick, said that while it is technically violating federal drug law, a raid is unlikely.

"It would be a very despicable act, especially since these individuals are acting in accordance with state law," Nick said. "But God knows, if a new president were to be elected and a new attorney general appointed by the president, this whole thing could turn around in no time."

Correspondent Rusty Dornin contributed to this report  

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