Medical marijuana turns 15 years old – Has it reached its zenith?

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:

  1. The people who believe pot smoking is evil and will never support anyone using it for any reason (“prohibitionists”).
  2. The people who believe pot smoking is evil, but letting cancer and AIDS patients suffer is more evil (“medicalizers”).
  3. 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.

72 thoughts

  1. I live in Oklahoma where the mere use and presence in urine of marijuana means a patient has no right to treatment for documented, excruciating, and chronic pain. I know this because it happened to me.

  2. Although we don’t have medical use in our state, my fathers doctor privately recommended he smoke to keep his appetite during chemo treatments. He would have been dead in a couple months without it. He survived 4 years. Nobody should be robbed of life because of irrational laws. I’m fighting this till the end.

  3. I just heard the daily stash talk about this and I agree with Russ that America has gone as far as it can with medicalization for many reasons but I would like to add some others he did not cover.1-Federal employees are not protected by state laws and this includes the military.2-Poor people are not protected by medical laws or state d.3-Child custody laws in most states do not cover medical patients. Until there is a federal law these issues will not be addressed.

  4. Very insiteful (LOL.) What will resonate with the public in the ongoing legalization effort is obviously difficult to analyze. A comment to an article I liked put it this way: “There’s a lot of very nasty people making a lot of money off the prohibition of marijuana, and it would help our cities and states to regulate and tax it instead.”

  5. Medical was seen as a stalking horse for legalization for obvious reasons. While clearly cannabis has medical value, California’s example shows that people will use the system to their advantage if they can.
    Of course, this is no different than with any other drug – Ritalin, oxycotin, etc.
    I think right now, we need to emphasize the advantages of legal, responsible use. Would you rather money go to a cartel member or a farmer? Would you rather cannabis be sold by somebody who checks ID or by a sketchy 16 year old who will sell to your kids? Would you rather people be able to smoke responsibly or have them being arrested? Put pictures of these side by side and you have an instant pro-legalization poster. I think legalization has a massive advantage if we try to appeal to the emotions of people but frankly the marketing of it is a failure. We’re too wonky, we’re trying to reason with what is not based on reason.
    We also have to learn to defend getting high. There is nothing wrong with getting high, and as long as we let getting high itself seem like a sin we’ve got a problem.

  6. Thanks Russ, this is very well stated. I am a 56 year old Colorado patient, and have come over to the legalize camp over the past year. I live near Fort Collins, which just banned dispensaries. The ban was fueled by fear of the wrong people getting pot, as if it has ever been scarce in a college town. The only way for the sick people to have safe access is if the healthy people do too. The first 20 minutes of today’s second hour were golden, the best explanation of cannabis politics with a forward looking strategy I have heard. I hope you release it in video or written form.

  7. Marijuana is a good thing. The police are just a bunch of clowns following orders they don’t want to. And the ones that do feel abusing their neighbors and denigrating their rights are exactly the ones who shouldn’t be police in the first place.
    The police need to stop arresting people. Tell them on a daily basis they are working for the enemy and against their sworn duty to uphold our constitution.

  8. Good Points. In Florida we still have the draconian laws and a huge pain pill problem. The medical approach will suffer because of it. The voters will be told that the evil stoners will exploit the system. Well no sh-t D Tracy. Any and all efforts to convert those without vested interests is to preach only on harm reduction to individuals and communities. It is an extension of the medicalizer’s attitude and mindset.

  9. We just need to keep pointing out the flaws in the current medical system, and how medical cannabis can fix them. We need to address issues that nobody can defend, such as the existence of a national medical methamphetamine program whose target sales group is minors with ADHD or obesity. We need to attack the discrepancies and lies that prohibitionist cling to. If we just stick to the truths about Cannabis, we could push medical marijuana to the fullest. The argument isn’t just about people getting high anymore.

  10. I like that “campaigns need to be re-framed” idea.
    Let the prohibitionists have their ideas. Let the legalizers have their ideas.
    Help the medicalizers tell the Federal government to reform the marijuana law so that it actually shows respect for our Constitution.
    Join the Peloton by advocating for this simple definition of marijuana:
    16. The term ‘marijuana’ means all parts
    of the smoke produced by the combustion
    of the plant Cannabis sativa L.
    For more information, google Talking Points for the Peloton.

  11. Medical marijuana is not out of reach for any state. But, in my opinion, we are wasting time trying to change the law at the federal level. If you want medical marijuana in your state, write your congressmen/women. They will write back–mine has. There is nothing crazy about medical marijuana; in fact, the vast majority of Americans are for it. We need to show this to those who represent us. They are dependent on us. But when we write them, we need to be practical and respectful rather than radical and condescending. We need to use proper grammar. We need to avoid banal claims such as, “Marijuana is the safest thing on Earth.” If we present ourselves as knowledgeable and responsible, change will happen. It already is.

  12. A great article, Russ and very much appreciated indeed. You are truly a “Campaigner’s campaigner.” Kudos to you and thank you for your ongoing commitment for general cannabis law reform.

  13. I have always answered fearful claims from prohibitionists that medical marijuana is just a stepping stone to full legalization with, “Of course it is.”
    Russ, you are quite correct. We need to eliminate any appearance of ruse or deception in the medical movement and soon, with full legalization, it will be a moot issue and an unnecessary distinction.

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  15. >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”.
    I think it might be better to say that medical marijuana is the first step on the path to better drug policy, not the first step on the path to legalization. This is because basically everyone supports better drug policy, but not everyone supports legalization.
    Similarly, I think it might be better to frame the deaths of the drug war in terms of ‘violence stemming from lack of safe access to drugs’, rather than violence stemming from the war on drugs. This isn’t something I’ve focus grouped, just a couple theories.

  16. If we do not keep the legalization momentum going you can count on us returning to the dark ages of Paraquat loaded Mexican brick bud. The Feds are not going after the lazy and improperly run dispensaries here in California. They are going after the dispensaries and co-ops that are the MOST compliant, the most careful of the medical veracity of their clients.
    They have spent several years investigating and enumerating people. They are not going to raid and let you set up shop elsewhere. They are going to, instead, take the property away from their landlords. It will only take one large confiscation for every dispensary’s landlord, to immediately need to evict every dispensary. Landlords have a very strong legal communications network in California and a move like this means that no-one will be able to rent or lease an office or building for a dispensary ever again.
    We need to legalize it, and in doing so, we would do well to equate MJ to alcohol in the law.

  17. The backlash against marijuana decriminalization is just a side effect of the Republican surge in the wake of Obama’s presidential win.
    Sure, I’m surprised that the Tea Party “get the government off our backs” people pushed so hard against medical marijuana; but still, they will be less of a majority of voters in the elections to come.
    I’m comfortable saying that any setbacks we’re seeing now are temporary – as has been shown, public support for marijuana legalization is growing, not leveling off or declining.

  18. The prohibitionist movement is shrinking, and they are putting up a final crusade. They could no longer persuade anyone to join their efforts to become like them on trying to make the world rule by a money hungry nanny government that controls everything.

  19. Ohio is standing up for the occasion with the End Ohio Cannabis Prohibition Act of 2012! We also support the medical efforts in Ohio, but felt it was time for a state effort for full legalization as well – for ALL of the uses of the cannabis plant and its many products, and allowing for commercial and non-commercial production so as to encourage its availability. We are a fine example of a coalition of medicalizers and legalizers. As you may notice, my good friend Tonya Davis, who has been a longtime avid mmj supporter, also supports full legalization and is a member of our PAC. We welcome everyone to read our ballot language and what we are offering to the Ohio and the general community. Feedback is encouraged.
    Thank You, Don McAdams, Treasurer, Responsible Ohioans for Cannabis PAC

  20. Pharmaceutical industry. According to IMS Health, a company which provides market intelligence to the pharmaceutical and health care industries; the estimated worldwide sales for prescription pharmaceuticals was about $900 billion in 2010. Americans spent roughly 441 billion dollars on prescription drugs in 2010, accounting for approximately half of all sales world wide. Yet, as of 2006, the U.S. infant mortality rate ranked at 21st in the world (under Greece and South Korea and slightly higher than Poland). U.S. life expectancy ranked at number 17. [1] By 2011, IMS Health reported that sales for U.S. prescription drugs will reach $511 billion dollars a year.They use their monies to influence World wide leaders and nationally to influence our political leaders . The total gross amount in World wide sales have amounted into the trillions of
    dollars .

  21. I don’t believe it’s reached its zenith by a long shot. In fact, after reading some of the breaking news on the theweedblog I am convinced more than ever that legalization is just a matter of time. Younger people (along with Dems and Indies) support legalization by a fair margin, and oldies (and GOPers) reject legalization by an almost equal margin. Time, simply put, is on our side. With each passing year our side gets stronger and theirs weaker. Even those politicos who now reject legalization will eventually have to change or get overwhelmed by the tide.
    In fact, several Democratic congressmen just wrote Obama a letter, telling him to stick to his pre-campaign promises about respecting states’ MMJ laws.
    So, while I feel the same frustration that many others do on this site, I have a strong feeling of hope. If MJ legalization can pass in ANY ONE of the upcoming votes in 2012–California, Colorado or Washington State–I think it will be a turning of the tide. I think a domino effect will be inevitable (however slowly that may play out).

  22. I was burned in a house fire when I was 1 and a half years old. I suffer with chronic back pain all of my life and I’ve smoked marijuana for 22 years and its the only thing that helps me with my pain that has no side effects

  23. Last year a vote took away the dispensaries in my town, then just a couple days ago another vote was made to shut down all the dispensaries in Ft. Collins, CO which is where all my towns patients get there’s from. And after reading this, I don’t know if there will be a vote next year vote for legalization. But it will happen all because returning troops getting their licenses and supporting it. People who don’t support marijuana at all might support veterans using it for Post Traumatic Stress. And if politicians don’t they wont get votes. So even if it doesn’t pass, people who do support it that go into office will be more lenient on it.

  24. Russ makes some good points. The prohibitionists and their supporters/manipulators in the right wing media have indeed argued that medical cannabis is simply a ploy for legalization. They are in fact, correct in this assessment. My first thought is, “So what?” However,we are to address this line of thinking we need to take the bull by the horns and devise a strategy for pushing legalization.
    I’ve heard many thoughts on how to approach this effectively. My best guess is that we need to push legalization at the state level. First, this would be to back legalization in some state likely to pass such a measure. If we can get just one state to legalize, the whole house of cards might fall. We need just one state to illustrate to the rest of the country that the sky won’t fall.
    In a legalized state criminal justice resources would be freed up to deal with really serious issues. The entire burden of cannabis prohibition would fall to the feds. This would be an almost impossible task for the DOJ/DEA. Legalize in one state, and watch the results unfold.

  25. I’m 57 and have degenerative arthritis in my spine, hips, and knees.For me, medical marijuana is a fight to the DEATH…mine…would you deny me respite from my pain? Must I rely on medications that hurt my liver and kidneys? And the pain pills…hard core narcotics…these are some of the chemicals I can put down as long as I have safe access to medical grade marijuana.

  26. Thanks Joe C..Too right, the best course of action is to go right after Re-Legalization first and foremost. Then medical programs/dispensaries can also follow without pressure. The huge imposed damage and cost of long failed prohibition would end, and the big money could go to local jobs & communities, and state govt programs for helping infrastructure and people, not just cartels and prisons. The big question is how to get the change. Yes, for one, getting a state to Legalize, tax and regulate would be a big help. Other states would follow. The one thing that would do the most to help is to get Ganja clear off the Fed Sched (put alcohol & tobacco on instead and see how they would not hold up for medical use!). To get off the Fed Sched-how best to do that-bought off Obama is no hope-but could it be done through courts by legally showing proven scientific fact, with thousands of testimonies ( 2 testimony lies were what set up the prohibition in 1937-positive info was banned-!) to back up, plus stats from Portugal and other places? Also info from many sources, LEAP, MPP, NORML, DPA, the UN, world leaders, crime reduction shown with dispensaries, etc, etc- With full truth concentrated all at once in court, Legalizing would be shown to be the only option possible!! How did the Fed get forced to re-legalize alcohol or legalize tobacco and keep both off the Fed Sched-no medical use (whats good in wine can be found without the poison alcohol)? Putting Ganja off the list, showing proven medical and other benefits would be a huge help and end Fed Terrorism of the states, allowing the states to vote and work out legalizing solutions. Can you imagine the use of medical dispensaries for alcohol and tobacco for legal use?? That would be the end of their legal use! THE CURRENT LAW – FED SCHED- IS THE CRIME! Against all of us! We need to pull that pin and collapse the house of cards with follow up in court, Supreme Court if neccessary, and as with alcohol, a new constitutional admendment. “Pursuit of Happiness”….duh…don’t let big pharma, etc destroy following the constitution any longer! Thanks for this forum NORML! I am age 71, nearly 72, by the way, and have had enough BS since Anslinger, thanks.

  27. I have chronic HCV (Hep C and also Cirrhosis of the liver from Hep C) and there is not much a person can take when everything is filtered through the liver – I can’t take hardcore narcotics, nor do I want to. I just want and need my herb for a natural help with the pain. Why can’t the other of our 50 states get with the right program and let’s just legalize and tax!

  28. Marijuana, medical or otherwise, will never be legal. Too many law enforcement officials and politicians are making way too much money off of its prohibition. Yes the drug war is expensive. That’s the cost of obscene black market profiteering. Sad but true.

  29. After looking at these figures, I’m more certain than ever that education is the key to increasing public support for ending cannabis prohibition.
    Before the advent of the internet, information on cannabis was almost entirely provided by arguably biased sources such as the government and mass media (radio, newspaper, TV). This might explain why support for marijuana legalization generally didn’t fluctuate too much between 1970 and the late 1990s, although it did decrease slightly during the Reagan/Bush administrations and increase slightly during the Clinton administration.
    However, starting in the late 1990s, the number of homes with personal computers and internet access began to increase markedly. This allowed people to access unfiltered information on cannabis, such as scientific studies, that the mass media and government never mention. I think that this powerful new means to inform oneself may be partly responsible for the rapid increase in support of marijuana legalization between the late 1990s and today.
    It would be interesting to see the results of a study comparing attitudes towards marijuana, knowledge about current cannabis related science, and personal sources of marijuana information.

  30. There is a reason for what you’re calling “flat-lining” of support for medical marijuana. Numerous times on the NSL chat, folks posted comments like, “Can’t we forget about medical marijuana and simply legalize it for everyone?” I’m sure someone checking boxes for support for MJ reform might refuse to express support for MMJ in the belief that the medical issue has been adequately addressed, and legalization is the only issue left.

  31. Joe Curwen Says:
    November 5th, 2011 at 7:44 pm
    Russ makes some good points. The prohibitionists and their supporters/manipulators in the right wing media have indeed argued that medical cannabis is simply a ploy for legalization. They are in fact, correct in this assessment. My first thought is, “So what?”
    I agree. The feds lied to the American people from day 1 about cannabis and its so called “dangers”. We tried for 75 years to be honest and non violent in our rebuttle but the feds still would not listen, they still use lies and violence against pot smokers. So we had to “spoon feed” them with medical pot. And yet, the feds still spit it out like its castor oil being forced down their throat.

  32. Hello I am Jodiage 50 anda person along with many that are hopeing TEXAS comed to the same insight about the use of weed (marijauna) Ive been busted now with poss. of marij. of less then tow OZ. I need a lawyer or help and after its over I need a state that I can go to for help. I live with and stomach burning and joint pain in knees and major back pain. I cant pills or any kind of legel pain pills but I smoke weed and they thnk I need rehab, Ive done it for 5 years and its helped me with other matters in my life. I just cant undersand if it help with all of my matter I could stop taking a pill for the prombles it cause me< I take two meds for the rash and and iching they cause me and the lineing of my stomach is being destoried.
    If anyone knws of someone that can help plz do courst date is NOV. 18th@ in Polk county, Livingstons Texas

  33. Nope it has not reached anything. Ca. finally figured out to make this thing work and here come the Fed’s! What a joke! Back ass backwards!

  34. The Oregon dispensary proposition was poorly written and would have been extremely costly for those who wanted to have a dispensary. The proposition was also very restictive in how those dispensaries could have been run. Those costs would have been passed on to the consumer, making for prices at or even above the black market level.

  35. Haha, thanks Smoke & fact, cut its head off every way possible, removal from the Fed Sched–conferences are great,420, etc, but until the concentrated truths from all good knowledge and people are put in a legal court forum where prohibition and the Fed Sched would be so destroyed, it won’t happen…an arrangement matter…so many could help..NORML, DPA, LEAP, MPP, UN, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Students for Sensible, well, use, many world leaders (Richard Branson), Science, Doctors, Lawyers for common sense and truth, other politicians, serious testimonies from vets, seniors & all others suffering without Ganja, those who have peaceful insight ending violence & costs, etc, etc,-the well of truths is very deep, and put together in a critical change format will drown the lies and Fed Terrorism very quickly-the time is now-especially after the latest Gallup Poll.. how can we get this together..suggestions please…

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