Lungren vs. Zonker--and Prop. 215

When a politician attacks a cartoon strip or a sitcom character, can he ever really win? If he’s snickered at, can he be taken seriously?

Who will get the last laugh--Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren or hippie Zonker Harris?

Again, last week, we saw a serious politician assailing a humorous character of fiction. California’s top law enforcement official called a news conference to berate “Doonesbury’s” Zonker for “advancing the wink-and-nod attitude toward drug use.” The AG’s real-life target was “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, who obviously empathizes with pot smokers.

The cartoon series last week poked fun at Lungren for raiding the Cannabis Buyers’ Club in San Francisco, which peddled pot to the terminally ill--and, according to undercover agents, to healthy adults and teens who just wanted to smoke a joint. They also could buy the weed baked in banana bread, chocolate chip cookies or Rice Krispie bars.


It was all illegal, but San Francisco and the Feds had been winking. “Gestapo tactics,” cried Mayor Willie Brown after the August raid. Narcs seized 150 pounds of marijuana valued at up to $1 million, $60,000 in cash and 400 growing plants.

The “Doonesbury” strip also promoted Proposition 215, whose advertised aim is to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, but has loopholes large enough to drive through a truckload of hemp stocks.


Zonker: Busting a buyers’ club! What a world!

Cornell: Well, if Prop. 215 is approved, it’ll never happen again.

Zonker: What’s Prop. 215?

Cornell: A voter referendum on medical marijuana. It’d allow doctors to prescribe pot.

Zonker: Really? Okay, say I had hay fever.


Cornell: You’d have to find a really bad doctor who thought it was cancer.


The initiative specifies ailments acceptable for marijuana treatment: “cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine.” And then it adds this handy catchall: “Or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”

Like Zonker’s hay fever? Stress?


In addition, doctors would not be required to write a prescription. Either a “written or oral recommendation” would suffice.

Verbal approval was allowed, according to 215 spokesman Dave Fratello, so doctors could avoid “creating a long paper trail.” Marijuana still would be illegal under federal law and the U.S. DEA might go after some doctor who had a traceable pattern of pot “recommendations.”

Actually, 215 itself reads like a “Doonesbury” cartoon, starting with the name: “The Compassionate Use Act of 1996.”

It’s hard to argue against allowing people who are dying of cancer or AIDS to ease their suffering with marijuana. But 215 reaches beyond that. And a more honest debate would be over how far California should move toward complete legalization.


The Legislature last year did pass a medicinal marijuana bill that was tightly framed to require a doctor’s written approval and specify just a few severe illnesses. But it was opposed by Lungren and vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson.


It’s tempting to snicker at Lungren and say he should lighten up, take a deep breath and inhale. But he did attract a big bank of TV cameras--which ambitious politicians live for--and draw free attention to the penniless anti-215 campaign. A Times poll last month showed 215 ahead by 21 points.

“I’m not sure it was good attention for him,” says a Republican strategist who asked not to be identified. “I like Dan, but he screwed this one up.”


Mark DiCamillio, director of the Field Poll, says: “I don’t think this hurts him because drugs are in his bailiwick. But when you become the butt of jokes, it never helps.”

However, GOP consultant Ray McNally observes: “He can stand up and say, ‘Look, there’s nothing funny about drug use going through the ceiling.’ That helps him.”

It’s reminiscent of then-Vice President Dan Quayle’s 1992 attack on TV’s “Murphy Brown” for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone.” Quayle was ahead of the curve on an emerging issue, but at the time he looked like a fool.

People, however, are less likely to jeer an attack on drug abusers than one seemingly aimed at single moms.


“Sure it’s a comic strip, but what’s the difference between advocating drugs in a comic strip or in a rap video or on the street corner?” asserts Brian Lungren, the AG’s brother and political advisor. “Zonker’s a real person in our society. He is not fictitious. And we should put Zonker behind bars where he belongs.”

If 215 winds up losing, the last laugh will be Dan Lungren’s. And Zonker may need an attorney.