WASHINGTON -- Struggling to limit the effect of recent ballot initiatives in California and Arizona that relax restrictions on the medical use of marijuana and other illegal drugs, federal officials say they plan to prosecute and strip prescription licenses from doctors who help supply such drugs even to seriously ill people.
The officials said that after an intense and sometimes unwieldy debate over the past six weeks about how the federal government should respond to the new state laws, the Justice Department has decided against filing suit to try to block either of the measures in court.
Instead, officials said, the Clinton administration will undertake a public-relations offensive to reiterate the health dangers of illegal drugs, leave it to state and local police to arrest people for marijuana possession, and focus federal law-enforcement efforts on the doctors who help to provide otherwise illegal drugs and the dealers who distribute them.
"I think we are going to end up with a smaller group of these physicians than we ourselves once expected," the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Thomas Constantine, said in an interview. "And we are going to take very, very serious action against them."
The plan to move against the doctors -- both by revoking the DEA registration they need to prescribe controlled drugs and, in more serious cases, by prosecuting them -- is the centerpiece of a package of measures that were recommended to President Clinton on Friday by his drug-policy chief, Barry McCaffrey, officials said. The plan was based on the recommendations of a half-dozen Cabinet departments.
A formal announcement of the administration's approach is not expected until early January. But while Clinton has yet to approve the package, several officials involved in its creation said some basic elements of the federal response to the state measures were almost certain to go ahead as proposed.
McCaffrey and other administration officials contend that the two initiatives represent a significant threat to the nation's drug-control strategy. They complain that at a time when drug use among teen-agers is rising sharply, the state laws send a resonant message that marijuana is not only less than harmful, it may be medically valuable.
"I would have preferred to see a straight-up vote on legalization, because it would not have won in either state," McCaffrey, a retired general, said. "When it came up under the guise of the 'compassionate use' of marijuana, we got the worst of both worlds."
The Arizona law, which opponents are vowing to amend or repeal in the Legislature next year, allows sick people to receive illegal drugs for pain relief or the treatment of certain illnesses if two licensed physicians concur on its use and offer scientific research to show that it is appropriate.
The California measure, which is at once less precise and more difficult to overturn, decriminalizes the possession of marijuana by patients and caregivers if its use is "recommended" by a physician.
"It sounds like they are retreating," Sam Vagenas, coordinator of the campaign for the Arizona measure, said of the federal plan. "We consider that a major victory."
Pub Date: 12/23/96