For Profit / Non Profit A Comparison of Medical Marijuana Programs in California and Oregon by Jerry Wade
I think Oregon is definitely on the right track. Giving the ownership of medical marijuana to patients was an important step that I hope California will be able to replicate in the future.” So says Scott T. Imler, co-author of Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California.
Imler, pastor at Crescent Heights United Methodist Church, was the founder of the now-extinct Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center (LACRC), a model co-op that distributed medical marijuana to 960 meticulously screened patients. “We were in full compliance with state law. Even the Los Angeles county sheriff considered the LACRC a Heroic endeavor,” according to Imler.
It took but a few months of operation for Imler to determine that buying marijuana and reselling it to patients would not work for two reasons: patients were unable to afford the high prices and the center did not want to continue supporting the black market. Imler’s solution was to convince the West Hollywood city counsel to purchase a building for the LACRC that would allow them to grow their own medicine for distribution to patients.
“We were granted non-profit status as a co-operative. We had a board of directors and all members had a vote in the operation of the co-op. We did everything by the book.” Imler recounts.
Enter the Feds. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) demonstrated its willingness to go after legitimate organizations when it raided the LACRC on October 25, 2001, destroying its gardens and seizing its equipment and records. In doing so, they ran into immediate and strong opposition from West Hollywood city officials and Local law enforcement, who refused to cooperate in the raid. The effect of this and other federal actions has been to further drive growing and selling of medical marijuana into the netherworld of the black market, putting patients at risk of law enforcement and unaffordable medicine. Market forces drive economic activities, and in the case of California, those forces created expensive dispensaries.
Imler says he is sickened at what is going on today in California in the name of compassion. “Our medical marijuana program is going into the toilet. Dispensaries are offering no charitable services and charging patients outrageous amounts for medical marijuana. Almost none of the dispensaries in California grow their own marijuana.”
These dispensaries routinely refer “would-be patients” to an ‘in house doc-in-the-box’” who provides a recommendation to any one with the cash, according to Imler.
Imler recounts a story about one dispensary that was issuing cards to high school kids who openly admitted they had no medical need. He estimates there are probably about fifteen to twenty thousand real patients in California.
“Nothing in Prop. 215 allows for the sale of marijuana to anyone. We created Prop. 215 so that patients would not have to deal with black market profiteers. But today it is all about the money. Most of the dispensaries operating in California are little more than dope dealers with store fronts. It’s outrageous that a decade after Prop. 215 passed, people still can’t get the medical marijuana they need.” Imler says.
Prop. 215, the ten-year-old voter-approved initiative that made medical marijuana use legal with a doctor’s recommendation, does not state how a person should obtain marijuana. The law encourages “state and federal governments” to come up with a plan that gives patients safe and affordable access to the medicinal herb marijuana.
State Senate Bill 420, signed into law two years ago, tried to clean up some of Prop. 215’s unanswered questions. It specified how much marijuana, both dried and in plant form, a person could possess and required counties to create an identification-card program to recognize legitimate patients. SB-420 also allows a person to appoint a “primary caregiver” to grow marijuana for them and then, according to the law, pay that person “for actual expenses, including reasonable compensation.” Some have interpreted this to allow dispensaries.
Because of the widespread abuse of California’s medical marijuana law, San Diego, San Bernardino and Merced counties have recently filed a law suite in state court seeking to overturn California’s medical marijuana law. They contend that federal laws prohibiting all use of marijuana invalidate state laws that allow qualified patients to use medical marijuana. Many other counties have created ordinances that block the operation of dispensaries.
Imler said that he hopes that Oregon law will become the model for California when they finally amend their medical marijuana laws. He believes a statewide registration system like the one in Oregon would help legitimize California’s embattled program.
In a side-by-side comparison, it is easy to see the different paths California and Oregon have taken concerning medical marijuana. California’s “for-profit” choice to allow commerce has in effect turned its program over to black market profiteers. Oregon’s “non-profit” choice to ban sale of marijuana to anyone and have all medicine owned by legitimate card-holders, who can only give away—not sell—excess medicine to other legitimate card-holders, has turned its program over to the patients who need it most.
Until the federal government changes its position on medical marijuana and stops going after any group that legitimately tries to provide marijuana to patients, as they did with Imler, only small non-commercial grow-sites will be safe from federal meddling and the DEA. This is the lesson learned so painfully by Scott Imler and the patients in California, and it is the firm foundation for success of Oregon’s medical marijuana program.
Jerry Wade is a medical marijuana patient and advocate in Oregon. He worked with the Oregon Legislature, Oregon law enforcement and Oregon patients to help secure passage of SB 1085. He currently volunteers for the Stormy Ray Cardholders’ Foundation (SRCF) www.stormyray.org