For at least the past six years, one of the fiercest struggles in the federal government's war with the states over medical marijuana has been waged from a nondescript Santa Cruz warehouse, tucked between an auto repair shop and an electrical contractor.
These days, there is unprecedented optimism inside that warehouse, where the feisty Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana appears to be on the brink of outlasting the feds and winning the most important legal fight still left in the courts over California's nearly 13-year-old voter approved medical pot law.
The Obama administration, through new Attorney General Eric Holder, has publicly indicated in recent weeks that it will not enforce federal drug laws against medical marijuana providers in states with medical pot laws, as long as those providers are obeying their state laws. For WAMM's leaders and patients, such a policy shift would not only end their 6-year-old lawsuit, but also an era of raids, uncertainty and near-extinction for an operation that tends to the sick and dying.
The Santa Cruz case also could be the first in the country that forces the new administration to lay out its exact policy on medical pot in writing.
On a recent morning inside WAMM, Valerie and Mike Corral, who cofounded the cooperative in the early 1990s, appeared visibly relieved as they discussed the prospects of the feds finally leaving them alone. As they spoke, the unmistakable, pungent smell of pot wafted through the corridor outside their cramped office.
"We've been barely scraping by," said Valerie Corral, a medical pot user since a 1973 car accident left her suffering from epileptic seizures.
For now, the Justice Department is mum on the WAMM lawsuit, which was backed by the city and county of Santa Cruz. The suit argued the federal government under the Bush administration had been enforcing drug laws selectively to interfere with California's medical marijuana provisions. San Jose U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel gave the lawsuit a boost last summer, allowing it to proceed on its central claims.
The U.S. Supreme Court has twice found that federal drug laws trump state medical pot laws, but the Santa Cruz case raised a novel legal theory.
U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello, whose office directs federal law enforcement in Northern California, did not respond to a request for an interview. But during a hearing last week, Fogel said it appeared Holder's comments would apply to WAMM. And Justice Department attorney Mark Quinlivan told Fogel the administration is evaluating how the policy change will impact the WAMM case, and suggested "something in paper could be forthcoming."
In California, such a policy change would alter the landscape for medical pot providers, who've been raided dozens of times in recent years. Federal and state agents would still enforce drug laws against providers who hide behind medical pot laws to deal in black market sales of marijuana, but outfits that keep close tabs on patients and ensure they have valid prescriptions from doctors appear to be safe from raids.
Legal experts say the feds will stay out of the 13 states with medical marijuana laws as long as they regulate pot operations carefully. But medical pot providers will not be immune - federal drug agents raided a San Francisco cannabis club last week.
"It could be kind of a test," said Robert Mikos, a Vanderbilt University law professor and expert on the state versus federal conflict over medical pot. "The federal government is telling California that as long as you control these cooperatives, we're going to let it slide."
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Graham Boyd, who represents the Corrals, said resolving the case would send an important message.
"It's not just California," he said. "A number of people have been very careful to comply with state law, and yet live in constant fear of federal prosecution."
Valerie Corral chuckles at the notion that her operation is an easy way for people to get marijuana.
She serves about 150 patients suffering from serious ailments ranging from AIDS to cancer. In a room where patients light up, one wall is a reminder of the stakes - it is covered with pictures of WAMM patients who have died. Corral said she makes sure only proper candidates get pot through WAMM.
"I'm such a stickler," she says. "I'm brutal."
Sitting around a table on a recent Friday afternoon, a number of WAMM patients said they are relieved the threat of federal raids may waft away like so much pot smoke.
"I think it's about time," said Carol Meyer, who's suffering from cancer. "I think the federal government needs to back out of it. The people voted."