Doonesbury wades in to cannabis row

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The Independent Online
Tut, Zonker. It appears you may have gone too far in your criticism of California's Attorney General, Dan Lungren, and what he did to that marijuana club in San Francisco. Have you heard? He is trying to have you rubbed out.

It is true. Once more, real-life Republicans, this time Mr Lungren, are tangling with characters from fiction. In 1992, it was sitcom character Murphy Brown, lambasted by Dan Quayle for wilfully producing a child out of wedlock. Now it is Zonker Harris, the hippie in the Doonesbury cartoon strip.

In a week-long series of strips that started this Tuesday, Zonker and his pal Cornell are pondering a ballot initiative that is to be voted on by Californians on election day next month. It demands that marijuana use be legalised for people with medical conditions such as Aids and cancer.

The initiative, which has widespread support in the state, is a pet hate of Mr Lungren, a long-time opponent of drug-use liberalisation. On 4 August, he made his point by raiding the Cannabis Buyers' Club in San Francisco and closing it down. Hidden behind an anonymous office front, the club had been supplying marijuana to about 12,000 people claiming serious illnesses.

While in violation of the law, the club had long been tolerated by San Francisco's liberal leadership and even by the city police. A recent visit by this correspondent coincided with a march by club members in support of the ballot initiative, at which police officers acted as cheerful escorts.

"I can't believe anyone would shut down the Cannabis Buyers' Club," Zonker lamented on Tuesday. "Who ordered the bust?" Cornell: "Dan Lungren, the State Attorney General. The local cops wouldn't do it, so they had to bring in Republicans". Zonker subsequently asks: "What country are we living in - Germany? Russia? Idaho?"

An unamused Mr Lungren held a news conference condemning the Doonesbury strip and its author, Garry Trudeau. He also asked both the distributor, the United Press Syndicate, and newspapers in California to drop the cartoon until the subject changes, or at least to run parallel disclaimers. So far, neither the newspapers nor the syndicate have paid any attention.

"No one should be laughing," Mr Lungren spat. "Make no mistake about it. These strips contribute to the national wink-and-nod attitude toward drug use". Mr Lungren's objections echo the Bob Dole presidential campaign, which in recent days has relentlessly accused President Bill Clinton of cutting back on anti-drug efforts. In response, Mr Clinton yesterday signed a new law to combat the rapid rise in the US of methamphetamine abuse.

But like Mr Quayle with Ms Brown, Mr Lungren is taking a risk by targeting a highly popular cultural icon. The long-running Doonesbury is taken by 1,400 newspapers in the US and worldwide.

Among those disgusted is San Francisco's Democrat Mayor, Willie Brown, who compared the Attorney General's actions to those of the Nazi Gestapo. Dennis Peron, the still defiant founder of the Buyers' Club, suggested that Mr Lungren was behaving like a cry-baby. His final word: "Waaa!".