The muscular young man with greasy hair, tattered clothing and a menacing demeanor sauntered into an L.A. fast food emporium the other day, his breath reeking of liquor and his demands very frank.
“Give me some money,” he demanded of a customer waiting for a breakfast burrito.
“Not on your life, smelling the way you do,” replied his intended mark. “No way am I paying for you to buy more booze.”
“That’s not what I want,” the young man scoffed. “I need my medical marijuana."
“You expect me to buy your weed?” the fast food customer replied, incredulous at the young man’s frankness.
“Look,” the younger man said to a woman standing one cash register over. “This guy don’t smoke no pot. Can you believe that?”
There, in a nutshell, was the reason for the federal prosecutions of alleged medical marijuana profiteers announced the other day by four United States attorneys in California.
At first glance, the prosecutions of large-scale medical marijuana growers, some dispensary owners and a few of their landlords appeared to flout the pledge President Barack Obama made early in his term not to target medical marijuana users and caregivers who are following state laws, like the 1996 Proposition 215 that legalized medical marijuana use in California for people with a written doctor’s recommendation.
Doctors’ recommendations, however, have become easier and easier to obtain; they’re now sometimes available inside the very dispensaries that sell the pot, which fulfills the alleged recommendation. The ease of obtaining a recommendation is not at all comparable to the process of getting a prescription for any legal, regulated drug. That's one reason the California Medical Association has called for legalizing and regulating all pot, either in the manner of alcohol or ordinary prescription drugs.
Some cities try to limit both the amounts of pot that users can legally own and sellers can legally stock. Others try regulating dispensary locations, while many cities and counties won’t allow them at all, noting that federal law still doesn’t permit medical use of marijuana, despite several academic studies and reams of anecdotal information about its benefits in coping with things like the side effects of cancer chemotherapy and other ailments like migraine headaches.
The result has been constant confusion about what is legal or illegal where medical marijuana is concerned.
Into this morass stepped the four U.S. attorneys, the top federal prosecutors stationed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego, with jurisdictions that cover virtually the entire state.
“The California Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215) was intended to help seriously ill people,” said San Francisco prosecutor Melinda Haag. “But the law has been hijacked by profiteers motivated not by compassion but by money. We want to put to rest the notion that large marijuana businesses can shelter themselves under state law.”
Andre Birotte Jr., the Los Angeles U.S. attorney, added, “This is not what the California voters intended or authorized, and it is illegal under federal law.”
Federal laws always take precedence over conflicting state measures.
But there is no real conflict between state law and what Obama's prosecutors have done. Said the official ballot argument in favor of Proposition 215, signed by two doctors and a registered nurse: “(This) will allow seriously ill and terminally ill patients to use marijuana if, and only if, they have the approval of a licensed physician.”
There was no mention there, nor is there any indication anywhere else, that most voters who accepted this argument had any intention of allowing legal use of marijuana by people like the young man who demanded cash in that fast food place.
In fact, unlike prosecutors appointed by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys are not targeting legitimate patients or relatively small growers who provide medical marijuana.
And local officials who have tried with only limited success to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and get them to carry out the humanitarian spirit of the campaign for Proposition 215 applaud the new prosecutions.
“We’re gratified that (federal authorities) see what we see, which is what began as an opportunity to help seriously ill patients has evolved into storefront drug sales and trafficking,” Jane Usher, a special assistant Los Angeles city attorney, told a reporter.
The bottom line: Medical marijuana has indeed been hijacked, and if the new push against for-profit dispensaries and their operators can somehow clarify the status of medical marijuana while still allowing access for the genuinely ill and cutting the confusion that’s reigned here for 15 years, it will make a positive contribution to California life.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft-cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit californiafocus.net.