June 15, 2005

"The only description I can come up with is that it looks like a Cheech and Chong movie."

We heard a lot about California's medical marijuana law last week when the U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress's power to regulate the possession of marijuana extended all the way to homegrowing medicinal users. But users and distributers in the state did not instantly readjust their behavior. Nothing forces federal prosecutors file charges, and it is unclear how the ruling will affect state prosecutors. To what extent are federal and state authorities now at odds with each other? Maybe not as much as you might think.

Here's a front-page NYT article suggesting that, quite aside from the conflict with federal law, California authorities have been having difficulty with their own Compassionate Use program, particularly the dispensaries or "pot clubs" that distribute marijuana, presumably to those who have a doctor's authorization:
Capt. Rick Bruce of the San Francisco police said more marijuana was on the streets than at any other time in his 30 years with the department. Captain Bruce said that while there were many sick people who legitimately turned to the drug for treatment, countless dealers had used the dispensaries as a cover for illegal sales.

"It's a huge scam," said Captain Bruce, who heads the city's Bayview station, which covers some of the highest-crime neighborhoods. "We see guys coming out of these places, and the only description I can come up with is that it looks like a Cheech and Chong movie. They are what you would call your traditional potheads; whether they have a medical condition beyond that is subject to debate."...

Getting inside the dispensaries, many patients say, is not difficult. Under the state law, would-be marijuana users seeking relief from a range of ailments, from chronic pain or nausea to cancer or AIDS-related symptoms, must receive a doctor's recommendation, which is roughly the equivalent of a prescription for federally approved medicines. If their usual doctors are reluctant to make a referral, patients can turn to "compassionate physicians" who advertise their services in newspapers and on the Web.

One of those physicians, Dr. R. Stephen Ellis, whose practice is explained on www.potdoc.com, promises to refund examination fees if an appointment does not result in a recommendation. MediCann, a chain of 10 clinics in the state run by a Santa Cruz doctor, Jean Talleyrand, processes about 700 patients a week, with about three-quarters of them getting a recommendation, said a spokesman, Nicholas Jarrett....

When some drug dealers are arrested, even with large quantities of marijuana, Captain Bruce said, many of them produce a medical marijuana card and insist they have done nothing wrong.

"It might as well be the summer of love out here," Captain Bruce said.
If we think the value of federalism is that the the states will serve as "laboratories of democracy," conducting policy experiments, we need to take a scientific attitude when we assess the results of the experiment. That means looking at all the evidence the experiment produces. We can't limit our view to the very sympathetic, suffering patients who brought the lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court. They were genuinely ill, and they grew their marijuana at home. The dispensaries and the doctors are a different part of what has happened in California after the medicial marijuana law passed. As you form your ideas about what is good policy, you need to think, unsentimentally, about the whole picture.


Wave Maker said...

Was this information part of the record in the lower courts? If so, I can see how these facts would affect the justices.

chuck_b said...

"As you form your ideas about what is good policy, you need to think, unsentimentally, about the whole picture."

Indeed. I live in San Francisco, as I have on and off for many, many years. I can only think of one or two pot dispensaries--neither of which is in my own quickly gentrifying neighborhood--but I don't doubt there are a very large number of them--but mostly not in tonier parts of town, I'm sure.

As far as I can tell, life goes on. And from this NYT article (which more or less coincides with the news I see reported here in the local print and television media) the problems seem to come mostly from inadequate local gov't regulation--which I believe arises, in part, from fear of and/or uncertainty about the role of the federal government.

Federal agents have raided local clubs, w/ all the local news channels outside to watch. In spite of the usual cheerful defiance of federal (Republican) rule, I imagine federal raids and federal scolding do make it hard for local politicians to formulate their own ideas about what to do.

The whole thing is a relatively new issue for Americans to deal with... Naturally, a period of adjustment is in order. My preference would be for local gov't to have more latitutde and discretion in its work, with less threat of federal interference.

Dispensaries in Oakland's "Little Amsterdam" (a downtown street so named for its proliferation of pot clubs) saw some armed robberies (for cash, as I recall, not pot). So the solution would seem to be implementing robbery prevention strategies.

The NYT article cites the example of a dispensary opening up in or near a homeless slash recovery center--clearly a problem for which the City should have legal recourse.

Another issue not mentioned in the article: NIMBY-ism. Some people don't want pot clubs in their 'hood. That's reasonable, but there is no end to the things San Franciscans don't want in their neighborhoods. What gets allowed in, and what doesn't, depends much on the political power of the particular neighborhood. Good arguments could be made for handling pot clubs differently.

(And, fwiw, I can imagine a pot club moving in to my neighborhood would arouse less ire than, say, a new Home Deopt which has been the subject of aggressive activism.)

There are other questions too. The age of people using "medical" pot comes to mind. It wouldn't be controversial (even in SF) to say teenage access to pot should be aggressively curtailed/controlled.

And tax money. Why shouldn't the City be able to get some?

I could go on, but it's time to conclude this "coffee break".

Bruce Hayden said...

I would suspect that the problem at the Supreme Court was precisely the opposite - these facts were not in evidence. The question arises whether appeal judges should be able to include their own life experiences into their decisions, or should restrict themselves to the records before them.

The problem with the one is the legal adage, Bad Facts make Bad Law. Fifty years from now, we won't really consider the unpublished facts in the recently decided SC case. What we will remember, and will be taught, is the tension between Scalia's and Thomas' federalism theories.

So, from that point of view, judges shold stick to the facts before them.

But, of course, they are human, no matter what they want you to believe (esp. at legal functions).

Abraham said...

Unsentimentally, I don't really see how this is any more harmful than bar patrons stumbling outside at closing time, bleary-eyed, obnoxious, and throwing up.

EddieP said...

Abraham nails it! If you made a list of the top 50 must resolve situations in this country, would medical marijuana even appear on it?

I'll start the 50 least important issues list:
Michael Jackson, Terry Schiavo, Runaway Brides, Bush Lied, Clinton raped his wife, Halliburton, TANG, Global Warming, Gitmo, Abu Grahib, Abu QaQaa, Breast Feeding, Brad and Jennifer, Brad and Angelina, and on and on.

So will the Feds ignore the situation? Will they arrest and/or harass terminally ill people? Why not, they're breaking the law!

chuck_b said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
chuck_b said...

Abraham--That's fair, but I think a consideration of scale plays a role too.

The character of a neighborhood that easily accommodates one or two bars could be drastically changed by the addition of ten more.

And I think that's the key issue about unregulated pot clubs too. It's not just one two in the neighborhood, it's the sudden arrival of dozens. At leat that's how I understand it.

But as Eddiep points out, it still doesn't seem like this should be a federal issue.

Simon Jester said...

Is no one going to comment on legalization overall? Considering what the "War on Drugs" is costing it has a success rate that compares unfavorably with Iraq.

EddieP said...

Simon, I hate the war on drugs. IMHO it has done more to corrupt America than anything I can think of. I'm speaking from personal experience about the corruption thing.

There is one possible redeeming argument for it. Al Gore admits to smoking pot in Vietnam. Look what's happened to his brain!