Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Medical Marijuana Op- Ed
Booming medical pot sales concern officials
By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
Posted 9h 59m ago
Updated 7h 31m ago
LOS ANGELES — Almost 13 years after California became the first
state to allow the sale of marijuana for some medical conditions
storefront purveyors of the drug are nearly as easy to find as a taco
Yet police and prosecutors say the law is vague on who can sell pot and
in what circumstances. They worry that the state unwittingly created
safe havens for drug pushers who are doping the population with
"They appear to be run by drug dealers who see an opening in the market
and a way to make a fast buck," says San Diego district attorney Bonnie
Dumanis, who says every pot store her office has looked at is operating
The tangle of regulations and alleged criminality that has followed in
the aftermath of California's first in the nation medical marijuana law
is hardly restricted to the Golden State.
Thirteen states, from New England to the Pacific Northwest, have passed
laws by ballot or legislative action permitting marijuana possession for
some medical reasons even though the drug is illegal under federal law.
Some, like Rhode Island, where a medical marijuana law passed in 2006,
officials are still trying to figure out how to set up places where
people can buy the drug. In Colorado, which approved medical marijuana
sales in 2000, cities are passing moratoriums to halt the blossoming of
marijuana stores. New Mexico's lone non-profit licensed to distribute
pot is overwhelmed by demand.
In Washington state, a legal dispute rages over whether the law permits
people to just grow their own pot or also buy it from dispensaries.
Stewart Richlin, lawyer for more than 150 medical marijuana collectives
in Southern California, says states that legalize medical marijuana must
accept the commerce that follows.
"Once we acknowledge patients have a right to cannabis, they have to get
it somewhere," he says.
The medical marijuana movement was begun by advocates who say pot can
provide relief for a wide range of illnesses, from AIDS to arthritis.
Why should people suffer when pot can help, they say?
"It's highly effective in certain circumstances, " San Diego physician
Bob Blake says.
Critics say a law meant to benefit a relatively few number of patients
is being exploited by entrepreneurs who are making big money.
Los Angeles Police Lt. Paul Torrence says the department investigated a
clinic in the fashionable Venice area that was doing up to $140,000 in
sales a month. In San Diego, where authorities this month shut down 14
medical marijuana sellers, Dumanis said at least one was operating on
that scale as well, over $700,000 in six months.
City Council members Janice Hahn and Dennis Zine, in proposing Los
Angeles tax medical marijuana sales, point to Oakland, where they say
four licensed dispensaries had gross sales of $19.6 million in 2008.
"It's a very, very profitable business," says Torrence, of LAPD's gang
and narcotics division. "That's clearly outside the boundaries of the
voters' intention in passing Prop 215."
California voters approved that proposition in 1996. The law leaves
regulation up to local governments, and there's a vast difference in how
receptive each is to medicinal pot.
State Attorney General Jerry Brown issued guidelines that said
non-profit cooperatives and collectives are legal if certain
requirements are met.
In Los Angeles, the growth of storefronts selling marijuana has been
Torrence says there are more than 400 registered with the city. But
there may be many more — as many as 800 applications have been filed
and many operate without approval, says Jane Usher, special assistant
"The practical reality has proven to be these facilities have by and
large opened without any kind of registration, application, nothing,"
Colorado says it's beginning to see something similar. Its law created a
state registry to track patients authorized to use medical marijuana,
but made no provision for sellers.
"They have kind of sprung up rather recently in numbers across the
state," says Mike Saccone, spokesman for Attorney General John Suthers.
"Law enforcement is concerned."
To qualify for medical marijuana in California, patients must have a
doctor's "recommendation. " Prescriptions for pot are prohibited by
federal law. Advertisements abound from doctors who recommend medical
marijuana to qualifying patients.
Blake, 60, who went into a practice devoted to medical marijuana after
28 years as an emergency room physician, says he doesn't use it himself
but sees pot as a safer alternative to morphine, OxyContin and other
"I never saw a person die of a marijuana overdose. Narcotics overdose?
You bet," he said.
Police are skeptical about the medical need in most cases, Torrence
"I have yet to see a person enter the clinic that appears to have any
kind of medical problem," he said. "Most of the people I see going in
are young people that appear very healthy."
13 STATES IN 13 YEARS
Thirteen states have laws that legalize medical marijuana:
State Year passed How passed
California 1996 Ballot measure
Alaska 1998 Ballot measure
Oregon 1998 Ballot measure
Washington 1998 Ballot measure
Maine 1999 Ballot measure
Colorado 2000 Ballot measure
Hawaii 2000 Legislature
Nevada 2000 Ballot measure
Montana 2004 Ballot measure
Vermont 2004 Legislature
Rhode Island 2006 Legislature
New Mexico 2007 Legislature
Michigan 2008 Ballot measure
http://www.usatoday .com/news/ nation/2009- 09-29-medical- marijuana_ N.htm?c\