Reconciling Medical Pot Use and Legalization

More than 500 devotees of the cannabis plant attended the 38th annual NORML convention at the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco September 24-26. The crowd was not only larger than in previous years, but people seemed to be listening more intently to the speakers, less apt to gab outside the auditorium. NORML’s goals have been remote and vague for decades; now they seem attainable and in need of definition.

Local media coverage centered on the “Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010” that is likely to be on the California ballot in November 2010.  If approved by the voters, it would allow adults over 21 to cultivate, possess, and share up to an ounce. Distribution would be regulated and taxed by local governments.

The prime mover behind Tax Cannabis 2010 is Richard Lee, an organizer with a record of accomplishment —founder of the Bulldog Coffeeshop, Café Blue Sky (one of Oakland’s four permitted cannabis dispensaries), and Oaksterdam University (a trade school for the burgeoning industry). Lee also helped lead the 2004 campaign for Oakland’s Measure Z, which made the use of marijuana by adults a low-priority matter for the police.

To make the ballot, Lee’s team has to get 433,000 registered voters to sign petitions over the next five months. A professional signature-gathering outfit has been hired to coordinate the efforts of paid volunteers.

C.W. Nevius of the Chronicle belittled the initiative’s chances of winning. “I doubt voters in conservative Orange County will be thrilled to vote for the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010,” Nevius opined. He was covering sports in 1996 and might not know that Proposition 215 carried Orange County with 52% of the vote, overcoming opposition by Attorney General Dan Lungren, Governor Gray Davis, former Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush, Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, 57 of 58 district attorneys (Terence Hallinan being the lone supporter), the sheriffs’ lobby, the police chiefs’, the police officers’, and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

Some of Rich Lee’s former allies are not supporting Tax Cannabis 2010 because it would penalize smoking in the presence of children and stiffen the punishment for providing cannabis to those under 21. Dennis Peron is among the detractors.

The Harborside Model

A call for a slower approach to legalization was issued by Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Oakland’s extremely successful Harborside Health Center.  About 70% of the American people support legalization for medical use, DeAngelo noted, but fewer than 50% are for full legalization. “Why do so many Americans feel comfortable with people possessing cannabis but not obtaining it unless they are sick?” he asked. “What is the source of their reservations?”

The answer that DeAngelo said he’d gleaned from neighbors, bureaucrats, cops, and other sources, is: “their discomfort springs from the lack of any positive image of what legal cannabis distribution would look like.”  People envision “armed dealers setting up shop and slinging weed on the corners of their suburban neighborhoods.” They don’t want  their kids exposed to “glossy ads for reefer in the style of Anheuser-Busch.”

The way to win the hearts and minds of these swing voters, according to DeAngelo, is to establish professionally run dispensaries throughout California and other states where they are allowed.  He called on NORML (and has been urging the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance) to back dispensary-friendly initiatives in states that have yet to enact medical-marijuana laws.

DeAngelo recently formed a consulting firm with the directors of two other high-end dispensaries —Don Duncan of the Los Angeles Patients Group and Robert Jacob of Sebastopol’s Peace in Medicine. They advise newcomers to the industry and owners of existing dispensaries who want to upgrade their operations. It wouldn’t be surprising if this group developed a dispensary brand that is franchised nationwide.

DeAngelo, 51, has been a pro-cannabis activist since his early teens. A cynic might say that he is now advocating a political strategy to advance his business interests. DeAngelo says that he created the business to advance his political strategy. They spent $400,000 to create a dispensary that Oakland would regard as an asset, not a threat. Indeed, Harborside is a secure, clean, well lit, spacious, facility. The budtenders are knowledgable and helpful. Members of the collective can get acupuncture and other alternative health care, free. The seting is a small business park, away from young passersby. The inventory is extensive and varied.  All the cannabis that growers provide gets tested for pathogenic mold and cannabinoid content at the Steep Hill analytic lab, a visionary project that DeAngelo backed as an investor. Harborside pays taxes to the state and to the city (an obligation that DeAngelo and Rich Lee offered to incur).

One observer impressed by the Harborside model was Roger Parloff of Fortune Magazine, who writes in the current issue, “Medical marijuana… has given legalization advocates in California a first-ever opportunity to devise and showcase a business prototype. They’ve been afforded the chance to show a skeptical public that a safe, seemly, and responsible system for distributing marijuana is possible. If they succeed, they’ll convince the fence sitters and lead the way to a nationwide metamorphosis. If they fail, the backlash will be savage. If communities cannot adequately regulate the dispensaries, they’ll descend into unsightly, youth-seducing, crime-ridden playgrounds for gang-bangers, and this flirtation with legalization will conclude the way the last one did: with a swift and merciless swing of the pendulum.”

In his talk to NORML, DeAngelo quoted Parloff’’s summary of the current situation, adding, “As one of those with his head on the chopping block, I am very concerned about that pendulum.”   Then he laid out his what-is-to-be-done:

“We must demand the effective licensing and regulation of dispensaries… Today, 50% of California jurisdictions still prohibit dispensary operations, and many others unnecessarily restrict their operations. We must do the sustained political footwork needed to move them to effective licensing and regulation.

“We must embrace the not-for-profit, community-service model of cannabis distribution. When you boil down the fear of our 25% of swing voters, I would submit that it likely comes down to them not wanting us as a society to make the same mistakes with cannabis that we made with alcohol and tobacco: glamorization, excessive advertising driving inappropriate use, profit-making corporations enticing their children into lifetimes of dependency.”

DeAngelo does not support Tax Cannabis 2010. “If legalization initiatives lack effective distribution regulations,” he argued, “they will likely manifest the worst fears of the key swing voters. A legal but unregulated cannabis market would turn into a free-for-all, leading to a public-relations mess.”

Looking beyond California, DeAngelo called for legislation and voter initiatives that “contain provisions that will enable the creation of an effective distribution system. All too often our movement has traded easy victory for laws that fail to adequately protect us… We have accepted medical cannabis laws that severely restrict the ability of doctors to write recommendations, which is the first step in creating a market large enough to sustain dispensaries…. We have accepted severe restrictions on the quantity of medicine patients may cultivate, or on their right to collective gardens-which are the first steps in creating a sufficient supply of medicine-another pre-requisite of an effective marketplace… We have accepted bans or restrictions on the right of patients to trade and distribute medicine amongst themselves, with obvious implications for developing a positive image of cannabis distribution.

“These self-defeating half steps must end. If we accept these kinds of restrictions, we will never be able to place positive images of cannabis distribution in front of our fellow citizens. We will blow this historic opportunity to win them over.

“Flip The Switch”

DeAngelo told his NORML audience to fast forward five or six years to a time when, if events follow his scenario, “tens of millions of Americans have become legal cannabis consumers. Almost everybody has a friend or a relative with a recommendation, and knows that it has done them no harm, and indeed probably a whole lot of good. Fears and reservations about the distribution of cannabis have been allayed, and replaced with acceptance. Scientific research has solidly established both the safety and the medical efficacy of cannabis for a wide range of ailments, including everyday ailments.

“Across the nation, thousands of not-for-profit, community service dispensaries have created a positive model of cannabis distribution. There’s no reefer in the 7-11; kids aren’t being subject to the machinations of a created market, and communities are benefiting from tax revenue, charitable donations, and community services. In short, a safe, seemly, and reliable distribution system will already be in existence.”

At this point DeAngelo would have the reform movement push for legalization by advocating reclassification of cannabis as an over-the-counter drug. “At dispensaries all across the country,” he concluded with a flourish, “we will stop asking for medical cannabis identification, and simply ask for adult identification. We will flip the switch at the dispensary door, and all adult Americans will have what hundreds of thousands of Californians now have: free, safe, and affordable access to cannabis.”

Say what you will about Steve DeAngelo, the man does not have a hidden agenda.

FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice. Email


Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at