Why I'm Fighting Federal Drug Laws From City Hall

By Christopher Krohn
Mayor of Santa Cruz, California

How did I, a mayor of a small town in California, wind up in a tug of war with the Drug Enforcement Agency?

This week, I stood in front of Santa Cruz's city hall as a local group that provides medical marijuana went about its weekly task of distributing the drug to the sick and dying.

My story begins on the morning of Sept. 5 when approximately 30 men, dressed in military fatigues and carrying automatic weapons, descended on a small cooperative farm run by the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in northern Santa Cruz County, about 65 miles south of San Francisco. They were pulling up organically grown marijuana plants.

When the Santa Cruz County sheriff's office learned what was going on, it was at a loss to explain who the intruders were or what type of response was in order. I didn't hear about the raid until 10 a.m., when I was called by members of the collective. I then telephoned the Santa Cruz police chief and other local officials. The chief hadn't heard anything either.

Later it became clear that the D.E.A. was making a raid. Agents collected more than 130 plants and arrested the founders of the medical marijuana collective, Valerie and Mike Corral. The Corrals were taken to a federal detention center in San Jose, but no charges were filed and they were subsequently released.

The D.E.A. was right to release them. But the Corrals shouldn't have been there in the first place. They had not been breaking the law. They were growing marijuana specifically for people who had been legally prescribed the substance to help them with chronic pain brought on by cancer, diabetes and other illnesses.

These weren't new laws, either. Residents in Santa Cruz County had voted in 1992 to legalize the use of medical marijuana. In 1996, Californians approved Proposition 215, a statewide measure to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Two years ago our city council passed an ordinance to make it easier to grow and distribute medical marijuana under the new law.

Before the morning raid, Santa Cruz had a good relationship with drug enforcement officials. Santa Cruz, like many communities, has a problem with illegal drugs, most notably heroin and methamphetamine. In the last 15 months, the D.E.A. has conducted two operations here; working with the sheriff's office and the Santa Cruz Police Department, the agency has caught hundreds of drug dealers and users. According to our police chief, "the D.E.A. did an excellent job" in these operations.

That was not the case on Sept. 5. The D.E.A. came to town unannounced and under cover of darkness.

I'm worried that the agency is going to be coming to other towns, too. Since 1996, eight other states — Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Colorado and Maine — have passed laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana. At the same time, the Department of Justice has made it clear that it opposes the use of marijuana under any circumstances.

Clearly, state law and federal law are on a collision course. I would not be surprised if there are more raids.

And if there are more raids, more mayors and elected officials will find themselves doing what we did here this week: standing with people like the Corrals as they deliver medical marijuana to patients who are using the drug on the advice of a physician.

The government is fighting a losing battle. In the states where medical marijuana has been on the ballot, it has received overwhelming approval from voters. Canada and Great Britain recently approved the medical use of marijuana and plan to have the government grow and distribute it.

As medical costs skyrocket, medical marijuana is a cost-effective way to treat people with chronic pain. Most of all, making medical marijuana available is an act of common sense and compassion. The Corrals' collective lost 40 members this year; many of them left this world with Ms. Corral holding their hand.

I'm hopeful that this week's events will prompt the federal government to begin working with state and local governments to determine how far it can go in regulating activity that has been approved by the states and that has negligible effects on interstate commerce. There's legislation in Congress, supported by a bipartisan coalition, that would allow all states to approve medical marijuana, thus eliminating any conflict with federal law. To me, that makes sense. But until it passes, I'm standing with the Corrals.