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How (Not) to Legalize Pot

Maybe I should have wagered money with some of my friends regarding the outcome of Proposition 19, the doomed “legalize marijuana” initiative in California. I knew, or felt strongly, that it would fail by a fairly wide margin. My friends seemed to feel confident it would pass. I saw no convincing poll or prediction that it would. But then, it did pass in San Francisco — “49 square miles, surrounded by reality,” as the old saw goes — and “reality” is southern California, the central valley, and so forth, with many more people living out there than here. Prop. 19 never really had a chance.

However, proponents of legalization are busy spin¬ning even the defeat as a positive step, which is a form of denial (although the author of the Proposition did get off a funny quip about it “getting more votes than Meg Whitman” — and thank goodness for that).

My obligatory disclaimer: I don’t think people should be arrested for possessing marijuana, or for growing for personal use. The drug war is mostly a huge failure and a waste, especially with respect to cannabis. There are real medical uses for cannabis, for symptomatic relief in some serious health conditions, and some less threatening ones as well. Cannabis is largely harmless as used by most adults, albeit problematic for some percentage — say 10 per cent or so — who can develop dependency. And it can be harmful to the developing brains, psyches, and socialization of teens, especially those who smoke heavily and begin at younger ages. But arresting and jailing users, again, is a counterproductive, expensive waste.

Still, it’s no secret that even many “cannabis advo¬cates” opposed Prop. 19, for a variety of reasons, ranging from anti-tax ideology — an ironic variation on the original tea party — to fear of corporate takeover of the industry. But for the most important reason, follow the money — those who make money from pot feared a steep price decline. The RAND corporation estimated this summer that prices might drop by as much as 80 per cent following legalization — which might be the best argu¬ment for changing the law other than stopping most arrests.

Living in San Francisco’s Haight for decades, I wondered how many people there would notice any change in availability, if not price. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when the “medical marijuana” issue was heating up, it became apparent that virtually the only people who could not get pot in San Francisco were those who were too sick to get out of bed. Even in local hospitals, a sort of de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach had developed, where if a patient was judged to benefit from cannabis, one would just close the door while the smoke was about. In the hospice where I worked, we would just carry patients downstairs to the garden to smoke. The beloved and revered “Brownie Mary” baked nice edibles and distributed them to patients for free. It all seemed to work pretty well.

Then came Proposition 215 in 1996, and I was part of a group who surveyed local physicians about the issue. We found that a fair number saw their patients benefit from use of cannabis, particularly for AIDS or cancer-related nausea, “wasting” or emaciation, and some pain and discomfort. The San Francisco Medical Society, where I worked (and still do), became the only such association to endorse Prop. 215 — and we took some ridicule for that from some colleagues out in “reality” for that stance. But we were “pro-choice” on this and felt it was a matter between patients and their doctors; and most physicians I know locally still seem to believe that.

In any event, the cannabis legalizers are already vowing to try again soon. This might be a good thing, even if still likely doomed for some time. But if they do try, the devil will again be in the details. Herewith a few thoughts and suggestions on those:

The Medical issue: The aftermath of Prop. 215, almost 15 years later, is a sham and a shame. As one cannabis advocate candidly stated after the Prop. 19 defeat, virtually anybody can get a “license” to smoke supposedly medical cannabis: “You talk to the doctor. You give him $100. And you’re good for the year.” Exactly. Last time I was in Los Angeles, there were cute girls with signs on them luring people into Venice Beach storefronts for “Guaranteed Doctor Approval — $50!” A pal went to a big “medical cannabis” convention down there too, and came away feeling like he had been to a mafia sleaze fest. And so on.

Very little of this has anything to do with anything medical. Having some old friends in various sectors of the pot industry, some of them talk to me anonymously for obvious reasons, and some growers who supply the for-profit “pot clubs” told me that a common estimate is that less than 5 per cent of customers of such clubs seriously believes they really have a medical indication for cannabis — but they do love to joke about it. Which is fine, if it keeps people out of jail, and if we are comfortable with mass hypocrisy, and with real patients who need cannabis left paying street-level prices or worse.

I’m not. There is a glut of marijuana now, and wholesale prices have declined for years — but not in pot clubs. It’s absurd that those clubs sell at prices similar to those on the street. One delusional self-styled “medical pot” activist once told me she and her cohorts were “freedom fighters,” a hugely grandiose claim for those who are really in it for cash (and even among those who do not seem to be strictly money-motivated, delusion abounds — in an interview with the oft-fascinating New Settler Interview journal this year, a young woman who drinks cannabis juice and seems to think it cures disease likened herself to double-Nobelist Marie Curie — a level of hubris which defies parody).

The real concern is that legal prices will cut profits. And thus the widespread fear of legalization in Humboldt and Mendocino counties, where not only the growers but the whole economy rests on cannabis ever since logging, fishing, and tourism have declined or not quite panned out. Unfortunately, in some areas that has meant environmental devastation as the illegal operations get bigger, use diesel power, pesticides, and so forth, and sometimes they do so on public lands and with gun-toting workers enforcing the boundaries.

We’re likely lucky Prop. 19 failed, at a minimum due to federal opposition — they could have, and likely would have, made California pay more and in more ways than Prop. 19 might have benefited our state and citizens. We already have a new state law making possession of small amounts of pot a very minimal infraction, and that does not seem to have provoked the kind of federal retribution threatened over Prop. 19. It’s a good step. And Prop. 19 would have allowed each county to set its own guidelines — furthering the confusion and inconsistency that began with Proposition 215.
So, for those intent on some form of further legalization, here are a few modest suggestions towards rational and fair approaches.

Medical: Cannabis should be “rescheduled” from its longstanding “Schedule 1” category under the Controlled Substances Act, which precludes not only medical use but even much research. Authorities of all stripes have recommended this, even panels authorized by radicals like President Nixon, but we can’t seem to get it done. Still, this needs continued advocacy, as it would help a lot. The appropriate category is likely Schedule III.

Pot Clubs: These should be nonprofit, in keeping with their professed lofty intent of getting safe cannabis to sick patients. At public forums I have appeared at years ago, some advocates have said they would gladly provide pot at cost to clubs serving patients at the lowest possible price. Somehow this has not happened. Some¬body — governmental or otherwise, but someone trustworthy — should set up non-profit, strictly monitored outlets in major areas. If the RAND folks are correct, they should be able to provide cannabis at, say, 30 per cent of current prices. The vaunted free market would likely take care of the rest of the clubs. And only “organic,” non-pesticide-laden product, not produced via environmentally damaging practices should be purchased. Other producers and distributors can suffer if caught, for they are doing nobody any favors other than themselves, and as the old saying goes, “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

Taxation: If any legal channels are established, yes, tax cannabis at rates similar to tobacco, and earmark those funds for good drug education and drug treatment. It’s only fair. But, admittedly, good luck to those trying to assess all the product, legal or not.

Marketing Pot: If legalization ensues in some form, we should start with the very restrictive regulations regarding any advertising and other promotions such as are enforced on tobacco in many European nations. Which would mean, basically, that no marketing would be allowed.

The “Race Card”: Legalization advocates, and civil rights groups like the ACLU, are right that the discriminatory enforcement and sentencing of those caught with drugs, including pot, is shameful. Uniform enforcement and sentencing needs to itself be enforced.

The Profiteering Doctors: It’s only a relative few who will write a recommendation for pot to anyone who pays them, but they give the whole profession a bad name and should be looked at very closely to see if they are breaking current laws — and any revision of Prop. 215 should make the criteria much more stringent, as has been adopted in some other states.

I don’t expect any of this to make me any more popu¬lar with the professional profiteering potheads, and even some of my friends, but so be it. Bad policy and hypoc¬risy is no good from drug warriors or drug legalizers. And heck, I was a reggae journalist for decades and even a small-letter/non-tie-dyed deadhead for a time. But I can still see through smoke. And whatever happens, I am confident, alas, that those on most sides of the debate will continue to be mostly motivated by money.

In fact, I’d bet on that.

For good scientific and medical information on all these issues and more, see the California Society of Addiction Medicine — which did not take a position on Proposition 19: http://www.csam-asam.org/CannabisInfo.vp.html.

STEVE HEILIG is a public health worker in San Francisco.

This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, edited out of Boonville, in Mendocino county, California.

 

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