Tomorrow, November 5th, 2011, marks the fifteenth anniversary of California’s passage of Prop 215, The Compassionate Use Act. The Act passed with 55.58% of the vote and remains the greatest achievement in marijuana law reform in the “War on Drugs” era.
The successes of Prop 215 are well documented. Two years following its passage, the rest of the West Coast and Alaska passed their own medical marijuana initiatives, with close to equal (OR 55%) or greater (WA 59% & AK 58%) support than California voters gave Prop 215.
The next decade saw twelve more states and the District of Columbia passing medical marijuana laws, with seven of those states doing so through the legislature. Five of the citizen initiatives topped 60% support. As states passed medical marijuana, some added more conditions for qualification, some legislated dispensary operations, and the most recent have instituted protections for the rights of patients to drive, work, have a home, get an organ transplant, and raise their kids. In some ways, medical marijuana has improved in fifteen years.
But a closer examination reveals a reform strategy that has stalled out and may even be in decline. The last election saw Oregon fail to pass a dispensary measure for the second time with about the same support after six years. South Dakota defeated medical marijuana with only 36% support, a drop of 12 points since they tried in 2006. Arizona only barely passed medical marijuana with 50.13% support, when they had previously seen 65% in 1996 and 64% in a 1998 referendum (both 1990’s Arizona Acts were invalidated.)
Indeed, the national polls show a stalling on the medical marijuana issue as well. When Gallup asked about support for medical marijuana and legalized marijuana in 1999, support was 73% and 29%, respectively. We assume that someone who supports legalization for healthy people probably supports legalization for sick people, too, so that means 44% of those polled only support medical marijuana, not legalization. But in the latest 2011 poll, legalization support has hit 50% while in the 2010 poll, medical support had dropped to 70%, down 8 points since 2005. How has the support for legalization doubled (25% to 50%) since Prop 215 while support for making a medical exception to criminal marijuana has flatlined?
We’ve seen how courts, legislatures, and law enforcement have supported medical exceptions – by trying to make those exceptions as narrow and costly as possible. No state followed California’s lead in making marijuana available by doctor’s recommendation for “any other illness for which marijuana provides relief”, instead crafting strict condition lists and patient registries. The West Coast standard of a dozen or more home-grown plants became 3-6 plants or no home growing at all. The precedent of a half-pound or more of usable medicine became 1 or 2 ounces, tracked to the gram and filmed at all times. Courts all across the Ninth Circuit have ruled that medical marijuana use does not protect patients from job discrimination and patients still experience housing, child custody, and medical procedure discrimination on a daily basis.
Oregon legislators proclaimed the medical marijuana program rife with abuse on the sole evidence that 50,000 patients had signed on, so they doubled the mandatory registry fee (up to ten times greater if you’re poor and previously got a discounted fee) to reduce the medical marijuana registry numbers. Oregon sheriffs are in agreement with the ATF that patients have no Second Amendment rights. Colorado legislators passed a series of medical marijuana business regulations making it more difficult and expensive to operate a dispensary than a liquor store and impossible to be a personal caregiver who just supplies marijuana to a patient. Montana outright repealed medical marijuana, saved only by a governor’s veto, only to enact new strict regulations to decimate (literally) the medical marijuana program. California localities continue to restrict dispensary operations. Washington’s governor vetoed a dispensary measure. Arizona’s governor is stonewalling implementation of dispensaries. Alaska, Maine, Nevada, and Vermont still have fewer than 1,000 protected patients. New Jersey and District of Columbia leaders are dragging their feet and haven’t implemented their programs yet.
The basis of medical marijuana restrictions and discrimination depends on a federal Schedule I designation that defines the use of cannabis by healthy people a criminal act. These restrictions, dropping poll numbers, and failing medical marijuana initiatives indicate a substantial portion of Americans that believe “compassionate use” is a ruse (I wonder what gave them that idea?).
I believe that there are three basic stands on medical marijuana among the voters not personally invested in the issue:
- The people who believe pot smoking is evil and will never support anyone using it for any reason (“prohibitionists”).
- The people who believe pot smoking is evil, but letting cancer and AIDS patients suffer is more evil (“medicalizers”).
- The people who don’t believe pot smoking is evil and would allow any adult to use it (“legalizers”).
The prohibitionists will never support medical marijuana and the legalizers have always supported medical marijuana. So the fate of any medical marijuana proposal rests on whether a coalition of legalizers and medicalizers can form a majority. Over the past fifteen years, forming that majority has required more restrictive definitions of medical marijuana to assuage the medicalizers who increasingly think evil pot smokers are getting through the loopholes. Worse, forming that coalition requires legalizers to tacitly agree that healthy pot smoking is evil.
When medical marijuana began in the Nineties, the rallying cry was “If there’s going to be a ‘War on Drugs’, let’s get the sick and dying off the battlefield.” If that’s the case, why do we continue to see a rise in “casualties” on the battlefield? Even in medical marijuana states, annual arrests of cannabis consumers continue to rise. All medical marijuana has done for marijuana convicts is improve their population’s average level of health in sixteen states.
Medical marijuana started a revitalization of marijuana activism. But I believe it has reached a point where any future medical marijuana laws will have to be increasingly restrictive. And the near future holds DEA rescheduling of plant THC for use by Big Pharma in devices that will provide all the medical relief without the “high”, which will cleave some of the medicalizers away from further reforms. We’ve gotten to a point in time where half as many people only support “medical legalization” over a decade and support of legalization for all adults now outnumbers opposition for the first time.
This is not to argue that we give up on medical marijuana campaigns. It is to argue that the campaigns need to be re-framed away from “Oh, no, this isn’t legalization at all!” to “Yes, we’re going to legalize for sick people first”. Until marijuana is supported as a good thing for all and not an evil thing we allow medical exceptions for, medical marijuana patients will remain in second-class citizenship and healthy marijuana smokers will remain behind bars.