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U.S. vows crackdown on medical marijuana Effort planned to blunt initiatives in California, Arizona


WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration will crack down on doctors who prescribe marijuana for medical purposes and will take other aggressive steps to try to blunt new laws in Arizona and California that ease restrictions on the use of drugs.

The administration's strategy is to apply existing federal statutes to try to override the new state laws.

"We're not going to shoot from the hip, but we are going to uphold federal law," Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, said in an interview yesterday.

The administration's resolve to emasculate the Arizona and California initiatives occurs in the context of persistent Republican criticism that President Clinton has been inattentive while teen-age drug use doubled during his tenure. That criticism is likely to increase today, when the annual report on drug use among high school seniors is released and will show the rise continuing.

The Arizona and California initiatives, written and financed by the drug-legalization lobby, were advertised as humane laws that could ease pain for the terminally ill or even prolong their lives by allowing them to smoke pot as a way of stimulating their appetites.

But the initiatives had more sweeping, if little-known language in them as well. California's Proposition 215 makes it legal to smoke marijuana if "recommended" verbally by a physician. The law also allows any "caregiver" to grow marijuana for a person who has received such a recommendation.

In Arizona, Proposition 200 allows drugs such as marijuana, heroin and LSD -- which previously could never be prescribed -- to join a category of such narcotics as morphine and methadone, which are considered dangerous but can be prescribed in certain cases.

"Smoked marijuana -- as a medicine -- is sort of a joke," McCaffrey said. "For one thing, you can't control the dosage. For another, there is not evidence it helps cure anything -- and that's leaving aside the absurd notion of using a carcinogen as a delivery device."

Representatives of the White House drug control office, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Justice Department and other Cabinet agencies have been meeting to map out the response.

"We have various options," McCaffrey said. "And we going to have a series of recommendations before the president by Christmas."

Those recommendations, according to both White House and DEA officials, include:

Targeting physicians who prescribe marijuana or other federally controlled drugs.

To issue prescriptions, doctors in the United States must be licensed by the DEA. James J. McGivney, chief of public affairs for the agency, suggested that the DEA would revoke the licenses of Arizona or California physicians who relied on these propositions to prescribe marijuana.

"There are criminal sanctions, too," McGivney said.

Using federal law enforcement to prosecute cases in instances where Arizona or California officials cannot act.

The Drug Control Act of 1970, which makes marijuana illegal anywhere in the United States, supersedes the Arizona and California laws, officials said. "As far as DEA goes, nothing has changed," McGivney said. "Our position is that there is no known medical value for the use of marijuana."

Cutting off federal matching funds. Exactly how this would be done has not yet been decided. But McCaffrey said he was looking at the budget of the Health and Human Services Department, which dispenses millions of dollars for drug education and treatment. "Why should we give money [to Arizona and California] when Iowa, for example, is doing all it can to curb drug use?" he said.

Ensuring that federal employees, federal licensees and others regulated by the federal government -- especially those in safety-sensitive professions -- are drug-free.

Rob Stewart, a spokesman for a pro-legalization group called the Drug Policy Foundation, said yesterday that those leading the nation's drug war were "frustrated" by the two propositions -- and by any suggestion that they might be out of touch with voters.

"I think they are making a mistake rejecting the propositions out of hand," adds Stewart. "Do they really want to be seen arresting sick people?"

Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former health secretary, said last night he believed the Justice Department should ask federal courts to toss out the propositions on the ground that federal law supersedes state law. No decision has been made on that approach, one White House official said.

"They've got to set up a major education campaign," Califano said. "Marijuana is bad for kids, and we shouldn't be taking any action that makes it socially acceptable or more readily accessible to kids. The president ought to take the bully pulpit on this."

The first step was taken last week, when McCaffrey and Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena announced that existing federal requirements for drug testing would still be enforced for the 8 million workers in the nation's transportation professions.

The hard-line approach is driven by the determination of McCaffrey, White House aides say. A retired four-star general who earned three Purple Hearts, two Distinguished Service Crosses for bravery and numerous other medals, McCaffrey is said to have the president's ear -- and his confidence.

"The president hasn't even seen these recommendations yet, but I can tell you this: General McCaffrey is going to get his way," one top aide said. "He's a hawk on this, and he's pushing it real hard. And the president trusts him."

One pitfall for Clinton is appearing cavalier about the democratically expressed wishes of Arizonans and Californians. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke praised the voters of the two states for undertaking "the first major reassessment of the war on drugs since the repeal of Prohibition."

Critics reply that because the advertising budget of the legalization side dwarfed that of the opponents -- and because the ads in favor were misleading -- Arizonans and Californians actually were not certain what they were voting for.

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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