We have seen many big wins for medical cannabis patients in California in recent years. ASA won important court victories against the California Highway Patrol and City of Garden Grove, which prevent the wrongful confiscation of medicine. In Malibu and Orange County, ASA helped persuade elected officials to reject bans on medical cannabis facilities in favor of sensible regulations. And in Sacramento, ASA is driving the medical cannabis agenda forward by sponsoring legislation to prevent workplace discrimination against patients.
The issue of medical cannabis is making progress in California, but that is not the story you see repeated in the media. From cable news to hometown papers, media seems convinced that California is out of control. Articles like the one in Saturday’s Chicago Tribune reinforce this perception. So do comments from some of our well meaning, but ill-informed allies in other states.
California pioneered medical cannabis reform in 1996, and that frontier spirit is still very much a part of the real-life experience of patients and providers here today. There are more medical cannabis doctors, patients, caregivers, growers, and providers here than anywhere else. The last three years have seen a tremendous expansion in the number of legal patients in rural and Southern California, a phenomenon that has challenged those regions’ peculiar brand of conservatism and generated a local backlash that piggy-backs on a national trend to question the wisdom of medical cannabis laws.
There has been a lot of media attention of late about the state of medical cannabis in California. Some of the concern is justified. A certain amount of recklessness and abuse exists here, and media reports focusing on that narrow aspect of our state’s medical cannabis program will no doubt influence the development of programs in other states and policy in Washington, DC. That has certainly been the case here in California, where City Council and State Representatives have been impacted by stories about lenient doctors, crime surrounding cannabis facilities, patients that do not “look sick,” and large scale commercial grow operations. But that impact has not always been bad. In some cases, concerns like those raised in the media lately have led to better policies at the local level.
These issues are real, but media coverage focuses disproportionately on stories of abuse, or perceived abuse, at the expense of telling the real California story: Proposition 215 works. California’s medical cannabis program is not only remarkable because it was innovative. It is also noteworthy because it has succeeding beyond expectations in putting medicine into the hands of patients who need it to treat serious illnesses. It is not unreasonable to suggest that most people who need cannabis in this state can obtain it. That is a fact that must not be overlooked. No other state has a medical cannabis law that has so effectively translated good intentions into a reality in the lives of so many sick people.
Advocates and policy makers in other states would do well to learn both what to do, and what not to do, from the California frontier. Research and experience teach us that sensible regulations reduce abuse and neighborhood complaints around medical cannabis facilities. ASA’s report “Medical Cannabis Dispensing Collectives and Local Regulation” shows the uniformly positive impact of regulations in cities and counties across the state. Unfortunately, few of our elected representatives took the voters mandate to develop a program for the safe and affordable access to medicine to heart back in 1996. Much of the controversy in California might be avoided in other states if state and local leaders move quickly to license and regulate access to medicine.
When considering the California experience, you must acknowledge that Proposition 215 is a shining example of voter-driven public policy succeeding against the odds. Where abuse exists, advocates, providers, patients, and lawmakers are moving to correct it. In Los Angeles, ASA and medical cannabis advocates are working hand-in-hand with Los Angeles Police Department veteran and Republican City Council Member Dennis Zine to champion regulations in a city that has seen both the largest proliferation of medical cannabis facilities – and the greatest federal pressure ever brought to bear against a community to eliminate safe access.
Federal interference is perhaps the greatest barrier to effective implementation of California’s medical cannabis laws. We cannot reach the voters’ goal of safe and affordable access for everyone who needs it if patients and providers must hide from federal persecution. Other states will struggle with this obstacle, too, until we finally succeed in harmonizing federal law with the laws of the states that are committed to medical cannabis. Advocates in every state can unite behind this common goal, regardless of the details of their individual programs.
The frontier for medical cannabis is moving east. Other states will soon grapple with the same issues of abuse and media bias that are so pronounced in California right now. This is all part of the process. We need to focus on our successes in the states as we engage the media and elected officials, and correct the problems as quickly and quietly as possible. The clock is ticking for this Administration and the anti-medical cannabis crusaders at the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration. We are going to win this battle and secure safe access in our communities. In the meantime, let’s learn both from the success of Proposition 215 and from its shortcomings in implementation that point towards a better path.