The Cannabis Column


At an October 7 press conference federal prosecutors announced an ambitious and far-reaching crackdown on California’s medical marijuana dispensaries.


In a carefully crafted strategy the federal government is not targeting medical marijuana use or the non-profit supply of marijuana to patients. Instead the focus of federal policy has been placed on what they describe as an abuse of state law in California in order to profitably sell marijuana to the general public both inside and outside the state.


Federal prosecutors argue that people without serious medical conditions are getting certified almost automatically as medical marijuana patients, and that many businesses are exploiting this practice to set up lucrative marijuana cultivation and distribution operations. They’ve announced their intent to seek civil and criminal remedies to address the situation, including the use of civil forfeiture against property owners who rent or lease facilities to cultivators and dispensaries and criminal prosecution under federal drug trafficking statutes of individuals abusing provisions of California’s state medical marijuana laws.


Prosecutors are already sending letters to property owners informing them that their property has a marijuana dispensing operation on site, requesting eviction, and warning them that they face forfeiture of the property and a possible 40-year prison sentence for refusal to comply.


The pretext for these federal actions is abuse of state medical marijuana laws, but the remedies are being applied without regard for compliance with state regulations. In other words, federal prosecutors are using the actions of some dispensaries as an excuse to go after all dispensaries.


The medical cannabis industry, advocacy groups, and patients, needless to say, plan to fight these efforts and intensify their efforts to have federal policy regarding medical marijuana changed.


None of this should surprise anyone. It is naïve to think that federal officials will give up their support and active enforcement of marijuana prohibition because several states have adopted medical marijuana laws. Regardless of reassurances that federal officials have no intention of prosecuting private individuals for medical marijuana use and/or cultivating marijuana for such use, it is also no surprise that the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Attorneys would actively seek and implement ways to aggressively respond to the emergence of publicly operated marijuana dispensaries.


Even less surprising is the discovery that medical marijuana laws would be exploited for commercial gain and non-medical use. Let’s be honest about this. Under prohibition marijuana is an incredibly profitable and desirable commodity. The quasi-legal medical marijuana industry in California has a gross revenue of over $1 billion annually, according to the state government. 

Over 25 million Americans use marijuana on an annual basis, over 15 million use it on a monthly basis, and there are over 6 million daily users.


One of the longstanding and most compelling arguments against prohibition is that making marijuana illegal inflates its price, which stimulates production and supply because of the inflated profits that are available because of the laws.


Prohibition corrupts the market by creating artificial and attractive opportunities to make money from marijuana sales. Surely, honest demand for marijuana, even at a fair and reasonable price, provides profit-making opportunities. But prohibition corrupts the basic relationship between supply, demand, price and profit, and it corrupts the market in ways that create additional and unwarranted social costs. These costs include diversion of scarce criminal justice resources and the widespread availability of marijuana to minors.


But now another cost of prohibition is clearly on display. Prohibition is now corrupting the supply of medical marijuana to needy patients. Profiteers, who exploit medical marijuana laws to sell marijuana to the general public, and sell marijuana to consumers throughout the country without regard to medical marijuana laws, threaten the very existence of state-authorized medical marijuana programs. They provide a pretext for federal action against all medical marijuana providers, and they provide ammunition for opponents who argue that medical marijuana use is just a pretext for legalizing marijuana.


The more medical marijuana laws are abused by profiteers the harder it becomes to enact such programs in other states. Some people think it’s pretty cool that they can claim they have migraines, get approved as a patient, and then buy marijuana and use it to party with their friends. Many advocates think that creating such opportunities is a legitimate objective for the medical marijuana movement; all use is medical, they argue. Maybe it is, but this is a losing strategy in the long run.


Medical marijuana is for patients who have therapeutic reasons to use the drug. The diversion of marijuana to non-medical use threatens the availability of marijuana to patients who have a legitimate and compelling need for the drug. The federal government should not use abuse of state medical marijuana laws to shut down any and all medical access. That’s wrong. But it’s also wrong for profiteers to threaten the legitimate access of patients to marijuana by abusing and violating state medical marijuana laws.


The larger question here is whether or not state medical marijuana laws can co-exist with federal prohibition of marijuana. The obvious answer is that they can’t, and that one or the other must change. Despite these and other challenges, state medical marijuana laws are here to stay. Federal law must change. One way for this to occur is through federal rescheduling and implementation of federal regulations for state programs. Another is for marijuana to be simply legalized, removed from the Controlled Substances Act, and to just regulate the substance in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco.


Until this happens the general demand for marijuana, for both unapproved medical use and non-medical use, will continue to threaten the integrity of any and all state-run medical marijuana programs.



Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES.  A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues.  On October 8, 2002,  along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law.  This column will track that petition's progress.