An article in Sunday’s New York Times details the struggle in Los Angeles to regulate the cannabis dispensaries which have proliferated around the city over the past six or eight years, raising the old medical marijuana questions about how to control, whether to tax and how useful it is in the first place. Reporter Solomon Moore cites Oakland, California’s Harborside Health Center as the place to which many are looking for a model.
‘Our No. 1 task is to show that we are worthy of the public’s trust in asking to distribute medical cannabis in a safe and secure manner,’ said Steve DeAngelo, the pig-tailed proprietor of Harborside, which has been in business for three years.
Harborside is one of four licensed dispensaries in Oakland run as nonprofit organizations. It is the largest, with 74 employees and revenues of about $20 million. Last summer, the Oakland City Council passed an ordinance to collect taxes from the sale of marijuana, a measure that Mr. DeAngelo supported.
Mr. DeAngelo designed Harborside to exude legitimacy, security and comfort. Visitors to the low-slung building are greeted by security guards who check the required physicians’ recommendations. Inside, the dispensary looks like a bank, except that the floor is covered with hemp carpeting and the eight tellers stand behind identical displays of marijuana and hashish.
There is a laboratory where technicians determine the potency of the marijuana and label it accordingly. (Harborside says it rejects 80 percent of the marijuana that arrives at its door for insufficient quality.) There is even a bank vault where the day’s cash is stored along with reserves of premium cannabis. An armored truck picks up deposits every evening.
City officials routinely audit the dispensary’s books. Surplus cash is rolled back into the center to pay for free counseling sessions and yoga for patients. “Oakland issued licenses and regulations, and Los Angeles did nothing and they are still unregulated,” Mr. DeAngelo said. “Cannabis is being distributed by inappropriate people.”
I don’t know where Los Angeles will go with all this, or how well Harborside will continue to operate for how long. What I do know is that marijuana serves a real medical purpose. Probably serves a real recreational purpose too, and there’s the rub; but since I missed the pot party — thank heavens, as I am addicted to anything that comes down the pike, and please don’t try to tell me one cannot get addicted to marijuana — I can’t address that issue. Everything I know is anecdotal, but convincing.
Decades ago my beloved sister was suffering acute gastro intestinal distress, much later identified as a symptom of celiac disease but this was before anybody really knew anything about celiac sprue. One day she said, “You know, everybody at X High School either smokes pot or knows where to get it. Could you get me some so I could at least try it?” Well, even though the statute of limitations would probably protect the surviving players I think I won’t go into details of this adventure. But what I learned was: buying and selling illegal pot is a little scary for the novice, but the deal was easy and nobody went to jail. It did indeed give relief to my suffering sister. Though both of us wished she could have that relief on an ongoing basis, we reached a mutual conclusion that the risk was not worth the reward, and that was the end of that.
Fast forward to the 1990s, when everyone I knew with AIDS knew how marijuana could relieve some symptoms of the disease, and most had a supply. I was in San Francisco by then, and celiac disease pales in comparison to AIDS. I don’t even recall how legal it was for this relief; too many other issues were more important. But again, I saw its usefulness.
The Times article quotes Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Jerry Brown, as saying his office is getting calls from law officials and advocates around the state asking for clarity on medical marijuana laws. I know that’s tough, and that the answer will in many cases be left to the courts. I also know that legalizing marijuana, whether here in woo-hoo California or elsewhere, raises a multiplicity of sticky issues.
But still. It’s a useful drug. If Big Pharma were producing and marketing it, it would probably come in a little pill that costs a fortune and would be covered by expensive insurance policies. Every governmental body in the U.S. needs money. Taxes raise money. Are there not some dots that could be connected here?
By Fran Johns
October 18, 2009