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But as vague voting-booth gestures of compassion have evolved into a real-world distribution system, complete with retail storefronts and an expanding client base, idealism often gives way to other forces. In San Francisco, things have gotten particularly surreal. In November 2006, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted to make crimes involving the private cultivation, possession, and sale of marijuana amongst recreational adult users the “lowest law enforcement priority” for the city’s police department, thus formalizing a policy that has essentially been in effect for some time now. At the same time, it has passed laws that make it nearly impossible to open new medical marijuana dispensaries, and many of the ones that are currently operating may soon be regulated out of existence.
And if San Francisco can’t quite resolve itself to fully embrace medical marijuana, what chance is there that Fresno, California, will? Or Fort Collins, Colorado? Today, thanks to the dispensaries, medical marijuana is not only legal in California; for many patients, it’s genuinely accessible. Soon that may no longer be the case.
Invasion of the Pot People
In general, the California public seems to favor an approach to medical marijuana that combines Communism with imminent death: If tiny groups of very ill patients are out there tilling the soil in cancer-stricken solidarity, then medical marijuana is acceptable. The dispensaries, alas, consumerize cannabis. They offer ease and reliability, and compassion isn’t always their only motivation. Some are set up as for-profit businesses and generate major revenues. The ones that adopt the tactics of, say, Wal-Mart or Pfizer—accepting credit card payments, running ads in newspapers, expanding their product ranges, and generally aiming to please their customers—are naturally the ones that attract the most suspicion.
Of all the links in the medical marijuana supply chain, the dispensaries offer law enforcement officials the most attractive target. Proposition 215 allowed doctors to recommend marijuana to their patients; it also gave patients and their caregivers the right to cultivate and possess it. But neither Proposition 215 nor a follow-up bill—SB 420, enacted in 2003—mentions dispensaries.
The latter does acknowledge that patients and primary caregivers can “collectively or cooperatively” cultivate marijuana for medical purposes. It also states that primary caregivers can receive “reasonable compensation” for “actual expenses” and “services provided.” While such language acknowledges a commercial component to the caregiver-patient relationship, neither Proposition 215 nor SB 420 suggest that a single person or entity might serve as the “primary caregiver” for hundreds or even thousands of patients, or that their relationship might consist solely of occasional, unscheduled cannabis purchases. Instead, Proposition 215 defines a primary caregiver as an “individual” who “consistently assume[s] responsibility for the housing, health, or safety” of another person.
To shore up their status as collectives or co-ops, some dispensaries require clients to pay annual membership fees. Others set themselves up as non-profit businesses. But providers that offer retail sales to members—as opposed to collectives where patients cultivate communal gardens—do not enjoy any protection under the primary caregiver provision. Instead, they operate at the whims and mercies of local law enforcement agencies and the DEA.
Dispensaries may not be explicitly mandated, but they are practical. Patients have the right to cultivate their own pot plants, but in a world where even making a salad from scratch has become a lost art, how many people are likely to choose that option? We don’t, after all, expect people to cultivate their own aspirin. Nor do we allow nature’s growing cycles to dictate patients’ treatment. “It takes three months to harvest marijuana,” says Steph Sherer, executive director of the medical cannabis advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. “Let’s say you’re diagnosed with cancer. Do we tell patients they need to wait three months before they start their chemotherapy treatments?”