Just How Scary Is Prohibitionists' 'Nightmare' Scenario Really?

Jul 24, 2008

California, dispensaries, drug war, drug warriors, law enforcement, patients

We struggled a little bit with what to make of this very long, very comprehensive New Yorker feature by David Samuels on the murkier aspects of California's medical marijuana business.

The piece is well reported and provocative, but it comes nowhere near presenting a full picture of the situation.

Samuels focuses on what to many represents the worst abuses of California's medical marijuana laws, and demonstrates that the results aren't that horrible: adults purchasing a drug that's magnitudes safer than alcohol under at least a quasi-legal structure, paying taxes on the product and avoiding dangerous street dealers. Meanwhile, manufacturers and distributors operate under definable regulations, observe zoning restrictions and prohibitions on sales to minors.

Nobody dies. Nobody gets hurt. The main dangers anybody faces are from law enforcement.

However, the article only depicts a sliver of the realities of medical marijuana laws in California – let alone in the other 11 states with much tighter laws. People will disagree about just how horrible it is for healthy adults to safely, semi-legally obtain marijuana, but we can't forget about the thousands of medical marijuana patients battling painful, debilitating conditions for whom safe, legal access is truly a matter of life and death.

On that much, at least, there's a clear consensus, among regular folks and medical professionals alike, most recently demonstrated by the American College of Physicians' position paper calling for, among other things, legal protection for patients and their doctors in states with medical marijuana laws.

Also troubling is that the article vastly overstates the degree to which Californians – sick and healthy alike – enjoy legal protection for marijuana. The fact is 63,824 people were arrested for marijuana in the state in 2006 – a 12% increase since the medical marijuana law was passed in 1996.

Drug warriors and culture crusaders – not generally known for their adeptness with nuance – will surely see this piece as validation of their belief that the only way to keep marijuana out of the hands of healthy adults is to arrest the sick adults who use it.

We should welcome that argument and counter it vigilantly – it's absolute madness that our law regards the 100 million Americans who have used marijuana as criminals. But we can't allow real, suffering medical marijuana patients to become hostages in that debate.