The Public Legitimization of Marijuana

By Greggory Moore

(published on 8/24/09)

In public and in private, in the media and off the record, in open and closed city-council sessions, marijuana—medicinal and otherwise—has increasingly become a serious topic of conversation. Serious because of the money that is involved and can be channeled as a revenue source for our ailing state and city. Serious because it alleviates the suffering of many sick and dying people who cannot find succor elsewhere. Serious because those favoring the status quo are loath to allow that the times, they are a’ changing.

I’m not even going to make a feint toward impartiality on this issue. Long before I ever so much as tried marijuana (yes, like our president, I have inhaled), its illegality struck me as the worst kind of government overreaching: invasive, uninformed, quasi-random, needless, dangerous. Increasing knowledge of the subject—marijuana’s health and pharmacological aspects, how and why it was made illegal in the first place, its medicinal and therapeutic benefits, the costs and harms of the “War on Drugs”—only deepened this conviction. Yes, I’m far from impartial—but I believe this has nothing to do with prejudice and everything to do with rational analysis. Marijuana should be legal as a matter of pragmatics. It is not physically addictive and has known medicinal and therapeutic benefits; and it cannot cause the kind of harm known to be associated with legal products such as cigarettes and alcohol.[1] By most accounts it is the U.S.’s single highest-grossing cash crop. Its illegality has had no real effect on its availability. Our police force and courts are being clogged with marijuana arrests.[2] Etc.

But even with Gov. Schwarzenegger and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano recently testing the legalization waters with an eye toward ameliorating our state’s budgetary crisis, out-and-out legalization may still be a few steps away for a society that is sometimes agonizingly slow to right its wrongs.

What is currently front and center in our little corner of the world is the issue of medicinal marijuana—specifically, medpot collectives. As Council member Robert Garcia stated at the August 4th Council meeting, “The medical-marijuana movement is here, and it’s something we have to deal with and accept.” The topic came up in the context of the Council member Tonia Reyes Uranga introducing a motion whose desired result is to require all collectives to acquire business licenses—something most primary caregivers (as collective operators are officially designated) welcome[3]—along with certain guidelines (zoning, etc.).

Unbeknownst to Uranga, Council members Garcia, Lowenthal, Gabelich, and Lerch had been for some months studying this issue and were offering a substitute motion. However, as Uranga pointed out, while it had been her intention to obtain public input before offering any recommendations—she herself had already made it a point to meet with a dozen collective operators—it seems the co-sponsors of the substitute motion were working in reverse order: providing the recommendations, then obtaining public input.

Most of these recommendations are innocuous; but troubling among them is that collectives be required to “provide [to the City] a list of [. . . ] the qualified patients that belong to the collective.” Frankly, that such an irresponsible, unethical, and very possibly illegal imposition was even being considered startled me, and I politely (well, if my calling it “absurd” doesn’t transgress the bounds of politeness) said as much during the public-comment portion of the agenda item. Mayor Bob Foster answered me specifically that the City takes this concern very seriously; City Attorney Robert Shannon stated that his office “is very, very sensitive to the rights of medical patients”; and Gabelich asked that this portion of the motion be removed (“We don’t need to have a list of the names of the patients”).

However, for procedural reasons, the motion that was voted on and passed unanimously contains the recommendation in question intact. That is not to say it is on the path to becoming policy, for, in addition to Gabelich’s aforesaid intentions, subsequent to the meeting I have it from two of the other three co-sponsors that actually they don’t want compromising patients’ privacy rights to be policy:

  • ·      From Daniel Brezenoff, Garcia’s legislative analyst: “Council member Garcia would never support forcing every collective to give the names of their patients to the City. They’re entitled to privacy.”
  • ·      From Lerch: “[Collectives] should not have to give that over to anybody absent a court order. [. . .] This medical-marijuana thing should be handled exactly the same way as every other drug we dispense on a regular basis. [. . .] The issue should be that you keep the records, and the only way you’re forced to give them over is a court order. Absence of a court order, you don’t have to give them over.”

(Lowenthal was out of the country when I attempted to contact her, but in light of the unequivocal support she voiced for medpot collectives when late in 2008 I questioned her on the general issue, I would be quite surprised if she doesn’t echo her cohorts’ sentiments.)

Presuming that such privacy concerns are moot, there’s no reason why the motion shouldn’t have passed. Marijuana is legal medicine, and medpot collectives are here in Long Beach, so having some level of regulation by the City is neither illegitimate nor unreasonable.[4] But because we are living in a still-unenlightened culture concerning marijuana, because we have yet to adopt the informed, pragmatic approach in play throughout much of Europe (and to some extent in Canada), there remains the vestigial danger of propaganda fallout from “reefer madness” and from a casualty-ridden “War on Drugs” in which the federal government allows corporate America to make billions of dollars per year selling cigarettes and alcohol (never mind the huge variety of prescription drugs) while putting marijuana in the same class (Schedule I) as PCP and meth. And so we must remain vigilant that such dangerous ignorance and bias does not poison our process here[5]—that it does not dupe us into suggesting even for a moment such ridiculous notions as medpot patients being entitled to less privacy than those reliant upon any other type of medicine. Fifty years hence, when marijuana is legal, people in Long Beach then, like people in Amsterdam today, will wonder at the fuss made for so many years over such a relatively benign substance with clear medicinal and therapeutic uses. So let us be forward-thinking. In recent years we have moved in the right direction. Let us continue our journey, even if the steps are small.

[1] Consider this from former DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young: “In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. [. . . I]t is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man” (from “In the Matter of Marijuana Rescheduling Petition,” [Docket #86-22], (September 6, 1988), p. 57).

[2] According to the FBI, in 2007 roughly 758,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession (N.B., not dealing), with nearly one-third of those arrests occurring in our western region of the country (see The FBI lists the number of Californian’s arrested for “drug-abuse violations” as 289,449 ( Using their national statistic for the percentage of such violations that were for marijuana possession (42.1%), that gives us a figure of almost 122,000 Californians arrested for marijuana possession in a single year.

[3] As Uranga noted, to this point the City has refused to provide such licenses.

[4] In offering her motion, Uranga quoted Americans for Safe Access, the nation’s leading medpot advocacy organization: “Regulations make a city safer and better than not being regulated.”

[5] Consider, for example, the chilling reality that impelled Gabelich at the Aug. 4 meeting to publicly state the following to Assistant City Manager Patrick West: “I understand that [LB]PD made a visit to one of these facilities and asked to see the business license, knowing that they can’t get a business license. And it was intimidating to the business. And I’d like to ask that we hold back on that. We certainly have enough other areas of serious crime in the City that can be focused on.”

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