Why the medical marijuana industry opposes full legalization

Marijuana legalization advocates won some major victories in the last election, but a new report from Politico is spotlighting the divisions within a still emergent industry. Legal marijuana vending appears to be splitting into two camps: medical and recreational. Though both sides have fought the federal law which still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 illegal drug, medical marijuana dispensary owners have a financial interest in keeping their selling rights exclusive. As Byron Tau reports in Politico, this has driven some in the medical marijuana industry to fight with authorities against further legalization.

Legal in 18 states, medical marijuana has had a big head start on recreational marijuana, which became legal in Washington State and Colorado only last year (and is yet to be fully implemented in either). Since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, the industry has ballooned. This is thanks in part to medical marijuana’s virtual monopoly on legal selling rights, which keeps prices high because of scarcity and lack of competition.
In Maine, for example, where medical marijuana was legalized in 1999, a proposed measure to legalize the possession of small amounts of pot–by sending the issue to statewide referendum–failed to pass in the legislature by a handful of votes earlier this year. One of the measure’s key opponents was the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine (MMCM).

“The main objections came from the fact that the bill was not built around Maine’s medical marijuana industry,” lobbyist for the group Paul McCarrier told Politico. “Philosophically, we’re not opposed to the decriminalization of marijuana, but the devil is in the details.”

The bill was not only going to legalize the possession of up to 2.5 ounces (or six plants) of marijuana; it was also going to grant licenses to cultivators, retailers, and laboratories. McCarrier told the Morning Sentinel when the measure was still pending that the bill threatened to put Maine’s medical marijuana industry out of business by being preferential to recreational dispensaries over caregivers who give the drug to small groups of patients.

Full legalization advocates see the MMCM’s objections as purely self-serving. ”There are people who are benefiting financially and would prefer to see nothing change that,” said Erik Altieri, northeast communications direct for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

As it stands, the U.S. marijuana market (legal and illegal) is a $30 billion dollar industry, according to a March study from the Oregon Law Review. If allowed to be farmed professionally, says the study, that $30 billion-worth of pot could be manufactured “on the order of $100 million, or something like $20 per pound, which is about one percent of the current amount paid to illicit marijuana growers in the United States.” Simply put, state revenues from legal pot could be enormous. So could profits to medical marijuana dispensary owners if they can keep other players out of the game. With the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, more dispensaries mean more competition means lower prices.

Maine isn’t the only state to experience infighting among marijuana advocates. The Cannabis Action Coalition’s executive director Steve Zarich opposed Washington State’s 2012 ballot measure. And though efforts to stop legalization were unsuccessful in Colorado, existing dispensaries were granted the privilege of turning themselves into recreational shops before others could apply for licenses.

“It is a necessary but fascinating footnote in history that some of the most active opposition is oddly coming from those who are fellow travelers of the road, shall we say–those who enjoy and use marijuana, be it for medical reasons or recreational,” director of NORML Allen St. Pierre said in April.

But both sides have a common enemy. Federal law still puts anyone who grows, sells, or possesses marijuana in danger of arrest. Though Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009 that “it will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana,” the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is still making raids.

Just last Wednesday, DEA officials raided several dispensaries in Washington State, NBC News reported, seizing business records and thousands of dollars-worth of medical marijuana.

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