U.S. Drug Czar Calls State Marijuana Measure ‘Tragedy’


Calling the state’s passage of Proposition 215 a “tremendous tragedy,” White House drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey said Friday the administration will step up its efforts to discourage other states from following California’s lead in legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.

But perhaps more significant was what McCaffrey would not say. After two days of meetings with California and federal law enforcement officials, he refused to comment on whether the federal government will work to nullify the just-passed initiative or move in to prosecute doctors who recommend marijuana to their patients.

“There could not be a worse message to young people,” McCaffrey said, referring to Proposition 215 and an even broader initiative passed in Arizona last week. “Just when the nation is trying its hardest to educate teenagers not to use psychoactive drugs, now they are being told that marijuana and other drugs are good, they are medicine.”

McCaffrey said the Clinton administration has made no decision on whether to take legal action to block the initiatives, which permit doctors to recommend marijuana for use by patients with cancer, AIDS and a variety of other illnesses.


“The attorney general and lawyers will have to sort through what is involved. I don’t think there is an obvious answer,” McCaffrey said. “What is not at stake is federal law. Federal law is not jeopardized.”

The strategy for now will be to track trends in both states, looking for increases in drug-related accidents, teen pregnancy, work absences and hospital emergency cases, he said.

“By our judgment, increased drug abuse in every category will be the inevitable result of the referenda,” McCaffrey said. “We will ensure that the rest of the country sees clearly what happened in these two states.”

Bert Brandenburg, chief spokesman at the U.S. Justice Department, said federal prosecutors have not decided whether to become involved in trying to strike down the marijuana measure. “I think everybody is still mulling over what to do,” he said.


Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, speaking two days after the election, said that individual incidents of illegal marijuana trafficking or possession that may arise out of the new measure will still be prosecuted. “We’re going to enforce federal law and we’re going to do it on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

But California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates--both vocal critics of the measure--wasted no time moving to block it. Terming the proposition’s passage “legal anarchy” and “an unprecedented mess,” they initiated the meetings with McCaffrey, Drug Enforcement Administration chief Thomas Constantine and other federal officials.

Supporters of Proposition 215 asserted that it is virtually unprecedented for state and local officials to lobby the federal government against a proposition that was clearly the will of the voters--passing easily with 56%.

“This is the approach you would expect from George III when the colonists raised issues about how they want to be governed,” said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a small Washington think tank. “There is an arrogance and contempt for the voters who have supported Proposition 215. The power to write the laws flows from the people, not from the top.”


While cocaine and opium have been approved for restricted medicinal use, federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a category reserved for the most dangerous of substances that “lack an accepted medical use.”

Backers of California’s initiative have vowed to promote their cause nationally and try to persuade every state to approve marijuana for medical use, a trend they said law enforcement will be unable to stop.

“They are trying to put fingers in a dam that is crumbling,” said Dr. Lester Grinspoon, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Marijuana is a remarkable medicine and that news cannot be withheld anymore. This is going to happen. California has led the way.”

Arizona’s Proposition 200, an even broader measure, legalizes medical use of marijuana and other drugs now beyond the reach of doctors. It also specified that nonviolent drug users convicted of first- and second-time use of recreational drugs be given probation and rehabilitation instead of prison time.


But McCaffrey said voters in both states were duped by advertising campaigns that exploited the needs of the terminally ill.

“This was a hoax. A lot of people heard terminally ill and pot and figured so what? Never mind that this authorized people to grow pot in their backyard,” he said.

While predicting that only bad could come from the initiative’s passage, McCaffrey said he had “great faith” that large numbers of doctors would not recommend marijuana “when there are clearly better treatments.”

And eventually, he said, the nation will come to the right conclusion about marijuana as medicine.


“Over time, the American people will make the right judgments,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of people in California and Arizona won’t make use of marijuana and don’t want their children to use it. . . . They don’t want stoned behavior.”

Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Marlene Cimons contributed to this story.