California: planting the seeds of change

Edwin Lopez

California has long been a progressive state, and now it looks like the state may be ready to spark another controversy. Pioneering in many different arenas, including business and technology, environmental control, renewable energy, and politics, California has often paved the way for other states to follow. One of the more recent manifestations of this pioneering spirit was the passage of a ground-breaking medical marijuana law.

California was the first state to allow marijuana for medical use with Prop 215 in 1996, allowing use, possession, and cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes with the recommendation of a physician, setting a new precedent for the nation. Allen St. Pierre, Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, says “California is a country unto itself – It’s the sixth or seventh economy in the world. One out of eight Americans lives in California, so if you change something in California, it changes in the U.S.” Maybe this is why many people say, “As California goes, so goes the country.”

By 2004, when Senate Bill 420 provided guidelines outlining what was allowed, nine other states had enacted similar laws legalizing medical marijuana. As of today there are 14 states, with New Jersey being the most recent due to Senate Bill 119 which passed this year. Recently, there has been debate within California over this issue, though, and even as Los Angeles’ City Council begins to enforce an ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries, the state prepares to vote on the possible regulation and taxation of marijuana for adults.

California is at the forefront of the current marijuana movement, and this is a pivotal point in time for medical marijuana and legalization of marijuana, but it is still a controversial subject within the state.

Many cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and West Hollywood, allow medical marijuana dispensaries to operate with restrictions. A number of other cities, including Pasadena and Fresno, have outright bans on medical marijuana dispensaries. The dispensaries which provide the medical marijuana are separate from the clinics where one can get a doctor’s referral, though, and even cities with bans on dispensaries sometimes allow clinics, like Glendale and Pasadena.

Pico Rivera is reconsidering a year-old ban on medical marijuana dispensaries after the federal government announced it will no longer target them for raids. In contrast, Oakland is home to a marijuana cultivation school known as Oaksterdam University, and has just recently opened a 15,000-square-foot hydroponic supply store, with the inaugural celebration attended by many city officials.

Dispensaries

If you were to visit a dispensary, it would be quite an interesting experience. Upon arriving for the first time, a patient is required to sign up as a member of the pharmacy.

The big, muscular security guard at the front desk is usually quite nice. He or she smiles and says “Hi! Are you a new patient?” which makes you feel very welcome. Once checked in, you are buzzed into the back area, where patients are allowed to enter two or three at a time, depending on how many people are behind the counter. The young girl behind the counter greets you with a warm smile and a “Hi! How are you doing today?” Eventually the staff gets to know all the patients by name, and greets them all that way.

Inside you would find just about any marijuana product imaginable. There are edible marijuana products stocked in a refrigerator to the right; pipes, lighters, rolling papers, and all other paraphernalia in a display case to the left; a small nursery of clones grows in pots behind the main counter, which can be taken home and grown to maturity; concentrates such as hash and hemp oils are in the display case right next to the mason jars filled with marijuana.

On the wall there is a whiteboard showing all the prices for the dozens of different strains they carry at any given time. You can take a look at the different options of medicinal marijuana offered and make a final choice as to which is suitable to your needs. The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable, and can answer questions and recommend strains that work best for your particular ailment. Once your choice is made, the marijuana is placed in a plastic bag, and then into a paper bag which is stapled shut, since the patient is not allowed to access their medicine until arriving at their home or whichever safe place where they will be medicating.

“See you next time!” the young girl says, as you walk out the door and head back into the city.

Glendale

The City of Glendale currently has a moratorium on medical marijuana pharmacies, which means that until they can further study the issue and make a final decision, there can be no dispensaries allowed to operate within the city.

Lt. Bruce Fox has been with the Glendale Police Department since 1984 and currently heads the Special Investigations Bureau. He explains that there are difficulties deciding how to allow pharmacies to operate under zoning laws in the city.

“There are zoning restrictions which say that only certain areas, or zones, can be used for certain things. Right now Glendale has no zone for dispensaries.” He also stated, “The City Attorney is currently watching a case in an Anaheim appellate court, in which the judge must decide if the city can ban dispensaries, or if the State ballot initiative supersedes the right to ban.” This could mean that Glendale would be required to allow dispensaries.

Lt. Fox says that Glendale Police officers have a policy of recognizing County issued identification cards for medical marijuana recommendations, but not doctor issued cards. If pulled over, a person cannot be arrested if he or she has the government issued card, but they are subject to arrest if they only have the privately issued cards.

Lt. Fox says he has noticed an increase in the number of marijuana related violations. “There’s a lot more than there ever was in my career; they’re pretty frequent now,” he says. But he adds that “Most times we do not arrest the person if they have the doctor issued card; we just issue citations.”

There are also concerns from dispensaries in neighboring cities. He recalls a young man getting medical marijuana in an Eagle Rock dispensary, who was giving it to his little brother at a Glendale high school. This young student was caught selling it on campus to other students. He believes there is abuse of the law, saying “The law says you have to be an actual caregiver for the patient. Care-giving isn’t just providing pot for them, though. You have to be responsible for the person: changing bedpans, getting groceries, taking them to doctor’s appointments.”

He feels that a law meant for people with serious illnesses has been abused for the proliferation of dispensaries in the state. “It’s not for sale; it’s supposed to be a barter system, more of an exchange for services. Bottom line, people who voted for this had a vision of how it would look. But it has been hijacked by people in another direction.”

Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, there has been internal conflict between the City Council and the District Attorney, Steve Cooley, about whether or not over-the-counter sales, as they largely occur now, are legal or not. The City Council has decided not to proclaim the sales illegal, but has passed an ordinance stating that dispensaries are not to be within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, drug rehab centers, and other sensitive areas.

The council is also proposing fees on dispensaries, and Los Angeles county prosecutors have mailed out letters to 439 dispensaries, saying they must close down by June 7, when the ordinance took effect. A group of dispensaries is now mounting a legal opposition to this, claiming it is too restrictive.

Many have closed, but some have circumvented the law by offering delivery services to members while being closed to the public. Meanwhile, the district attorney is going after two of the most high-profile dispensaries, halting sales at one and charging the owner of another with 24 felonies. He is claiming that their sales are completely illegal, though, which is in contradiction to the city council’s decision to allow them with restrictions.

Legalize It

While all this is happening in the City of Los Angeles, the State of California is gearing up to vote in the November ballot on The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, allowing sales and possession for those over 21, and which would tax the sale of marijuana. Also, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has submitted a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in California. It is called AB 2254, the Marijuana Control, Regulation, and Education Act of 2010.

Quentin McKee, who is Assemblyman Ammiano’s Communications Director, says the reason for proposing this was based on badly performing drug laws. “The war on drugs has been a failure, and has had massive negative consequences for the state.”

He says the bill attempts to address environmental issues, issues of restricted access for people, and the possibility of changing the dynamic of the international drug wars. He also points out the recent shift in public polls, which show the highest levels of support for marijuana decriminalization both in California, as well as nationally. “There’s no better time than now,” he says. “The people are ready.”
St. Pierre and NORML have been integral parts of making this bill a possibility.

According to him, AB 2254 was written with help from California NORML, using research they have done into potential tax revenues for the state. They asked Assemblyman Tom Ammiano to introduce the bill, and he was willing to support the initiative. St. Pierre says, “If California wins this, it will be important for the rest of the country. Other in other states will see this, and it’ll cause a domino effect.”

He also points out how important Hollywood has been in changing the country’s view of marijuana. “Hollywood has been very embracive of usage and of law reformation. Shows like ‘That 70’s Show’, ‘Weeds’, and ‘The Jon Stewart Show’ are seen every night, and they are exporting these views to other states.”

California has changed the view of cannabis over the years, starting in 1976 when it was decriminalized and possession of an ounce or less became punishable by a fine of no more than $100. Since then, the whole country has shown a change in opinion, and in fact 81 percent of Americans have said they now favor legalizing marijuana for medical use.

With the new Cannabis Act, California stands to once again challenge Federal law and provide a basis for other states to build upon. In a recent poll, 56 percent of California residents said they were in favor of legalizing the drug, which is not surprising with such a different atmosphere surrounding it.

It is no longer seen as a “gateway drug” to harder substances, but rather as a potential medicine, and by many as accepted as tobacco and alcohol. Perhaps that’s why it seems like the time right for residents to vote on the possibility of taxing and regulating marijuana in the same way as alcohol and tobacco.

Economics

Perhaps one of the biggest selling points for California voters will be the economic benefits of legalizing and taxing marijuana. According to California NORML, law enforcement agencies could save over $200 million in costs by no longer pursuing, prosecuting, and jailing offenders. By placing a basic $50 per ounce tax on it, the state could yield up to $900 million per year, not counting the sales tax generated by the sales. This could add another $250-$340 million, bringing the total tax revenue to at least $1.2 billion.

Add in other economic activity generated by the legalization, including shops and tourism which would bring added jobs and tax revenues, and there is the possibility of adding $12 to $18 billion to the state economy. Many believe California could become a center for the marijuana industry, similar to what Paris is to wines, and that the revenues would be comparable to those generated by the cotton industry in California.

So after years of back and forth between proponents and opponents of legalized marijuana, the time of reckoning has arrived. Both sides have a stockpile of arguments to back up their side. These are debates many have heard throughout the last few years. Those opposed will claim that it is a dangerous drug which leads to abuse, and that it is still against federal law, while supporters will trumpet the significant economic benefits, as well as statistics showing the lack of increased crime and abuse in other countries where it has been legalized.

Many would think it’s an issue of a younger versus an older generation. But as many Baby Boomers reach the age where they no longer have kids in the house, it appears more are smoking marijuana, while the number of teens who smoke has gone down. These Baby Boomers may be more willing to vote for decriminalization, so as to not worry about where to find it, or getting caught while doing so.

Medical Use

Jared, a 56-year-old art director and medical marijuana patient, did a lot of research before deciding where to get his medical marijuana recommendation. He explains that “the downside is a lot of places are ‘fly by night’. I think that’s what gives the wrong image.” He finally decided on a doctor located at MMEC in downtown Glendale. Jared says “He’s a funny old dude. He’s caring, not just a rubber stamp.”

Jared is not just a recreational user, though – he has Plantar Fasciitis, six stents in his heart, and suffers from anxiety. He had two heart attacks in the last 15 years, and says the therapeutic aspects of marijuana have been very important to him in relieving his pain, especially in place of other pharmaceuticals that can damage the liver. He also says that it gives him time to pause when he is stressing. He says “It helps me get back and realize I’m married to an amazing lady, and things are gonna get better.”

He supports the legalization and regulation of marijuana, but says it should be treated more like a pharmaceutical than alcohol or tobacco. “I don’t think RJ Reynolds should be able to market it,” he says. “Getting good, pure stuff with no crap; I’m okay with that. But don’t poison or addict me.” He acknowledges the historical uses of cannabis in religious ceremonies, and the use of hemp for textiles and ropes, among other uses, but he admits it is a complex subject. “It’s not simple. But it’s a step in the right direction that has to be taken. It’s too beneficial for too many people.”

Other Concerns

Even if passed, there will still be legal issues to grapple with. Bruce Margolin, a well-known attorney who specializes in marijuana-related defense cases, explains that “the new law does not address the issue of distribution, just possession and cultivation. Each county will have to decide how to allow distribution, and how to tax it.” But he does think it is necessary and should be passed. “It’d be irrational not to. Has the black market gone away? No, it still exists. So we need a reasonable alternative. The weed dealers will still want to keep it illegal, of course.”

Although President Obama has said his administration would no longer raid and prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries, he has also said he does not approve of legalization. Yet, even after California has outlawed gay marriage, many still see the state as progressive and ready to move beyond commonly held viewpoints and look into the future.

It is not a clear-cut victory yet for California, and as St. Pierre points out, “It will be a ‘wobbler’ and may win or lose by just a few percentage points.” But other states like Washington and Colorado are already looking to see how this will turn out, ready to follow behind. Once again, California stands poised to make history and buck the trends in our country. In a year that has already seen drastic, fundamental change in the way government works, it is not too far-fetched to imagine this being passed. Some would say it’s simply a matter of time, and if any one state were to do it, it would be California. So we will soon see just how high California can get on grassroots efforts.