Controlling Medical Pot is Not Such an Out-of-control Idea

Controlling medical pot is not such an out-of-control idea
Ethan Nadelmann
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, July 26, 2005

If medical marijuana seems tough to regulate in San Francisco, blame the federal government.

The feds are in a fix. More than two-thirds of Americans support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. Every state ballot initiative, beginning with California’s Proposition 215 in 1996, has passed, often by wide margins. Medical marijuana bills are passing in state legislatures, often with support from Republican governors and lawmakers.

The feds can try to trip up these bills but know they can’t stop them. The White House has been able to keep Republican members of Congress in line so far, but many don’t feel they’re voting their conscience when they vote against medical marijuana.

The fallback federal obstructionist strategy is to maintain its indefensible monopoly on marijuana for research purposes; to refuse to allow it to be legally prescribed as a Schedule II drug; to reject efforts by state and local governments to regulate its production and distribution; and to intimidate local authorities who want to bring medical marijuana fully within the law.

Keep this in mind: the medical cannabis dispensaries, or “pot clubs,” exist only because the federal government won’t permit this particular medicine to be legally produced, regulated, prescribed by doctors and sold by pharmacies. Change federal law to allow all this and dispensaries as such disappear.

So what’s San Francisco to do until federal law is reformed?

— First, ensure that medical marijuana patients are not arrested, harassed or criminalized for using their medicine. The Schwarzenegger administration’s announcement last week that it is reinstating and expanding the medical marijuana ID-card program is good news. So is the Drug Enforcement Administration’s recent declaration that it has no intention of going after the sick and dying.

— Second, ensure reasonable access to the medicine. Pot clubs provide an important service. They should be easily accessible to patients, including those dependent on public transit, while respecting the legitimate concerns of neighbors. Many club operators want to collaborate with local authorities, but that requires a real commitment by these officials not to collaborate with federal police and prosecutors in targeting clubs that make a good-faith effort to adhere to local regulations. Trust is essential.

— Third, keep looking for ways for the city to establish local cultivation and distribution collectives, as mandated by Proposition S, approved by 62 percent of the city’s voters in 2002. This will require both creative thinking and courage from San Francisco’s leaders.

The history of Dutch cannabis policy is instructive. The “coffee shop” model in the Netherlands, where retail (but not wholesale) sale of cannabis is de facto legal, was not legislated into existence. Rather, it evolved in fits and starts following the decriminalization of cannabis by Parliament in 1976, as consumers, growers and entrepreneurs negotiated and collaborated with local police, prosecutors and other authorities to find an acceptable middle ground. “Coffee shops” now operate throughout the country, subject to local regulations. Troublesome shops are shut down, and most are well integrated into local city cultures. Cannabis is no more popular there than in the United States and other western countries, notwithstanding its de facto legalization.

I need not belabor the analogy. All good-faith participants in San Francisco’s medical marijuana dialogue must keep in mind that they are engaged in a historical process, embedded in the gray area of the law, that requires balancing the human rights of patients, neighborly concerns and the often unreasonable demands of outside political forces.

For millions of Americans, marijuana is akin to the beer, wine or martini at the end of the workday, or the prescribed drug to alleviate depression or anxiety, or the sleeping pill, or the aid to sexual function. More and more Americans are apt to describe some or all of their marijuana use as “medical” as the definition of that term evolves and broadens. Their anecdotal experiences are increasingly backed by new scientific research into marijuana’s essential ingredients, the cannabinoids. The Lancet Neurology, a subsidiary of Britain’s leading medical journal, speculated whether marijuana might soon emerge as the “aspirin of the 21st century,” providing a wide array of medical benefits at low cost to diverse populations.

More and more people can now obtain a doctor’s recommendation for marijuana as easily as they obtain prescriptions for pharmaceutical drugs, and purchase it from a club as easily as they purchase pills from a pharmacy. What once flourished underground is now surfacing, where it can better be taxed, controlled and regulated. That evolution needs to be managed and encouraged, not impeded, because it may provide the best answer — at least in the United States — to the question of how best to reduce the substantial costs and harms of marijuana prohibition without inviting significant increases in real drug abuse.

San Francisco had led the nation on medical marijuana. It may ultimately have no choice but to also lead the nation in showing how to regulate rather than prohibit this troublesome but remarkable product.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

San Francisco Chronicle publishes this op-ed about medical pot regulation and the measures San Fransciso is taking to protect its medical marijuana patients.