California is one of 14 states that allow people to use marijuana for medical reasons, and a thriving cannabis industry has developed in the West Coast state. Federal officials say the use and sale of marijuana is illegal, but the Obama administration recently said it will not prosecute marijuana dispensaries that follow state laws.
Marijuana clinics are spreading in California, which has some people calling for a crackdown, and others demanding that marijuana be legalized.
In Oakland, California, the state's largest marijuana dispensary, called the Harborside Health Center, serves 600 patients a day. It provides marijuana for a wide range of ailments, from cancer to difficulty sleeping. "When a patient comes to us for the first time, we first, of course, verify that they're a legal medical cannabis patient. And then we ask them to sign an agreement. And in that agreement, they elect to become a member of our collective and they authorize all of the other members of the collective to grow cannabis on their behalf," said Steve DeAngelo, the center's founder and chief executive officer.
California voters authorized the medical use of marijuana in 1996, when they approved Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act. It allows patients with a doctor's recommendation to grow and possess marijuana for personal use. The law was later expanded to let patients share the drug through collectives and cooperatives.
The Harborside Health Center has 30,000 registered members and annual revenues of $20 million.
Members line up and clerks help them with their purchases of marijuana strains with names like Blue Dream and Train Wreck.
Bill Britt, a medical marijuana user in Long Beach, California, says the drug gives him relief. He had polio as a child, and says using marijuana lets him reduce his use of other medications. He "medicates" several times a day with a marijuana vaporizer. "I would probably be using pain killers, some kind of muscle relaxers, some kind of anti-spasmodics, some kind of anti-nausea [medication], some kind of kind of antidepressant. There's just so many lists of drugs," he saId.
Marijuana clinics are sprouting throughout the state. People wanting to set up their own can learn how it is done at Oaksterdam University, founded by Richard Lee. Lee is a local entrepreneur who operates a coffee shop and marijuana dispensary, which have helped to revitalize this part of downtown Oakland. Thousands of students have come to one of his three campuses to learn the marijuana trade. "Once they take their politics and legal issues, then they can go on to take courses on horticulture, cooking with cannabis, hash [hashish] making, bud tending, management, starting your own business, incorporating, things like that," he said,
Los Angeles has more than 800 cannabis clinics, more than Starbucks coffee shops, or public schools. Some clinics are licensed by the city, while others have opened under a loophole in the law and some city officials say they are illegal. The officials promise a crackdown on unlicensed clinics, but so far, most remain in business.
The California Police Chiefs Association opposes the spread of the clinics. Chief Kim Raney of the city of Covina says marijuana may help some sick people, but he says it is probably a tiny number - no more than two percent of users. "The people with cancer, MS [multiple sclerosis], a variety of medical conditions. There are certain components inside of marijuana that probably provide them some relief. We take no issue with that. The challenge is the other 98 percent, by our information, that it's just turned into a way to legitimize recreational marijuana use," he said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said marijuana has no proven medical benefits, but some California doctors, including David Bearman of Goleta, California, say marijuana helps their patients.
"Some of the people have had amazing stories. I had one fellow who was paraplegic who had excruciating pain," he said.
Doctor Bearman recommends marijuana for a variety of conditions, including chronic pain.
Marijuana advocates agree that recreational users are taking advantage of provisions in the law for medical marijuana, but they argue that the drug should be legalized. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, held a recent conference in San Francisco, attracting advocates, users and clinic operators. The group's founder, Keith Stroup, says marijuana should be approved for recreational users. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana. It should be of no interest or concern to the government. Frankly, we need to stop arresting and start respecting responsible marijuana smokers," he said.
Marijuana advocates say the drug should be taxed and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, which is already happening in the city of Oakland.
But opponents say marijuana should not be legalized without a needed national debate. They says the drug's long-term effects are uncertain, and that alcohol, a legal intoxicant, already causes more than enough problems.
Both supporters and opponents of marijuana agree that current laws governing the use of medical marijuana are confusing, and they say it is up to the courts to decide how widely available marijuana will be in the future.
By Mike O'Sullivan
November 11, 2009
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Growing Medical Marijuana Industry Sparks Debate in California