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No doubt there are people who exploit Proposition 215’s expansive language, seeking out medical marijuana simply for relief from a boring job or a dull Saturday night. “So what?” says Wayne Justmann, a 61-year-old medical marijuana advocate who volunteers at the Church Street Compassion Center. Justmann has been HIV positive for 18 years and has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; he was the first person in San Francisco to obtain a medical marijuana ID card. In his case, he says, cannabis has proven more effective than drugs like Klonopin or Percocet, and he doesn’t believe other people’s behavior should inhibit his access to it. “People will abuse any type of system,” he says. “It’s human nature. Do we close down the Internet because some people abuse it?”
Maybe we would if the Web made it harder to find a parking space. In March 2005, thanks to a brief article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the rapid proliferation of dispensaries changed instantly from a barely noticed phenomenon to a citywide crisis. Until that point, the city had done nothing to regulate dispensaries. Many had opened without even bothering to apply for a standard business license.
Their impact was so glaring that city officials appeared to be blinded by them: They had no idea so many existed. The Chronicle broke the news that there were 37 of them. One was being run by an ex-con and former crack addict. Another attracted “a stream of young and streetwise-looking customers showing up to buy or sample the goods.” Follow-up articles included complaints about parking and traffic, excessive noise, patients who didn’t look visibly ill, and customers selling and sharing purchases outside the dispensaries.
A day after the first article appeared, Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s 39-year-old Democratic mayor, called for a moratorium on new clubs and substantial regulation for the existing ones. “I believe in the core of my cores that medicinal marijuana is appropriate and right,” the moderate Democrat with strong ties to the local business community told the Chronicle, voicing a refrain that has played like a chorus during the last two years. “That being said, I also think there needs to be some common sense and grounding as it relates to the proliferation of these clubs in San Francisco.”
For more than a decade, the story of medical marijuana in San Francisco had been a positive one, a classic tale of only-in-San-Francisco rebellion, with empowered sick people taking on an indifferent, unenlightened federal government. But then the dispensaries became the public face of medical marijuana. And the dispensaries—an “underworld that sells pot with few rules,” according to one Chronicle editorial—were trouble. Very quickly, a litany of their sins became commonplace. They offered gang members an easy source of marijuana to resell on the streets. They made it harder for police to make ordinary pot-related arrests. They were irresistible targets for robbery because of all the cash they kept on hand. They were a gateway drug to loitering, double parking, and playing loud music. They smelled. And of course, they were “a real magnet to kids.”
What are some of the actual numbers behind such generalizations? According to the San Francisco Police Department, four dispensaries were robbed in 2005; during the first half of 2006, two such robberies were committed. The police department doesn’t release statistics about how many marijuana-related arrests it makes each year, so it’s impossible to determine how much impact ID cards have had on its ability to make such arrests. But in California as a whole, the number of state prison inmates serving time for marijuana-related charges rose 11 percent in 2005. The state’s annual Campaign Against Marijuana Planting achieved record results in 2005: More than 1.1 million plants found in national forests, in parks, and on private land were confiscated and destroyed.
The 2003–2004 California Student Survey, a biennial “snapshot of students’ risky and health-related behaviors,” shows that among ninth-graders, marijuana use has dropped almost 50 percent since Proposition 215 was passed in 1996. Monitoring The Future, an annual survey funded by the federal government, asks eighth-graders, 10th-graders, and 12th-graders how available marijuana is. “They’ve been doing this survey since 1975,” says Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. “When you ask high school seniors if marijuana is easy to get, about 85 percent say yes. And that number has not changed—it’s varied between 82.5 percent to 91 percent.” (The 91 percent mark was recorded in 1997. Ever since then, the number has been dropping.)