Where Are the Bad Guys? Crackdown on Medical Pot Attacks the Sick and Working

The feds claim that the only victims in their crackdown on medical cannabis dispensaries are profiteering drug peddlers out to make money off of marijuana-hungry citizens -- but that's far from the truth.

The feds claim that the only victims in their crackdown on medical cannabis dispensaries are profiteering drug peddlers out to make money off of marijuana-hungry citizens. But what is more often the case is that hard-working staff, well-intentioned patients and entire communities end up on the losing end.

Imagine this:

A community struggling with economic and employment issues is trying to do right by its citizens. Regulators, business owners and community members have come together to devise a system of dispensing medical cannabis that respects the rights of patients and the community.

After  years of diligent, constant negotiations, the community is excited about the benefits of regulated medical pot and dispensaries, including improvements to health care, tax revenue and removal of the illicit market. Then, overnight, the feds decide to tear it all apart, ignoring the impact on the communities they invade.

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A woman in her 70s with osteoarthritis leans on her cane and stares up at the CLOSED sign hanging in the window of her medical marijuana dispensary. The facility she has come to rely on almost every day, for years, as a source of medicine, support and wellness is gone, overnight.

A long-time resident of the neighborhood with limited mobility, the woman has no idea where to go for her medicine. There are no other dispensaries in her town and the thought of venturing out in search of a new facility is overwhelming. The stigma attached to the use of medical marijuana renders her afraid to ask friends, doctors or family members how to access the cannabis she needs.

A man in his 30s, married with two children, has worked as a healthcare provider for two years. His patients adore him, his work fulfills him. His paycheck helps support his family and his health insurance keeps them well. His retirement fund ensures their future. He shows up to work every day, excited, optimistic. He feels a sense of purpose and knows he is providing a vital service to vulnerable members of the community.

Then, overnight, his job, insurance, retirement, purpose, are gone. He works for a medical cannabis dispensary targeted for closure by the feds making sure no good deed goes unpunished. 

Because the mass federal crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries in California and elsewhere is a fairly new phenomenon, it’s difficult to assess the long-term impact that the closures of hundreds of dispensaries will have on patients, dispensary staff and their communities. But like shutting down a hospital or other public health clinic has sweeping negative social and economic impacts (especially when it is the sole provider in the area), attempts to completely eradicate medical cannabis dispensaries from a community, especially a rural one, can have disastrous effects on patient access and community health.

In communities where the federal crackdown has completely eradicated dispensaries, the consequences for patients include longer travel times, patient disengagement and increased stress over how care will be accessed. But it’s not just the patients and the surrounding community that stand to lose. Dispensary staff feels the impact as well.

In May, the Berkeley Patients Group dispensary in Berkeley, CA was forced to close and lay off the majority of its 75-person staff. Finding a new job is no small task nowadays, and because dispensaries offer the community jobs, closing them only pushes more workers into the uncertainty and stress that so often accompany economic hard times.   

Once a legitimate, compliant, community-based dispensary is forced to close, the media often stops reporting the story. But the negative impact that these closures have on all involved will have long lasting effects on the overall health of communities. To ensure that compliant, well-regulated dispensaries do not get caught up in the feds’ haphazard attempt at regulation, the feds should freeze any further action until all pending cases can be reviewed to ensure compliance with Department of Justice policy to respect state medical marijuana laws. It would truly balance state and federal interests, as well as the needs of patients and local communities. It’s the right and humane thing to do.

Amanda Reiman, PhD, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.