Frisco fights to sell dope

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The Independent Online
SAN FRANCISCO is at war with Washington and the issue, dramatised in a march through California's fairest city last week, is cannabis use. The outcome of the war could be San Francisco becoming the first city in the world officially to provide cannabis to its citizens.

At stake is the survival of a Californian initiative, approved as Proposition 215 in a statewide referendum in November 1996, allowing for the growth and distribution of marijuana when the purposes are medicinal. US federal law forbids the growth and distribution of marijuana in all circumstances. Six "cannabis clubs", shops where the sick can buy marijuana with doctor's prescriptions, are facing closure on instructions from the Justice Department in Washington.

In a measure of how uniquely tolerant San Francisco is in a nation not celebrated for its broad-mindedness, the city's district attorney took part in Tuesday's march and addressed a crowd of several hundred. Terence Hallinan, San Francisco's top law enforcement officer, issued a challenge to the federal government in Washington.

He said that if Washington enforced the law, San Francisco would flout it. City health officials and police would combine, he said, to run marijuana distribution centres for the seriously ill. The alternative would be not only greater suffering for people with Aids, glaucoma and cancer, but also increased crime.

Upon learning of Mr Hallinan's challenge federal government officials said if he acted on his words he would be jailed. It would be interesting to see if Washington had the courage to act on such a threat. For not only do the majority of California voters approve of Proposition 215, so does San Francisco's hugely popular mayor, Willie Brown.

He was one of three California mayors who wrote to President Clinton recently imploring him to stop the Justice Department from shutting down the marijuana dispensaries.

"At stake is the well-being of 11,000 California residents who depend on the dispensaries to help them battle the debilitating effects of Aids, cancer and other serious illnesses," Mayor Brown wrote. "If the centres are shut, many individuals will be compelled to search back alleys and street corners for their medicine. This will not only endanger their lives, but place an unnecessary burden on our local police department."

The owner of one dispensary, Peter Baez, was arrested on Monday and released on bail on Tuesday. His cousin, Joan Baez, denounced the ''farcical charges" against him.