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06/19/2012 / van berger

The highs and lows of medicinal cannabis in California

California is portrayed internationally as the state of sunshine, sandy beaches, surfers, Hollywood (think of the series Californication and Hank Moody!) and marijuana. Yip good old-fashioned weed (pot, ganja, hemp, grass, hash). California grows some of the biggest quantities in the USA and it’s also one of the few states where the use of medicinal marijuana is legal. Over the years the line between using cannabis for medical or recreational use has become kind of sketchy, where it’s common knowledge throughout the state that it’s pretty ‘easy’ to get a prescription (even if your ailment is being too paranoid because of a lack of weed- seriously!). As one of the characteristics that makes California so diverse, I couldn’t help but research a little bit more into this interesting topic.

The smell of weed permeates the liberal San Francisco atmosphere. On an average day in the city you’ll easily smell weed at least 4 or 5 times. Oakland, an area in the East Bay (across from San Francisco) is fondly referred to as Oaksterdam because of the many dispensaries and smokers that reside there. D and I have walked by many dispensaries which you unfortunately can’t see the inside of without an authorisation card. We’ve even seen a kid rolling a joint openly on a busy train in the middle of the day. We were the only people staring intently as if this was a big deal, but it obviously wasn’t. To get the ‘magical’ card you need to be prescribed by a recognized doctor as having one of the many conditions that medical marijuana helps. Once you have the card you may legally possess a small amount of weed or grow your own. However, it’s a bit more complicated than it sounds. State law in America and federal law are two separate entities. So while state law in California allows the use of medical marijuana, federal law still regards it as a criminal offense. There seems to be huge tension between the two conflicting systems, meaning that dispensaries are often raided and large amounts of supposed legal marijuana are confiscated by federal agents.

• While Oregon (California’s neighbouring state) was the first to decriminalize cannabis in 1973, California was the first state to introduce a medical marijuana programme in 1996 according to Proposition 215 and later the Senate Bill in 2003. The Proposition allows people with cancer, AIDS, and other chronic illnesses the right to grow or obtain marijuana for medical purposes when recommended by a doctor.

• In 2010 Arnold Schwarzenegger became Governor of California and introduced the State Senate Bill 1449 which reduced the charge for possession of cannabis from a misdemeanor to a violation (something that could be equated to a traffic violation with a fine). There would be no obligatory court appearance or chance of a criminal record. The law was passed in Jan 2011.

• Other states have introduced similar laws: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

• The complex law system not only makes it hard for card holders, but also for those people working in the industry. Policies such as the IRS Code Sec. 280E means that medical cannabis businesses can’t deduct expenses such as rent, payroll, health insurance, etc. This creates a tax burden that most dispensaries can’t meet.

Through my research I learned that marijuana doesn’t actually seem to treat illnesses like cancer, but rather helps to relieve the negative symptoms that affect those patients. According to the American Cancer Society, the use of weed can treat nausea and vomiting in patients. According to studies published between 1975 and 2005, the chemical agent in the plant (THC) has been seen to reduce pain and nausea, stop vomiting and stimulate appetites in cancer patients. The sense of sedation and calmness that patients feel after using the drug is seen as therapeutic. Marijuana could possibly contain antibacterial characteristics, control seizures and open airways (hence help asthma sufferers). (source)

The prescription drug, dronabional (an active ingredient in weed) is based on marijuana compounds and has been approved in the USA, Canada and Europe. It is given to patients who have undergone chemotherapy and needed to relieve nausea and vomiting. It has also been given to people who have undergone severe weight loss as a result of AIDS. (source)

However the research can be complex as different strains and different crops of marijuana plants have varying amounts of these active compounds that have therapeutic qualities.. Therefore studies that use the whole plant will find varying effects that are based on that strain they have used. The effects on the body are also diverse depending on how the substance is ingested (smoked or eaten). Other mental and physical side effects may occur such as ‘feelings of euphoria, short-term memory loss, difficulty in completing complex tasks, changes in the perception of time and space, sleepiness, anxiety, confusion, and inability to concentrate’. People who are prone to mental illness may have more serious mental and emotional effects from marijuana use. There is also the chance of becoming addicted to the drug which has it’s obvious negative consequences. (source)

According to this website there are only a few easy steps to get your medical marijuana card in California. They are clearly stated as:

Doesn’t seem so hard does it? Well apparently it’s not. There is such a long ‘generalised’ list of conditions that you can be prescribed the use of medical marijuana that most people can find something to justify the need. Here is a list of conditions:

Patients may choose to ingest the medicine by smoking it or consuming it in edible form. Other than avoiding the obvious harmful effects one gets from smoking, there are other benefits to eating rather than smoking weed. When medical marijuana is baked, none of the THC is lost, and more is absorbed into the food meaning that there is a more efficient and less harmful method of delivery. Here are some of the edible forms available at many of the dispensaries:

I was interested to see the statistics for people who hold medical marijuana cards in California, but found that although the number is large, exact figures are hard to come by. This is because of the understandable anxiety around being registered on a system and hence sought out by federal agents who may punish them by law. Hence the local state department of public health doesn’t keep any of the cardholders’ personal information. Instead only a digital photograph is kept, the expiration date of the card, and other basic details. While the threat does exist of being investigated by federal law agents, the general attitude is that officials aren’t likely to use their limited resources in investigating individuals simply because they hold an ID card.

While there is no public health record of users, California does have a state-run medical marijuana patient database and programme. However this registry is voluntary and few patients have signed up because of fears around prosecution. Apparently some medical marijuana advocacy groups have also contributed to confusion around the issue when doctors who specialise in writing marijuana recommendations have issued plastic ID cards that many users mistakenly assume offer the same protections as the county-issued ones until they get into trouble with the law. (source)

Interested in learning how to cultivate your own marijuana to supply dispensaries? Or perhaps how to become involved in changing the laws around the use of the drug? Well there are places in California you can study this. Oaksterdam University in Oakland is a legitimate educational institution offering courses in all sorts of related topics. You can earn a certificate in a 10 week horticulture programme in what they call a ‘responsible and friendly’ way.

Here is an outline of what they teach for those who are interested. It sounds like a pretty comprehensive way to start your career in the field! Find out more about the university here:

Here are some other random cool resources I found in my research around the topic:

This is a magazine that deals with all things weed related (events, activism, news, photos, etc). Some of these events include the HIGH TIMES Medical Cannabis Cup which takes place in San Francisco shortly. The site also sells gear from classic marijuana inspired movies like ‘Cheech and Chong’.

This is a huge music festival that incorporates well music and of course weed. For one day, thousands of ‘patients’ gather from all over California to enjoy ‘safe and responsible’ consumption out in the public without worrying about law or politics. According to an article someone wrote about the festival, people had to be escorted out of the venue that were too stoned to even stand. And quite a few paramedics had to be on call. Most of the security had a very relaxed attitude and were ‘totally cool with allowing young smokers’ their one day in a green paradise’.

• More EDIBLE PRODUCTS from ‘Auntie Do­lores’and what kind of high they lead to.

• A website called WEED MAPS that allows you to find out where your closest dispensary is located.

• An INTERESTING TABLE that shows all the states in America that condone the use of medical marijuana and the limits and laws on the amounts you are allowed. It also states whether you can use your card in another state.

After researching this topic, I can see it is way more complex and controversial than I originally thought. Medical marijuana seems like a legitimate way of helping many chronically ill patients, but at the same time it seems like so many people are taking advantage of the unregulated system (making it unfair on the ‘real’ patients).  There are various activist groups who advocate for the legalisation of the drug and believe that this would eliminate so many of the issues surrounding the abuse of the system. It seems to have worked well in countries like  Holland, but who knows whether this will translate well in the United States. One things for sure- there shouldn’t be such confusion and conflict between two legal systems (state vs federal) and sorting this out would definitely be the beginning of real progress for both the patients and workers in the industry.



Leave a Comment
  1. dorettacecena / Jun 20 2012 02:50

    Great article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our website. Keep up the good writing.


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