Smoked Out

According to the state of California and Proposition 215 passed in 1996, medical marijuana is legal. According to the federal government, it is not — a problematic paradox that has prompted battles over medical marijuana dispensaries across the Golden State.
As any political science student can tell you, federal law trumps state law. Every single time. Under the Supremacy Clause, all state judges must follow federal law when a conflict arises between state and federal law.

One would then assume that in the face of a statewide crackdown, announced by federal authorities on Oct. 7, the marijuana dispensaries are more or less defenseless.

But that’s where it gets confusing.

Long before October’s sudden crackdown, the federal government attempted to bring clarity to the issue. In 2009, U.S. Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden wrote a memo stating that the Department of Justice is committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in all states. He also added the Congressional determination that marijuana is a highly dangerous drug and illegal in all states.

Yet the memo went on to say that it wouldn’t bother businesses in compliance with their own state laws. Because of this, the number of dispensaries grew in California — reportedly outnumbering Starbucks in some neighborhoods by the end of last year. There are over 1,000 dispensaries in Los Angeles alone.

Now the Obama administration is experiencing a change of heart. In San Diego, United States Attorney for the Southern District of California Laura E. Duffy sent hundreds of letters to medical marijuana dispensaries and their landlords, warning them of criminal and civil penalties unless they close down within 45 days.

But exactly which businesses are threatened remains vague. The feds could be exclusively targeting dispensaries less than 600 feet away from schools. Or ones that make a large profit. Or maybe, as one Justice Department official said, just large cultivation centers.

It is doubtful that landlords are taking these threats seriously. The Bush administration sent similar letters to landlords five years ago, and nothing ever came of it.

Past problems aside, the federal government’s new policy needs more specificity. If medical marijuana is going to exist in California — including the possibility of legalization in the future — then clear regulations, which the federal government can respect, need to be put in place.

California shouldn’t be accused of doing medical marijuana wrong without receiving the guidance on how to do it right. The District of Columbia and 15 other states have passed acts similar to Proposition 215. There must be a state that California could emulate.

The federal government’s ambiguity has, however, helped solidify California’s medical marijuana mess in the first place. Though Proposition 215 made medical marijuana legal in California 15 years ago, the idea of the dispensary wasn’t legal until Senate Bill 420 went into effect in Jan. 2004. SB420 allows patients to form medical cultivation “collectives” or “cooperatives,” the only condition being that the collectives are non-profit.

But take a look at the popular smart phone application “Weed Maps” today and it’s evident: Their legalization may have been recent, but medical marijuana dispensaries have exploded in California. There are hundreds in San Diego alone, creating a quasi-legal medical marijuana culture in the state, where getting a weed card takes an hour, 40 bucks and a weak excuse and hitting up a dispensary is as much of an errand as going to the grocery store.

By contrast, take a look at New Jersey. Under the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act passed last year, only six geographically scattered dispensaries are allowed to operate in the entire state. There’s a limit to how much patients can buy every month and to the level of THC, while patients can only receive recommendations from doctors they have real relationships with — not one that specializes in marijuana recommendations and hands them out through a web cam (a common practice here).

California is a very different state. Even with legitimate patients relying on weed for their illnesses, the medical marijuana system has become something so much more than that. It’s treated as something that isn’t exactly a medicine; Treated like your standard over-the-counter drug, the medical marijuana system would be like New Jersey’s.

In its current form, California’s medical marijuana is a lot closer to full-frontal legalization. So if that’s what the state really wants, then we should fight for it. But if we’re sticking with medicine, concessions will have to be made.