The marijuana mess

Maybe 215 is fixable, but legalization seems inevitable

The voters who approved California’s Compassionate Use Act, Proposition 215, in 1996 had good intentions: to ensure that people who could benefit from medical cannabis had safe access to it. But things have not turned out as they expected. Many of the proliferating pot gardens and dispensaries that have resulted were clearly designed primarily to serve recreational users, not sick people, and to make money for their operators.

This is not entirely bad. After 40 years of a failed effort to keep people from smoking pot, we know that some of them are going to use it regardless of its illegality. It’s better that it be grown and distributed in an open, controlled manner rather than sold on the black market, which is not safe for buyer or seller.

So what now? In their recent effort to shut down dispensaries in the state, the U.S. attorneys in California seem to want to drive the marijuana industry back underground. In choosing to assert the primacy of federal law, they ignore the fact that the voters of California approved Proposition 215 and deny the state of California the right to determine its own destiny. They also willfully ignore the fact that prohibition has not worked.

The people who would benefit most from reinstating prohibition are, of course, the Mexican cartel bosses whose laborers are growing huge gardens in the forests.

So now what? We seem to be at a tipping point. Either we go backwards to prohibition, with its reliance on police and prisons and its corrupting black market, or we move forward toward a better system of distributing marijuana. It’s one or the other.

Last Friday (Oct. 14) the trustees of the California Medical Association, which represents 35,000 physicians, called for the nationwide legalization of marijuana. The conflict between federal and state law, which permits cannabis use with a doctor’s recommendation, has become untenable, the group told the Los Angeles Times.

The CMA proposed that marijuana be regulated along the lines of alcohol and tobacco, adding that the consequences of criminalization—more people in prison, lives ruined as a result—outweigh the hazards of the drug itself. As Dr. Donald Lyman, the physician who wrote the new policy, told the Times, current laws have “proven to be a failed public health policy.”

Then, on Monday, the venerable Gallup Co. released a poll showing that an unprecedented 50 percent of Americans think it’s high time that marijuana become legal in the United States—up from 46 percent last year and just 12 percent in 1969. “If this current trend on legalizing marijuana continues,” the pollsters said, “pressure may build to bring the nation’s laws into compliance with the people’s wishes.” (See Sifter on page 10 for more on the poll.)

The ball is now in the Legislature’s court. It can try to clean up the mess resulting from 215 by creating clear, consistent and fair regulations and oversight, or it can simply legalize marijuana. Arguments can be made for both. Neither would eliminate the conflict between federal and state law unless marijuana was legalized nationwide.

Pot is now California’s No. 1 cash crop, estimated to bring in $15 billion annually. However lawmakers try to control it, they need to remember that unemployment in the state is 12.3 percent and tax revenues are in the tank. They should be looking for ways to regulate and tax the herb—thereby creating jobs and generating revenues—not drive its production and distribution underground.