California’s messed up medical marijuana laws

Chaos can flourish in the space between ambivalence and intransigence. Such is life in California, where muddled medical marijuana laws and rigid federal laws outlawing all marijuana use have created an atmosphere stranger than fiction. When a U.S. attorney in California says she is going to go after advertisers who carry medical marijuana ads – as my own newspaper does – you know you’ve gone down the rabbit hole.

Laura E. Duffy, the federal prosecutor whose district includes Imperial and San Diego counties, said in an interview last week with California Watch and KQED: “I’m actually hearing radio and seeing TV advertising (of medical marijuana). It’s gone mainstream. Not only is it inappropriate – one has to wonder what kind of message we’re sending to our children – it’s against the law.” A U.S. attorney this surprised by the obvious is worthy of satire. But somebody had to step in and it might as well have been the feds. Medical marijuana long ago became a charade thanks in large part to a state Legislature incapable of providing direction.

But we can’t lay it all on the Legislature. A lot of us are ambivalent about marijuana, aren’t we? We’ve tried it. Maybe we sometimes still sneak a little hit or fall all over ourselves making excuses why our kids use it so much. Who cares if able-bodied people are walking into dispensaries feigning sickness as a ruse to get high? Who cares if places peddling marijuana as “medicine” boast pictures of babes with bongs, big breasts and skin-tight bikinis? The feds look around this ridiculous landscape and see scofflaws they accuse of shipping pot across state lines for huge profits. Medical marijuana providers weren’t supposed to be pot versions of Scarface. This was supposed to be medicine.

When I voted to support the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, I envisioned medical pot helping AIDS patients or glaucoma sufferers or people with all forms of cancer, chronic pain and neurological disorders. But right down the street from where I work, and all over California, anybody can get it. Yet even the feds seem conflicted. Last week, Ben Wagner, the U.S. attorney based in Sacramento, went on Capital Public Radio and said: “We are not about (taking people’s) medicine. We’re not pursuing sick people.”

OK, but according to federal law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, among the most harmful and devoid of any medicinal value. So what medicine is Mr. Wagner talking about? If you’re enforcing the letter of federal law, you go after all dispensaries, right? Wagner said his officers are not going to be going after “people who are genuinely sick and using medical marijuana for their own care.” If that’s the case, shouldn’t the feds be removing marijuana from its most restrictive category? Shouldn’t the Food and Drug Administration move forward with scientific studies to determine if marijuana should be legally used as medicine? In 2009, the American Medical Association called for this.

So has the American Society of Addiction Medicine, a professional society of doctors promoting improved quality of addiction medicine. In a white paper, ASAM wrote: “This (FDA) process provides important protections for patients, making products available only when they 1) are standardized by identity, purity, potency and quality, 2) are accompanied by adequate directions for use in the approved medical indication, and 3) have risk/benefit profiles that have been defined in well-controlled clinical trials.” This would be a legitimate process that could truly be regulated and taxed like any other drug. It would be a far cry from the current sham where anyone can go to a quack doctor to get a recommendation to get high – and where drug traffickers pose as sellers of “medicine.”

Would the FDA fully sanction marijuana as a drug with medicinal value in our lifetimes? If it ever did, my bet is that only a minority of people who use marijuana as medicine would be happy. Every pothead faker would despair at a legitimate system that would likely reduce the potency of doses or remove the sensation of getting high to focus only on pain relief. What fun would that be? Under President Barack Obama, the feds seem to be targeting only the worst actors in California’s medical marijuana trade. Well, except for the San Diego U.S. attorney who is shocked – shocked! – at medicinal pot advertising and is potentially targeting newspapers and TV stations.

Maybe California wouldn’t have such problems if it controlled medical marijuana more strictly, as Colorado does, but there are no guarantees as long as pot remains illegal federally. What if Mitt Romney becomes president a little more than a year from now? What if it becomes open season on this blue state obsessed with weed? That could be reefer madness.

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