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Medical Marijuana: Greed is Hurting the Sick

COMPASSION VS. PROFIT - California’s fast-growing marijuana industry is quickly learning that it doesn’t pay to tease the tiger.

After years of acting as though federal drug laws don’t apply west of the Arizona and Nevada borders, the entrepreneurs of the pot biz now have to deal with a major crackdown that threatens the use of medical marijuana by anyone, anywhere in the state.

The only surprise is that anyone is surprised.
When Prop. 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, went on the November 1996 ballots, medical marijuana supporters brought out a steady stream of mighty sick folk, people in the final stages of AIDS, ravaged by chemotherapy or bent under the weight of life-threatening ailments.

Legalize the medical use of marijuana and these people can be helped. So the voters did.

But sick people were never the real reason for Prop. 215. They were just the window-dressing for a cynical effort to bring about the de facto legalization of pot in California. And now years of greed and political hubris by the backers of that measure are hurting the very people they purported to help.

Fifteen years later, medicinal pot isn’t exactly being dispensed by white-coated pharmacists at the corner drug stores.

A recent edition of a Bay Area alternative newspapers features ads promising a “free edible on your first order” or “save $10-$15 on every 1/8th” and “we pay the sales tax.”

Then there are the doctors who evaluate patients for the required medical marijuana cards, the ones who advertise that “We Match Competitors’ Prices.”

While Prop. 215 specifically allowed the use of medical marijuana for treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis and migraine, it also allowed its use for “any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”

A list provided by one evaluation service now includes 258 conditions that pot can help, including gout, obesity, alcoholism, senile dementia and writers’ cramp.

A list of guidelines provided by then-Attorney General Jerry Brown in 2008 affirmed that all medical marijuana operations had to be operated as cooperatives or collectives, serving only their members.

They could only exist as non-profits, since “nothing in Proposition 215 … authorizes collectives, cooperatives or individuals to profit from the sale or distribution of marijuana.

Yet a marijuana growers group that wanted to build a 4,000-square-foot pot farm in Isleton in the Sacramento River delta was willing to pay an estimated $850,000 a year to the city in taxes and fees. That’s a mighty pricey non-profit operation.

In recent years, the pot business in California has been anything but an underground operation. Earlier this year, for example, growers went to the City Council with a proposal to open five new dispensaries in Oakland, each with a warehouse of up to 50,000-square-feet for a pot farm. Together they could have provided up to 20 percent of the entire state’s demand for medical marijuana.

The feds quickly stepped in and told Oakland that no way, no how was that type of operation legal, which should have been a hint about how the legal wind was blowing.

But the pot industry continued to, ah, blow smoke in the face of federal officials. A Labor Day weekend marijuana street fair in downtown Oakland featured a designated smoking area outside City Hall, where people with medical cards could light up without fear.

“People need an opportunity to take their medicine,” the festival chief told reporters.
Earlier this month, the feds finally decided enough was enough and announced a crackdown on marijuana operators and said they were more drug dealers than angels of medical mercy.

“This is not what the California voters intended or authorized, and it is illegal under federal law,” said Andre Birotte Jr., the U.S. attorney based in Los Angeles. “It does not allow this brick-and-mortar, Costco-Wal-Mart-type model that we see in California.”

So federal agents across the state, often working with local district attorneys, now are working to shut down the bad guys in the marijuana world, the ones who aren’t playing by the rules.

But the same threats that work on the big growers also work on the little guys, who may be doing business the right way. When a landlord hears that the feds are threatening to seize their property if they rent to a pot dispensary, they’re not going to worry about size when they send out an eviction notice. A bank threatened with asset seizure isn’t going to do business with any pot club, even a good guy.

Expect more threats, along with some indictments and other shows of force, as federal officials remind California that Washington trumps Sacramento when it comes to drug laws.

While there will be plenty of complaints from state legislators and others officials, you can also expect plenty of California cities and counties to use the federal crackdown as a chance to shut down their local operators, even those who have been trouble-free.

The losers in this will be those people who were the focus of the original medical marijuana law, those whose symptoms can be eased and lives made better by medicinal pot.

If anyone in the pot biz cares.

(John Wildermuth is a journalist and political commentator. He blogs at where this column was first posted.) -cw

Tags: pot, marijuana, legal marijuana, Prop 215, medical pot, medical marijuana

Vol 9 Issue 84
Pub: Oct 21, 2011