Sunday, February 20, 2011

Regulating Medical Marijuana

Once, in a criminology course, I asked my students whether they thought there would be less criminalizing if we regulated prostitution. At first, they all thought that we would see many less people prosecuted for prostitution-related offenses: No more john schools, no more arrests of prostitutes. Then, we all thought about the need for health codes, zoning, contact with minors, labor and employment issues, and realized that people would still be prosecuted; they'd be prosecuted for technicalities. Max Weber would have a field day.

After the demise of Prop 19, the medical marijuana industry supposedly would continue its business as usual. However, it appears that things have changed. The rate of raids on dispensaries have increased, and, as reported by the Sac Bee, advocates call for state-wide regulation of the industry. The fact that a behavior is "legal" does not mean that it is "unregulated", and does not avoid the interaction with law enforcement in situations of real or imagined violations.

Currently, under California law, dispensaries providing medical marijuana must operate as nonprofit "collectives" of registered medical marijuana patients who reimburse dispensaries for the costs of providing medicinal pot.

But medical cannabis in California has boomed into an industry generating an estimated $1.3 billion in transactions and paying hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries, rent and overhead costs.

Authorities, looking for illicit profiteering, last year raided scores of dispensaries in San Jose and Chico and prosecuted medical marijuana providers in San Diego County. The district attorney in Los Angeles, Steve Cooley, branded a local boom in medical marijuana outlets as "storefronts illegally pushing pot."

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said he intends to introduce an "omnibus cannabis bill" to create a state oversight program to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and all aspects of delivering marijuana to legal medicinal users.

Ammiano said the Legislature needs to clarify the rules due to the wildly divergent approaches towards dispensaries. They are embraced in some California cities and raided in others.

How much of the need for such regulation would go away if we legalized marijuana for everyone? Some of it would. The need to supervise dispensaries for medical needs of patients would disappear. However, there would be other regulatory aspects. Dosage, sources, zoning--all of those would have to be carefully defined. Rather than checking patient ID cards, drivers' licenses would need to be checked to ensure no sales to minors. Personal growing areas would have to be measured to ensure a differentiation between a personal and a commercial growing operation. In other words, there is no guarantee that the eyes of law enforcement agent would immediately be diverted elsewhere, a-la The Eye of Sauron. More rules might mean more infractions.

What statewide regulation would do, however, is clarify the extent of commercialization we allow the medical marijuana industry. That is not necessarily a bad thing; it would be an opportunity to give some thought to the question why it has been important to keep this industry on a non-profit basis. I'd be curious to hear from our readers on this: How would you envision such statewide regulations?


Anonymous said...

This is a classic problem. With legalization, the government may collect far more information legally from the many users of marijuana. By moving the drug from the unregulated and mostly unenforced we get rid of disparity in enforcements, but at a cost- one need not be an expert or even agree with Foucault to see the problems that this presents.

Johnny Exchange said...

The medical marijuana industry is mostly a sham. While many people appear to benefit from the use of marijuana for medical reasons, it is being used as a conduit to the casual users (including kids) who won't or can't get access to their weed. We need to stop the lies and allow the decriminalization and possibly even legalization and use the added revenues to assist those who are serial abusers. prohibition has never worked in a mostly free society and never will. We are creating a nation of criminals for no other reason than our unwillingness to act.