Marijuana Has Rocked the West Coast, And Now New England Is the Next Frontier for Reform
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The law restricts patients to two ounces a month. That may seem like a lot, says Caren Woodson, but some HIV patients can go through five grams a day to sustain an appetite and avert nausea. It also bars dispensaries from providing "edibles" such as cannabis cookies, which are safer than smoking and deliver a stronger, longer-lasting dose.
New Jersey has "set a clear trend away from anything that looks like compassionate patient access," says Allen St. Pierre. Maryland is expected to pass a medical-marijuana law next year that will also prohibit patients from growing their own. Washington, DC's medical-marijuana law, the result of a 1998 initiative that was blocked by Congress for several years, will go into effect this month. It too will contain similar restrictions, and patients will need approval from two doctors.
The Medical Marijuana Strategy
The New Jersey law is giving some people in the legalization movement second thoughts about the strategy of focusing on medical marijuana, their main priority for the past 15 years. There were both moral and pragmatic grounds for that strategy--if it is wrong to arrest people for smoking pot to get high, then it is unconscionable to arrest people who use cannabis as medicine, and winning allowances for medical marijuana was a lot more politically possible than full legalization. Also, "any time legislators get in the business of regulating medical marijuana, it shows them you can control marijuana," says Bill Piper, head of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.
However, the California model, in which alternative weeklies are full of dispensary ads touting $20 eighths and offering free joints to first-time patients, and the strip of dispensaries and related businesses in downtown Oakland calls itself "Oaksterdam," has created "unbelievable blowback," says NORML director Allen St. Pierre.
The New Jersey law essentially treats medical marijuana like methadone--a dangerous drug whose users are considered likely to divert it to get high. Legislators in states that are beginning to look at the issue prefer that approach to California's, says St. Pierre.
The backlash to the California system is "uninformed," says Caren Woodson. "For all its faults, it's like a pharmacy. Once you get a recommendation from a physician, you can get your medicine in 24 hours," she says. Though Los Angeles was "out of control," she explains, other cities, such as Oakland, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara, have reasonable, effective regulations.
In contrast, she says, the more restrictive state laws are based on politics, not science.
ASA says its main concern is with medical-marijuana patients, so it does not take a position on overall legalization; its election guide in California this year said the Proposition 19 legalization initiative did not affect patients. That is sort of like being an AIDS group that avoids the issue of gay rights.
On the other hand, one of the biggest internecine conflicts of the early AIDS era was when AIDS activists in New York and San Francisco supported the closing of gay sex clubs; many gay-rights activists denounced that as government sexual repression. Woodson sees a similar dynamic here; she says "patients have been used" by those who see medical marijuana as a stepping stone to legalization. California's law allows medical marijuana for any condition that a physician thinks it might help. That is often perceived as a vehicle for people to use any medical condition they have to get high-quality marijuana legally. States that wish to avoid that allow medical marijuana only for specific severe illnesses, such as cancer and AIDS--but that often excludes conditions such as migraine headaches or chronic pain. That could be resolved, says Woodson, if we "just reschedule marijuana. It doesn't require legalization." Federal law has marijuana in Schedule I, along with heroin, as a drug with no valid medical use. OxyContin and cocaine are in Schedule II, and codeine in Schedule III.
Clifford Thornton also calls the focus on medical marijuana a strategic mistake. "The movement will take anything that's pro-reform, but they're digging a hole," he says. Ultimately, he believes, only full legalization will eliminate the illegal market and the crime and violence that go with it.
Why has the Northeast been so different from the West? Why is New England different from New York or Maryland?
Activists and analysts almost universally point to initiatives. "Voters are ahead of the politicians," says Bill Piper. "The biggest difference is that the Western states almost all have initiatives." If New York and New Hampshire residents could vote on the issue, he adds, they'd already have medical marijuana.
Of the 10 Western states that have legalized medical marijuana, all but New Mexico and Hawaii did it by initiative instead of legislatively. In the East, only Massachusetts, Maine, and Washington, DC have initiatives, and Congress can nullify local DC laws. National drug-policy groups are considering running "tax and regulate" initiatives in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington in 2012. The odds are slimmer they will happen in Massachusetts and Maine.
On no other issue is there as wide a gap between legislators and popular opinion, activists say. The October Gallup poll found 46 percent of respondents nationally supporting legalization, but the number of members of Congress who do fell well below the number of anti-Obama "birthers" even before the 2010 elections.
Another factor, says Allen St. Pierre, is that the East Coast lacks the well-developed "cannabis culture" of California. California had its first legalization initiative in 1972, he notes, so they've been debating the issue for 40 years. The success of medical marijuana there has meant the public in the entire Western region is more educated about the issue, he adds.
The quirks of local politics also matter. Massachusetts and Maine have probably the best-organized legalization groups in the region; MASS CANN for several years drew tens of thousands of people to rallies on Boston Common. In contrast, the Middle Atlantic states have much weaker groups. New York is regionally divided, with the almost 3 million people on Long Island a ten-hour drive away from Buffalo.
Activists in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island benefit from their states being small enough for personal contact with legislators. "We've really been able to put a face on things, says Vidda Crochetta. New Hampshire is the most conservative state in New England, but its Republicans have a strong libertarian streak. With lower-house members there representing districts of barely 3,000 people, "grass-roots efforts can have a lot more effect," says Matt Simon.
St. Pierre, a Massachusetts native, says another reason decriminalization progressed there was that the massive pedophile-priest scandal weakened the power of the Catholic Church hierarchy, which was "absolutely behind-the-scenes opposed." But one reason medical marijuana failed this year, says Whitney Taylor, was that the legislature was also considering a gambling bill, and "nobody wanted to support both casino gambling and medical marijuana at the same time."
Perhaps the most important aspect of East Coast drug politics, however, is that the marijuana issue is intertwined with the racially charged questions of drug-related crime and the violent ghetto drug traffic. The Christian right is weaker here than in any other part of the country; right-wing politicians who have succeeded here, most notoriously former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have done so by exploiting the race-colored reaction to crime.
"Heroin is more an East Coast thing," says Neill Franklin, who formerly headed drug task forces and a domestic-violence unit for the Maryland State Police. Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, and Boston are all "feeling the brunt of organized drug gangs." Heroin is also "running rampant" in the deindustrialized smaller cities of southern New England, says Thornton. Still, Franklin adds, marijuana is the number-one product on the illegal market.
Yet the black and Latino people most affected by both drug arrests and drug-related crime are "overwhelmingly missing from this fight," Franklin says. "They haven't yet separated the issues of drug use and drug abuse from drug prohibition. It's very difficult when they see the effect of drug use in their communities. We tell them, 'If you end prohibition, you won't have that. You won't have to walk by the gangs on the corner fighting for market share.'"
Franklin says his experiences in law enforcement--including the murder of a close friend on the force--taught him that prohibition has failed, and that police should "stop being parents" and focus on violent crimes, such as processing the nation's backlog of more than 400,000 untested rape kits. Marijuana legalization is coming, he says, so it's "irresponsible not to start working on policy for regulations, standards, and control."
Thornton says this all means that activists in the East have to look at the full spectrum, "not just pot," and put together more comprehensive programs. For example, he says, "a lot of people depend on the underground economy--it supports many, many businesses." If you eliminate the illegal drug trade, he wonders, how are those people going to make a living?
He calls his concept "restorative justice," and envisions a "peace dividend" coming from the end of prohibition. State governments would no longer run up deficits spending massive amounts of money on drug enforcement and incarceration, and they'd also reap revenues from industrial hemp and cannabis "cottage industries."
"We've got to get that money back," he says. "I don't want to see that money lost like it was after the Cold War. We've got to have jobs for the people."