Friday, April 30, 2010

Medical Marijuana Needs Legal Marijuana

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.


  1. An interesting footnote to this piece:

    Pubdate: Fri, 30 Apr 2010
    Source: Billings Gazette, The (MT)
    Copyright: 2010 The Billings Gazette
    Author: Diane Cochran

    Legal Expert: Issue Is One of Many That May End Up in Courtroom


    A Billings couple who have medical-marijuana cards say their landlord
    is breaking the law by not allowing them to smoke pot in their apartments.

    But the landlord says the marijuana smoke could harm other tenants in
    the building and the renters could consume the drug some other way.

    "They don't have the right to endanger other people in the complex,"
    said Linda Lane, a property manager with Metro Property Management.
    "If you had a small child, would you want to live next to them?"

    Hanna Bach and Aaron Cooper rent separate units in the same North
    Side apartment building. Bach and Cooper are engaged and recently
    decided to move into a larger unit together.

    Before Metro inspected their apartments as part of the moving
    process, they warned the company that inspectors might find marijuana.

    "We told them up front about the marijuana," Bach said. "We're
    law-abiding citizens. We have our licenses."

    The renters were surprised by Metro's response. First, they were told
    they could not have any pot at all, Cooper said.

    After providing the property management company with copies of their
    medical-marijuana cards and the Montana law that permits the use of
    pot for medical reasons, they were told they could have marijuana but
    could not smoke it, Cooper said.

    "The smoke permeates into the air and affects other people," said
    Lane, who does not personally oppose the use of medical marijuana.
    "They could take it in pill form."

    Landlords across the state are just beginning to feel the impact of
    the medical-marijuana law, said Ron Trippet, western vice president
    of the Montana Landlords Association.

    Because of the disparity between state and federal law -- marijuana
    is still illegal in the federal system -- the association does not
    have an official position on the issue, Trippet said.

    "It's so fuzzy," he said. "There are so many loopholes."

    Cooper and Bach say Metro shouldn't be able to tell them how to take
    a medicine that is legal under state law. Cooper uses marijuana to
    ease muscle spasms, and Bach is being treated for cancer.

    "I prefer to smoke it," Cooper said. "It's easier and faster."

    Besides, they say, they are allowed to smoke cigarettes in their apartments.

    Lane said Metro allows tenants to smoke tobacco because tobacco is
    legal under state and federal laws.

    That argument might not hold up in a Montana court, said Carl Jensen
    Jr., a Great Falls attorney who specializes in medical-marijuana issues.

    Montana courts would apply Montana law to a medical-marijuana case,
    not federal law, Jensen said.

    A landlord might convince a court that she has the right to prohibit
    smoking medical marijuana in a rental unit if other tenants have
    complained about the smoke, Jensen said.

    And if cigarette smoke is not allowed, medical marijuana smoke
    probably can be banned too, he said.

    "Landlords will start putting it into their leases," Jensen said.
    "People might want to litigate that, too."

    "There are all sorts of little issues that are going to have to be
    weighed by courts," he said.

    Cooper and Bach say they might take Metro to court. Meanwhile, they
    have begun looking for another place to live.

    A week after the medical-marijuana issue came up, Metro sent them
    letters saying no smoking of any kind would be allowed in their
    apartments beginning next month.

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