California, Arizona Police Get Federal Outlet for Drugs: To Bypass New State Laws, DEA Will Handle Disposal

Article excerpt

Attorney General Janet Reno said yesterday the federal government will "adopt" seizures of marijuana and other illegal drugs by California and Arizona police stymied by new state laws permitting their medical use.

"We have urged state and local officials . . . to pursue these cases and to make arrests, because the [federal] law is still on the books" and drugs are "unlawful in these states," she said at a news conference on administration strategy.

Talking about the administration's response to medical marijuana initiatives passed last month in the two states, Miss Reno promised to help local enforcement officials in cases in which medical approval is claimed. If Arizona or California prosecutors conclude they cannot proceed because of the new laws, "we will work with them . . . in terms of seizing the drugs and in reviewing what further actions should be taken," she said.

"We will not turn a blind eye toward our responsibility to enforce federal law. . . . What we will be doing is working with state officials to ensure as full and complete enforcement of federal law as possible," Miss Reno said.

Under the plan, Schedule I drugs seized by state and local law enforcement personnel would be accepted by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

"Once in DEA's possession, the drugs can be summarily forfeited and destroyed by DEA," the response plan says.

In most cases, Miss Reno said, the federal government's role will be to back state and local authorities, because the "federal government doesn't have the resources" to investigate small drug cases.

Asked if she sees the medical marijuana laws as an issue of state rights that will be decided by the Supreme Court, she said, "I'm sure that there will be litigation, and we will do everything we can to see that federal law is upheld and enforced."

Under the response plan, doctors in California and Arizona who order illegal drugs such as marijuana for their patients could lose prescription-writing privileges, and some could face criminal charges. The Arizona measure allows medical use of other Schedule I controlled substances, including heroin, LSD and peyote.

Miss Reno said the federal government will proceed on a case-by-case basis. She and Barry R. McCaffrey, who heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, tried to dampen speculation that doctors will be targeted.

"We are not going to focus on any one profession," Miss Reno said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who was at the briefing, summarized the national response to the marijuana initiatives. …