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Politically, though, the malleability of the medical category is a problem. Anyone who locates a sympathetic, trusting, or simply greedy doctor can obtain the legal right to possess pot in California. That fact, plus the hundreds of outlets that sprang up in Los Angeles to supply those patients, fostered a fairly accurate public perception that during the last few years anyone willing to put in a little effort could travel a short distance and buy pot over the counter.
The medical model attaches great importance to motive and state of mind, which is why dispensary operators often say, when justifying themselves to politicians or the press, that they’re in the business “for the right reasons,” unlike some of their competitors. Combined with the federal ban on marijuana, medicalization leads to a world where customers can shop at only one store; where the cash they pay for a product is not the price but a “contribution to the collective”; where businesses are expected to avoid turning a profit; where a medicine is subject to sales tax, unlike other pharmaceuticals, and isn’t regulated like any other pharmaceutical; where you are complying with the law if what you possess is “reasonable” related to some need that may have been invented by a doctor to begin with; where it’s legal for you to have pot but you are still apt to be arrested for growing or transporting it.
The medical model also fosters a weirdly contradictory attitude toward pot use, one that seemed to animate the L.A. Weekly’s surprisingly negative coverage of the issue: Even people who don’t care about pot smoking in general get upset when they think stoners are gaming a system that is supposed to serve patients with doctor-certified needs. The L.A. Weekly angrily reported in November that 70 percent of the people its reporters saw entering dispensaries were “young men—corroborating D.A. Cooley’s claim that the real market for all this activity is everyday users, not people suffering serious disease.” (Medical activists tend to respond to that sort of talk with the riposte that all sorts of maladies for which pot provides relief aren’t diagnosable by strangers watching from yards away.)
In Los Angeles, such outrage over pot being used for the “wrong” reasons led to a bad and unsustainable ordinance. In March, Americans for Safe Access challenged the new regulations in state court. Its lawyer Joe Elford said in a press release that “The requirement to find a new location within 7 days [if the old one is zoned out of compliance] is completely unreasonable and undermines the due process of otherwise legal medical marijuana dispensaries.” The suit seeks to have the ordinance declared “unlawful and unconstitutional.”
The ordinance also faces a challenge in the form of a citizen referendum spearheaded by Dan Halbert, who needs 27,000 signatures to get it on the next available L.A. ballot in 2010. But as long as medical use is the only marijuana use officially permitted, dispensaries will remain hamstrung by stupid and unworkable restrictions. Full legalization, an idea long avoided by many medical marijuana activists, may be the only way to make sure all patients who can benefit from the drug have access to it without creating the sort of situation that gave rise to the crackdown in L.A.
While the latest ordinance may or may not succeed in shutting down hundreds of functioning storefronts, the freewheeling culture of quasi-legal pot will be harder to crush. L.A. is home to at least four ad-filled magazines serving the pot community, a branch of “Oaksterdam University” where potrepreneurs and patients learn medical marijuana science and law, an endless series of cannabis-related expositions and conventions, and websites such as Weedtracker (featuring discussions of dispensary quality and local politics) and weedmaps.com (which finds the dispensary nearest you). The Medical Cannabis Safety Council meets at Oaksterdam on occasional Saturday nights to discuss, among other things, the molds that can bedevil growers and self-regulation as a way of fending off heavy-handed government interference.
Is America ready for a world in which pot is as culturally and physically prevalent as it has become in L.A.? In a national Zogby poll conducted in April 2009, 52 percent of respondents supported treating marijuana more or less like alcohol, while other recent polls put the percentage in the 40s. Support for legalization is higher in California: A Field Poll of California voters taken the same month as the Zogby survey put support for legalization at 56 percent statewide and 60 percent in Los Angeles County. This fall we will see whether those opinions translate into voter support for a California ballot initiative that would, at long last, legalize and tax adult possession of marijuana.
Don Duncan, as dean of L.A.’s medical marijuana suppliers and activists, doesn’t want to opine about full legalization. But his take on why all sides have fought so ferociously over the city’s medical pot ordinance applies to the legalization debate as well. “The normalization of medical marijuana—certain elements in law enforcement and other civic leaders see it as a threat,” he says. “If L.A. is in fact a medical marijuana town with safe access regulated, then that ends the debate for California.…Once the state’s largest and most populated community has sensible regulations, foes of medical cannabis in law enforcement know they’ve lost the battle in California. They see it as a line in the sand, so ideologically they can’t give up L.A. By the same token, that’s why ideologically we can’t either.”
The fight to define what happened in L.A. during the “wild West” days of what amounted to legal over-the-counter pot is the same sort of battle. If the complaints that led to the regulatory crackdown are understood as arising from anti-pot prejudice, NIMBYism, and the occasional sighting of “undesirables,” rather than real threats to public order and safety, it will seem pretty silly to continue spending billions of dollars and millions of man-hours each year to stop people from exchanging money for pot. The accidental result of a city attorney who didn’t want to legitimize marijuana and a city council that didn’t want to think about it could be the realization that it’s better to allow a pot free-for-all than to continue to wage war on marijuana.