Medical Marijuana Needs Legal Marijuana
Fourteen states have changed their laws to allow residents to use marijuana medically and at least five or six other legislatures are examining the issue. The federal government has announced that it will not enforce the federal drug laws against those acting in compliance with the state statutes.
As these laws have come into effect their shortcomings have been revealed. For medical marijuana users to obtain full relief, total legalization of marijuana, at both state and federal levels, is needed.
Medical marijuana’s shortcomings stem from two sources. First, these laws are structured as exemptions from the criminal law. Second, marijuana remains outside of the normal systems of oversight and regulation.
The laws against marijuana encompass much more than mere possession. Excusing medical users from the criminal sanctions still leaves them subject to many restrictions. Three examples illustrate this issue.
Medical marijuana users are subject to dismissal from jobs even if they do not use it while working or under conditions in which it could affect their job performance. For instance, all employers with federal contracts are required to test their employees for illegal drugs, including marijuana, and either fire those who fail those tests or force them into rehabilitation programs. Likewise, no exceptions are made for probationers or parolees so that testing positive for marijuana, even with a state medical marijuana card, will result in a revocation and a trip to prison.
Most colleges and universities have federal contracts or receive federal grants that require them to remove anyone possessing marijuana from student housing. Inability to live in dormitories places some students using medical marijuana at a disadvantage compared to those who may be using amphetamines for Attention Spectrum disorders or strong opioids for pain. While the student using medical marijuana may be barred, one receiving methadone maintenance for a heroin addiction is allowed in the dorm.
Local governments in California and Colorado have used the general illegality of marijuana as an excuse for using zoning or land use ordinances to deny permits or business licenses to marijuana distributors otherwise in conformity with state law. Local police have also used that excuse to conduct excessive surveillance of dispensaries or for stopping and searching medical users.
* * *
Medical marijuana users’ major problems arise because the plant, as illegal contraband, is excluded from normal oversight and regulation. Marijuana’s illegality shields it from most of the controls that govern the marketing of legal products.
First, those purchasing marijuana must deal with professional criminals somewhere in the distribution chain. The obvious dangers are that dealing with outlaws exposes the customer to violence and to enviromental harms from unregulated production methods. The other problems are less obvious.
Price is probably the greatest problem. Generally, contraband items sell for about one hundred times what the same product would bring legally. Good quality marijuana now sells for around $400 an ounce, while the legal price for it would be a few dollars at most. Even the quasi-legalization of medical marijuana in California has lowered prices by over twenty percent.
The purchaser of contraband never knows what he is buying. Legal consumables like food and medicines are required to have labels listing all of the contents. These goods are also tested to insure that they do not contain contaminants, including pesticides, bacteria, and fungi. While some dispensaries are labeling wares with THC content and varietal names, this practice is not uniform and is not regulated or supervised.
In licit markets consumers rely on brand names as assurance of effectiveness and quality. Manufacturers devote major efforts to building and maintaining brands and trademarks. In illicit markets manufacturers are fly-by-night and consumers have nothing to rely on. Even if they are able to build a trusting relationship with their immediate supplier, neither they nor that supplier can trust the source of his goods. The old maxim of caveat emptor applies with a vengeance, but the buyer has no reliable way to exercise that wariness.
The major defect of an illegal market for medical marijuana is its divorce from science. When the AMA’s representative testified to Congress in opposition to the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, his major objection was that the law would hamper, if not totally preclude, further medical research on cannabis. The areas he suggested were those in which use of marijuana has become prominent: pain relief, control of spasms, and nausea control.
The seventy years since the passage of that act has been the golden age of pharmacology. The first two modern drugs, sulfas and amphetamines, had just appeared on the market and the first antibiotic was still a few years in the future. Medical drugs for management of psychological disorders were still fifteen years in the future. Several hundred research papers on marijuana have now been published and its basic medical value is no longer in question. One can only wonder what the situation would be if the pharmaceutical companies and medical schools had been able to attack the issue as aggressively as they did other drugs and botanicals in the 1950s.
State medical marijuana programs are a step forward, but they are only partial solutions. Legality at the federal level is the only way in which those relying on marijuana’s benefits can receive the best medical care and be assured that they will be protected in their homes, work, and lives.