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Proposition 215 encouraged “the federal and state governments to implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all,” but no such plan has materialized. Instead, California has outsourced the risk of providing safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to the private sector.
Some of those private dispensers are making a lot of money, and that, in turn, raises suspicions. In 2005 the manager of New Remedies, a California-wide chain of dispensaries, told On the Record that his operation’s weekly payroll was $170,000, with after-tax profit margins hovering between 5 percent and 15 percent. A DEA investigation later showed the chain had made 60 cash deposits totaling approximately $2.3 million to a single bank during one eight-month period last year.
The suspicions about the retail nature of dispensaries are amplified by the debate over the proper scope of medical cannabis. “We have no problem whatsoever with people that need it for glaucoma, people that need it for AIDS, the ability to eat,” says Capt. Tim Hettrich, chief of San Francisco’s narcotics unit. “The problem is with the law. It’s too broad. I was talking with a woman one night, and she says, ‘I got medical marijuana for my menstrual cramps.’ A doctor prescribed that for her. So I said, ‘Well, what do you use it, three or four days a month?’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, I use it every day.’ That’s the problem.”
The language of Proposition 215 is indeed expansive. It states that medical marijuana is appropriate for “the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” County health departments keep no records on what reasons patients give for seeking medical marijuana ID cards, but in December 2005, the DEA confiscated patient records during a raid in San Diego. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, the records showed that only “2 percent of patients reported having AIDS, glaucoma, or cancer.” The rest were seeking treatment for “muscle spasms, insomnia, back and neck pain, headaches and other less-serious ailments.”
Medi-Cann, a statewide network of nine medical clinics that offer evaluations for individuals hoping to obtain a doctor’s referral for medical marijuana, sees around 500 patients a week. “Overwhelmingly, they’re seeking relief from pain,” says Medi-Cann’s founder, Dr. Jean Talleyrand. “Pain for many different reasons. People who’ve had multiple fractures. People with arthritis.”
Dr. Talleyrand says his desire to practice medicine in a more holistic manner inspired him to create Medi-Cann. “I did my training in San Francisco, so I kind of have a little bit more progressive, alternative look at health,” he explains. “As I developed what I wanted to do, a lot of it was alternative healing—acupuncture, botanical medicine. Marijuana is botanical medicine, and when you start thinking of it that way, you redefine what it’s good for. A lot of plants and herbs are good for a lot of different things. And because they tend to be more benign than pharmaceuticals, they tend to have less side effects too.”
“I take medical marijuana for severe chronic pain from a neck injury,” says Sherer. Before founding Americans for Safe Access, the 30-year-old Sherer worked as an activist and organizer on campaigns involving globalization, social justice, and various other progressive causes. Then she suffered a neck injury that left her in chronic pain and her career path shifted. “About a year and a half into my injury, my kidneys started failing because of side effects from my pain medications and Ibuprofen. It’s not an uncommon thing—about 1 in 200 people’s kidneys shut down when they have to take 3200 milligrams of Ibuprofen a day. I was not a marijuana user—I thought that medical marijuana was for people who were dying. Luckily I lived in California and had a doctor who said that maybe I should try it.”