SAN FRANCISCO -- Early in the morning of Sept. 5, Drug Enforcement Administration officials raided a small farm near Santa Cruz, Calif., that had provided marijuana for sick and dying patients under California's 1996 medical-marijuana law, Proposition 215. According to the DEA, the 100 to 200 plants seized at the farm confirmed that large-scale production, distribution and sale of marijuana was taking place, a charge that owners Valerie and Michael Corral deny. The Corrals -- who lead the Wo/men's Association for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) and helped craft a 1992 local ordinance in Santa Cruz that foreshadowed Proposition 215 -- were arrested following the raid and later released without being charged.

The incident has set off a bitter feud between law-enforcement officials in California and the Department of Justice in Washington. Moreover, it's placed some California liberals in the unusual position of defending states' rights against federal authority. Indeed, the most recent California episode is more than a rehashing of the age-old confrontation that pits Reefer Madness conservatives against pot-loving hippies. At its core is a debate about the federal government's right to veto the judgment of local law enforcement and override a state law approved by 56 percent of voters. Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the issue of medical marijuana as recently as May 2001 -- finding 8-to-0 in United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club that medical use is an unacceptable defense in federal trials for distribution -- the courts have yet to contend with the more controversial issue of states' rights and federal jurisdiction raised by the California law (and similar legislation in seven other states).

Following the September raid, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer lashed out at the DEA, calling the seizures "punitive expeditions." U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) denounced the raid as "outrageous." And Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher Krohn made national headlines, prime-time news and the op-ed page of The New York Times after he led the Santa Cruz City Council in presiding over a symbolic handout of marijuana to patients who would otherwise have received their drugs from the WAMM collective. All the while, the DEA has maintained the official line that "marijuana is a dangerous drug" with "no accepted medical use."

Richard Meyer, spokesman for the DEA's San Francisco office, insists that the agency was simply doing its job and enforcing the federal law that prohibits consumption and distribution of drugs classified as Schedule 1 narcotics -- a grouping that places marijuana alongside such substances as heroin and cocaine. "We don't intend to negate their sovereignty," Meyer says of California voters. "We're here to protect the community against dangerous drugs."

But by his own admission the Bay Area is plagued by numerous other drugs such as ecstasy, LSD, heroin and a wave of meta-amphetamines. As a result, Santa Cruz's Krohn is at a loss when it comes to the DEA's motives. "We need the DEA to help us where they have in the past," he says, citing the recent arrival of meta-amphetamine dealing in the Santa Cruz area. "The resources are misplaced. I'm sure the DEA has priorities but I'm not sure why this is a priority. It doesn't make sense to be going after sick folks when there is so much drug abuse plaguing communities across the country."

Carr was similarly peeved noting that WAMM has long been an innocuous presence in the area. "It's known for helping sick people to ease their pain. It does not sell marijuana to the public. It only grows marijuana for members, and they must have a doctor's prescription," he said the day after the raid. "It is truly disturbing that the administration would waste precious resources punishing those who pose no threat at all to our society." But the harshest words come from the state's top cop: Lockyer is adamant that Washington respect the will of California voters when it comes to medical marijuana. "The attorney general's concern is that the federal government is wasting precious resources that should be directed toward fighting criminal enterprises," Lockyer spokeswoman Hallie Jordan says. Like Krohn, the attorney general believes that going after Mexican narcotics rings, domestic meta-amphetamine producers and large-scale marijuana growers is far more important than targeting groups such as WAMM. Indeed, Lockyer sees the Corrals' farm as a "successful program" where local law-enforcement officers and medical professionals worked with the group.

"We'd rather defer to law-enforcement officers who have responsibility in that jurisdiction," Jordan says. Yet in the case of the Sept. 5 raid, the DEA did not even notify the local police department. Lockyer issued a critical statement questioning whether the raid served any law-enforcement purpose given that no charges were pressed. He also requested a meeting with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Lockyer received a reply in early October from drug czar Asa Hutchinson granting the request but reaffirming the DEA's intention to enforce federal law.

Given the Supreme Court's unanimous decision on medical marijuana last year, it may seem that the courts are not the best place for Californians to seek salvation. Dale Gieringer of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) sees hope, however. Gieringer acknowledges that some of the so-called marijuana clubs that have appeared since the 1996 law passed are "sketchy." But in the case of WAMM, says Gieringer, "Everyone was a terminally ill patient. It was a model collective. A lot of us thought that would be the last place they'd raid." As a result, he contends, "In going after [the Corrals], the federal government may in fact open the case for a federal law regarding medical marijuana." But a quick look at the House and Senate reveals few strong proponents of such a measure apart from U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), some California Democrats and a handful of libertarian-leaning Republicans. Still, NORML insists, "The federal government has stepped way over the line of what the Constitution allows it. This is not interstate commerce."

Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen agrees. Uelmen, who represented the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club before the U.S. Supreme Court, notes that the 2001 decision "was not a constitutional ruling." When Congress passed the Federal Controlled Substances Act in 1970, says Uelmen, its only authority was the interstate-commerce clause. But according to Uelmen, interstate commerce was not an issue in any of the California cases because they were small-scale local operations permitted by state law. "In Santa Cruz, that argument is particularly strong since they're not even selling [the drug]," he says. And a slew of pending lawsuits is keeping medical-marijuana issues on the federal docket. Uelmen has filed for return of property in the Santa Cruz case and is awaiting a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Conant v. McCaffrey, a case in which he is defending the right of California doctors to prescribe marijuana.

The question of whether the federal government has the power to seize or prohibit medicine that is legal under state law has yet to be addressed. It may be several years before Californians feel free to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes without fear of DEA raids. But if any cases raising constitutional questions work their way to the Supreme Court, advocates for medical marijuana believe that they will at least have states' rights arguments on their side.

"The Supreme Court has been quite serious in looking at the limits of Congress' commerce power and has been more sympathetic to arguments of states' rights and federalism," Uelmen says. "I'm frankly not optimistic that we're going to see any change from Congress. Certainly, the avenue with the greatest prospect of success is the courts."