Analysis by Richard Cowan
Even though California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has joined the calls for a debate on marijuana prohibition itself, there is still a lot of confusion about the legal status of the supposedly less controversial topic of “medical marijuana”.
On April 2nd the Associated Press reported that Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton “called on the City Council to speed up the drafting of stricter regulations on medical marijuana clinics, calling current state law ‘Looney Tunes’.” (Oddly, the story was reported on the San Jose Mercury-News website, but the LA Times only covered it in a blog.)
Bratton was right, but for the wrong reasons. He claimed, “They pass a law, then they have no regulations as to how to enforce the darn thing and, as a result, we have hundreds of these locations selling drugs to every Tom, Dick and Harry.”
First, if the dispensaries are selling any “drug” other than cannabis, the police do not need any action by the LA City Counsel to raid them. Find any of them selling hard drugs, and the medical cannabis community will support closing down the offenders.
That is not a rhetorical point. It is important to note that one justification for the dispensary system is that it keeps medical cannabis users from having to go to “street dealers” in order to get their medicine. However, in the broader context of cannabis prohibition in general, the California medical marijuana dispensary system does the same thing that the Dutch cannabis “coffee shop” system has been doing for decades. The Dutch call it the “separation of the markets for soft and hard drugs.” One consequence of this “separation of the markets” is that the Dutch have a much lower use of hard drugs, especially heroin, among young people than does the US.
Inasmuch as marijuana has always been much more readily available to young people than to sick and dying older people, would Chief Bratton really prefer that young people get their marijuana from “street dealers” – who may also sell hard drugs? See T’was Another Great Victory. Teen Marijuana Use Down; Oxy Use Up. Teen Cigarette Use Went Down More Than Teen Marijuana Use.
Second, the dispensaries are not selling to just anyone. They require a special form of identification that establishes the fact that a doctor has approved of the patient’s use of cannabis. (That is all that is required by state law, and – critically – all that is allowed by Federal law.)
“Street dealers” do not require any identification, and most teens say it is easier to get marijuana (on the street) than it is to get alcohol from licensed stores.
The AP went on to do its duty to the Fatherland to support marijuana prohibition by saying, “In 2003, the state set up a system for issuing ID cards to those with ‘prescriptions’ for medicinal marijuana, but many claim the system has been abused and is out of control.” (emphasis added)
“Out of control” is bad, and so there have been a number of stories that have “exposed” how easy it is to get a card.
A few points about that:
First, any “control” system devised by humans will almost certainly be either “too tight” or “too loose.” If it is too tight, then some sick and dying people will not be able to get the medical marijuana that they need. That is actually the problem in most of the state where law enforcement simply refuses to obey state law, and/or lobbies officials to ban dispensaries. That problem is even worse in other “medical marijuana” states, like Washington.
See Prohibitionists to Patients: “Drop Dead!” Police, Politicians, and Quacks Put Cannabis Prohibition Ahead of the Sick, Dying and Disabled. “To Jail In An Ambulance.”
Second, healthy young people can always find “weed” on the “streets.”
Third, over-the-counter drugs, including aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol), kill thousands of people every year. (There is no lethal dose of marijuana.) Consequently, there is ample precedent for having truly “dangerous drugs” easily available.
Finally, the “prescription” drug control system is proving to be very leaky. Does L. A. need tighter controls on pharmacies?
On June 14 , 2008, The New York Times reported that the “Florida Medical Examiners Commission found that the rate of deaths caused by prescription drugs was three times the rate of deaths caused by all illicit drugs combined.”
See Florida Governor Demonstrates Absurdity of War on Cannabis. Prescription Drugs Kill; Cannabis Does Not – So The Killers Are “Just As Detrimental” As Cannabis.
It also said that the Drug Enforcement Administration found that “roughly seven million Americans are abusing prescription drugs. If accurate, that would be an increase of 80 percent in six years and more than the total abusing cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, Ecstasy and inhalants.”
But here are the hard facts:
“The Florida report analyzed 168,900 deaths statewide. Cocaine, heroin and all methamphetamines caused 989 deaths, it found, while legal opioids — strong painkillers in brand-name drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin — caused 2,328.
Drugs with benzodiazepine, mainly depressants (sic) like Valium and Xanax, led to 743 deaths. Alcohol was the most commonly occurring drug, appearing in the bodies of 4,179 of the dead and judged the cause of death of 466 — fewer than cocaine ( 843 ) but more than methamphetamine ( 25 ) and marijuana ( 0 ).” (emphasis added)
See Guess Who Said , “The decrease in the abuse of cannabis among youth in the United States may be offset by an increase in the abuse of prescription drugs.” Iron Law Of Prohibition” &. Czar’s Strategy 3.”
In fairness to Chief Bratton, he went on to say, “I fully support its (marijuana’s) use for medicinal purposes.” That sets him apart from many police chiefs who follow the prohibitionist party line that medical marijuana is either a “scam” or unnecessary, and I salute him for having the courage to say that.
However, he also asked, “(W)hy don’t we regulate it like we do Lipitor or Viagra. You can’t buy those two without getting it through a legitimate pharmacy. If this drug is so important and so helpful, why is it not regulated like every other drug?” (emphasis added)
Well, never mind the fact that there are lots of websites offering to sell Lipitor and Viagra, it is disturbing that Bratton does not know the answer to that question.
There are two basic reasons why marijuana is not available “through a legitimate pharmacy” and is not “regulated like every other drug.”
First, the federal government has blocked research on the medical use of cannabis for decades, while NORML sued unsuccessfully to get it rescheduled, so it might be prescribed. It is not the supporters of medical marijuana who are responsible for keeping cannabis out of the FDA “system”
Second, it can cost huge sums to try to get any “drug” through the FDA process which was not set up to analyze a complex plant. In 1993, when I was National Director of NORML, we were told by the Clinton Administration that it would cost $1.5 million to get the FDA to review marijuana and move it from Schedule I to Schedule II. We did not have the $1.5 million, and the Clinton Administration did not have the courage to do even what it had promised patients that it would do, and reopen the so-called “Compassionate IND” program, so it came to nothing.
(However, in 1998, after a number of states passed medical marijuana laws, Marinol, synthetic THC, was quickly moved from Schedule II to Schedule III with the full support of the DEA, while marijuana remains absurdly in Schedule I.)
It is also worth noting that 1996 Proposition 215 that began California’s move to allow medical marijuana, said in Section (A) “To ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician who has determined that the person’s health would benefit from the use of marijuana in the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” (emphasis added)
Moreover, under FDA rules, any pharmaceutical which has been approved for use for one disease can be prescribed (“off-label”) by doctors for “any other illness for which” the doctor thinks it “provides relief.” In that key regard California does treat medical marijuana “like every other drug.”
However, Bratton’s question raises another important point. If it were sold in pharmacies, would they be allowed to make a profit on it the way they make profits on Lipitor and Viagra? And would their suppliers be allowed to make a profit on it the way American business does on everything else?
If so, and if Bratton wants medical marijuana to be treated like “every other drug”, then why are medical marijuana growers and dispensaries supposed to be non-profit?
Of course, “socialized medical cannabis” will work as badly as socialized anything else. But that really is the idea. Protecting marijuana prohibition takes precedent over everything else, the needs of patients, economic common sense, and logical consistency.
So, yes, Chief Bratton, the California medical marijuana situation is “Looney Tunes”, but it is not because of those of us who believe in freedom and oppose state violence against marijuana users, growers and sellers, medical or otherwise.
Richard Cowan is a former National Director of NORML, a member of the NORML Advisory Board, publisher of MarijuanaNews.com and Senior Advisor to Weedmaps.com
Analysis by Richard Cowan