THE PRESS DEMOCRAT / CHRIS COURSEY / December 23, 2011
Just in time for Christmas, “Reefer Madness” is back.
Federal prosecutors are threatening to shut down California’s medical pot dispensaries, which are legal under state law. California Attorney General Kamala Harris is asking the state Legislature to clarify and close loopholes in the state’s medical marijuana laws, saying those laws are so confusing that users, growers, sellers, cops and even the people who work in her office have a hard time telling what’s legal from what’s not. Meanwhile, one group is preparing a ballot initiative for next year that would tax and regulate medical marijuana, while another group is pushing for a vote to legalize pot for any and all uses.
Why do I equate this with the “Madness” depicted in the 1936 anti-marijuana movie?
Because the way we deal with pot is nuts, and to date most attempts to treat it as a “controlled” substance have proven to be delusional.
Proposition 215 in 1996 and Senate Bill 420 in 2003 made the use and sale of medical marijuana legal in California, and guidelines issued in 2008 by then-Attorney General Jerry Brown defined how dispensaries could work within the law. Since then, the number of dispensaries — and the number of people growing pot — has ballooned. More than a dozen dispensaries operate in Sonoma County today, and county government is proposing limits to prevent more from opening.
The federal government, ending an era of benign neglect that started with the Obama Administration, decided this fall that a lot of medical marijuana dispensaries are not legitimate “cooperatives” supplying medicine to sick people, but for-profit operations dealing drugs. They may be right about that — at least in some cases.
But the toothpaste is out of the tube, and getting it back in will only create a bigger mess.
Medical marijuana is a legitimate drug that can help sick people. But its legalization in California has come with a wink and a nod that is decidedly non-clinical. Getting a doctor’s recommendation allowing you to use, grow, buy and possess pot is as easy as swiping your credit card at one of the numerous “clinics” established for that purpose. “Dispensaries” are retail showplaces that feature two-for-one promotions, senior discounts, pot-themed underwear and pot doggie biscuits alongside the “medicine.”
Even the law — SB420 — carries the same number that for years has been pothead code for marijuana. When the name of the law is a joke, the law becomes a joke, too.
The result is that it’s hard to find pot that isn’t for “medical” purposes. Firefighters find medical pot growing in burned-out garages and back rooms of rental houses. Cops find medical pot stuffed into the trunks of rental cars making a run through Sonoma County from the marijuana farms of the North Coast to the lucrative markets of Los Angeles.
Narcotics agents find medical pot being trimmed and packaged by workers making $10 an hour in rural barns and industrial park warehouses. Parents find medical pot in the backpacks of their teen-age children. “Everybody claims it’s medical when we find it,” a narcotics officer told me this summer. “Our feeling is, OK, show us the paperwork. And most of the time, they have it.”
Because of that, police often turn a blind eye to small amounts of marijuana — whether it’s growing in a back yard, bundled in a baggie or rolled into a joint. In interviews with city and county law officers this summer, I learned that it takes an awful lot of pot and a clear intent to break the law before police get themselves entangled in a marijuana bust.
The thin line between legal medical marijuana and illegal non-medical marijuana “creates huge confusion” for officers, one police chief told me. “Pot gets overlooked (by police) because it’s just not worth the hassle.”
It is worth the hassle, though, for those who sell it. Despite a significant drop in price in the past few years as growers face less risk of prosecution, marijuana is still a lucrative business. And while it may be too late to realistically differentiate between “legal” pot and “illegal” pot on the street, and while it will always be impossible to control the underground market for a weed that thrives in the rich soil and mild climate of the North Coast, it’s not too late to find a way to control, regulate and tax the stuff that is being sold over the counter on the busiest commercial thoroughfares of our community.
Beware, however: You could go mad in the process.
Chris Coursey’s blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.