"Expect violent third party theft attempts, with pitched machine gun battles in Golden Gate Park," reads an opponent's argument against San Francisco's Proposition S. The citywide ballot initiative would "explore the possibility of establishing a program whereby the City would grow medical cannabis and distribute it to patients attempting to exercise their rights under Proposition 215, California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996."
For Terence Faulkner, a local Republican party official who authored the opponent's argument, this is the kind of thinking that ends with everybody firing Uzis. "The San Francisco Police," he writes, "even if backed with machineguns and explosives, would have to expend tremendous financial resources defending our proposed local marijuana farm."
Whatever you may think of Faulkner's prediction, or his choice of weaponry, his argument does point to a larger issue in the now-nationwide confrontation over medical cannabis and marijuana decriminalization: Do we really want to have the government running the weed stash?
This is more than an academic question thanks to the enormous progress made nationwide by medical cannabis initiatives. While public support for overall marijuana decriminalization remains between 25 percent and 35 percent, support for allowing cancer, AIDS and glaucoma sufferers to relieve pain with medical pot registers at 70 percent or above. That's an impressive figure, but its logical end point is a future where only deathly ill people can get pot legally, and those only with a doctor's prescription and probably some vetting by the government. In the past, pure libertarian arguments against medical cannabis initiatives like Arizona's Prop. 200 highlighted concerns that the "medicalization" of drug laws merely moved authority from the criminal justice bureaucracy to the medical/regulatory bureaucracy. (And as recent raids on medical cannabis facilities in California show, it hasn't even done that.)
Like most pure libertarian arguments, that one was a recipe for irrelevance. The medical cannabis campaign, which would be worthwhile simply on its own merits, has had the added benefit of demolishing the Office of National Drug Control Policy's factual case against marijuana. "Has the public debate over medical marijuana been useful in the broader view?" asks Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "No doubt. Because the government's case has been all Reefer Madness, and they can't continue to make that case to a person whose grandmother used medical marijuana when she had cancer, and who saw that it didn't make her violent or crazy. In fact it didn't make her act funny at all; it just relieved unbearable pain when she was sick. So we've had an open demonstration that marijuana can't be Reefer Madness on one hand and be harmless on the other."
Nevertheless, the success of the medical cannabis track and the looming possibility of regulation replacing prohibition (Nevada's Question 9, which appears headed for defeat, would require the state Legislature to set up a penalty system for using, distributing, selling or possessing marijuana "under certain circumstances," and to establish a regulatory structure for approved pot) creates an odd prospect. Would prescribing doctors and elected officials—people who lack even a street dealer's sense of honor—become America's default connections? And in the case of Proposition S, why should a government you wouldn't trust to produce penicillin or Claritin be in the business of producing cannabis?
At issue is how much truth there was in former drug czar Barry McCaffrey's famous claim that medical marijuana was just "a stalking horse for legalization." In a Time magazine cover story laced with the kind of couch-and-munchies jokes that were stale when Robert Mitchum was busted, Joel Stein takes that claim pretty much at face value. That most—though not all—organizations that have historically supported medical cannabis have also supported overall decriminalization adds some weight to this belief.
But there are more ways to open the decriminalization discussion than merely to provide a "stalking horse"—a notion that speaks more to McCaffrey's contempt for voters' intelligence than to the strategy of the legalization lobby. "We support medical marijuana," says Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs at Oakland's Drug Policy Alliance office. "We also support legalization and regulation of marijuana for adult use. We don't do one or the other as a Trojan horse"
Given the wide discrepancy in numbers between voters who support medical use and those who support legalization, it's clear that not everybody votes for medical initiatives in order to normalize the idea of recreational drug use. It's also an open secret that at least some voters do have that goal in mind. But what is most clear is that all those voters are willing to consider pot in some terms other than strictly adamantine prohibition. It's in this opening out of public opinion that the medical track has made great progress toward decriminalization.
In legal terms, however, we may still be at or near square one. If the Nevada proposal (or a similar decriminalization initiative in Arizona) goes down, decriminalization will have taken a roundtrip ride, with not much to show for it. And in a few years, when technological advances like the THC inhaler take the issue of medical marijuana off the table, the matter of decriminalization will be left to stand on its own. Which may be a healthy development; at some point, both advocates and opponents should have to argue their cases not on tactics or data points but on the principle of whether an adult has the right to indulge a victimless vice.
For now, proponents of both medical use and legalization see battles like Prop. S as being worth fighting. The impetus for Prop. S—as spelled out in the initiative's brief text—came from the Drug Enforcement Agency's highly unpopular raid on the Santa Cruz Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in September. Thus the proposition—which in any event would only prompt the city government to do a study—is essentially a public relations challenge to draconian federal drug policies. "I really think it's only through aggressive action like Prop. S that we're going to force a showdown on this issue," says NORML's Stroup.
This also may obviate concerns about government involvement in growing and distribution, including Terence Faulkner's visions of machine gun battles. "That is a preposterous claim," says Abrahamson. "The Wo/Men's Alliance has a 15-year history of cultivating and distributing medical cannabis, and not once had they been raided or robbed until the federal DEA came in to raid them on September 5. To be sure, a city supply would need security measures, but they wouldn't have to be any more stringent than security for any other city properties." As for the mechanics of growing and distribution, he says "My impression is that the city would have a wide amount of latitude to structure a system of growing and dispensing, and would have the ability to contract many things out to private entities if it so chooses. It's not a foregone conclusion that city officials will be controlling the supply."
Even Faulkner, a habitual objector who writes voluminous arguments against many ballot initiatives, seems less than passionate about the issue when asked. "I have no problem if they want to take a look at it," he says. "But San Francisco is not the ideal place for it, because the city is only 49 square miles. That's a small area to be growing a supply that would be worth millions of dollars. Security is the main concern. You're dealing with a fungible crop; it's easy to steal and sell. If you steal art from a museum, nobody can fence that stuff." Warming to the topic, Faulkner cites the possibility of birds spreading seeds all over town, notes that the Bay Area's coastal climate could promote uncontrolled growth, and considers the prospect of growing a city supply in greenhouses. One topic that does not seem to bother him, however, is the abstract principle of the government as medical pot supplier. "I'm not concerned about government being a supplier," he says. "The question of who's the producer is not terribly important."
Legalization proponents have thought about this question, however. "In the long run, it would make me nervous having the government in that role," says Stroup, "because he who turns on the spigot can turn it off." Abrahamson points to an unexpected model when considering how to move from prohibition to regulation. "It's interesting to look at tobacco regulation around the states," he says. "There, the states are trying to regulate, but not over-regulate to the point where you get a black market with all the smuggling and violence associated with that."
If using state tobacco regulations as a model for anything makes you nervous, that may indicate how far there still is to go in approving legalization. The American electorate often seems less than fully committed even to such well-established concepts as the right to free speech. To sell legalization based on the abstract freedom of an adult to ingest substances with no nutritional content or redeeming social value is an uphill battle; and it may be closer at hand than proponents would like. Hot-button issues like medical marijuana and property forfeiture have greatly weakened the drug warriors' factual and legal justifications. But whatever tactical work those issues have accomplished is now largely over. Unless proponents want to go back to arguing that hemp is really good for making pants, the battle for legalization will sooner or later have to be waged in the open, on the strength of principles of personal freedom and personal responsibility.
Happily, a battle of ideas can be waged without machine guns. But you never know what current drug czar John Walters might have up his sleeve.