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Anyone Can Get Their Medicine: California Has Already Pretty Much Legalized Marijuana. And That's Okay. 

Tuesday, Sep 16 2014
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Anyone Can Get Their Medicine

Not long ago, a friend of mine visited the doctor. Afterward, I asked him for the diagnosis. "Good news," he said with a grin. "I'm still sick."

A clean bill of health would have been a setback. That would mean no more marijuana.

I am often asked how to legally obtain some weed in San Francisco, what ailment is required to get a medical marijuana recommendation. This fascinates people to this day, out-of-towners as well as locals. When I am honest, I say, "About $40 and 10 minutes."

Lately, ads for doctors are appearing on new billboards in the hot, tech-friendly real estate markets of the Mission and South of Market, and new doctors' offices are opening up in North Beach and on Market Street. Judging by the temporary vinyl signs that advertise their services, going legal may require even less.

Medical marijuana owes its existence to seriously sick people. The suffering of the gay men dying of HIV/AIDS in the Castro in the 1980s and 1990s, and the relief from pain they enjoyed after a medicated brownie or a few tokes, convinced voters to pass Prop. 215 in 1996.

It's no secret that just about anyone can get "a card" from a licensed California physician. This ease infuriates law enforcement. Cops say "medical" is code for "de facto legalization."

Acknowledging this guaranteed cash-for-cannabis arrangement publicly tends to annoy medical marijuana advocates and legalization supporters. However, privately or in their own minds, they will admit that "medical" is often a fig leaf for "recreational."

And that's not such a bad thing.

There are about 750,000 medical marijuana patients in the state, according to most estimates. There are far more recreational users. Some 3.7 million Californians use marijuana at least once a year, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health says. Going medical has an immediate and obvious benefit: immunity from prosecution, and the ease of buying lab-tested cannabis at a safe and regulated storefront.

The law that gets them inside is both succinct and vague. Proposition 215 says only that "seriously ill Californians" can have access to marijuana. It does not say how, and it does not say what constitutes "seriously ill." Both points have been debated and contested ever since. You are supposed to have some documentation to support whatever condition for which marijuana is recommended. If you come up short, the "pot doc" will probably find you something.

This laxity has been used as an example of what not to do by other states, where it has had negative consequences — for legitimate patients. Some new "medical marijuana" states are so tightly controlled that virtually nobody can access it, forcing people to travel cross-country to legal states or to visit the neighborhood street dealer.

Only recently has the state's law enforcement lobby come to accept any legitimacy to medical marijuana at all (their public service brethren, cancer-prone firefighters, came around a lot more quickly). Most cops observe healthy-looking young men entering the local cannabis dispensary, and tout that as proof that the whole thing is a scam.

That theory — if you look healthy you are healthy — is of course bunk. (Plenty of robust-looking people get prescriptions filled at pharmacies.) But it's true that medical marijuana law is abused, or at least pushed to the limit.

In Sacramento, patients could get a card after a doctor's examination via Skype. In San Francisco, I've been in dispensaries where people have been admitted without California IDs. That's illegal. One of the new startups in town will deliver a bag of your favorite weed to you at the bar.

But if there is a massive scam afoot, there has been no massive blowback.The California Medical Board, which regulates the state's physicians and responds to complaints of malpractice or violations of ethics — which over-recommending medical marijuana would seem to be — has staged no major crackdown for over-recommending weed (the aforementioned Dr. Skype died recently; his old clinic is as busy as ever).

Others say that there's no such thing as non-medical marijuana. "All use is medical" is what Prop. 215 co-author and original medical cannabis club operator Dennis Peron told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 1998 front-page story. He may be onto something: The science is still in its infancy, but there is mounting evidence that the body, with its endocannabinoid system, is built to react to the marijuana plant.

Worst-case scenario: If medical marijuana is a joke, it's not a very harmful one. By cops' own admissions, the alternative to the "pot doctor" is the black market: the cartels.

If the medical "scam" is as bad as police and prohibitionists claim, the fact that the sky hasn't fallen should be proof enough that California can handle outright legalization. Particularly if, as they claim, that's what we have already.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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