People in California can walk to a corner store and buy up to three ounces of high grade marijuana, and take it home and smoke it. And it’s perfectly kinda legal. Here's how it all happened for the left coast...
There are a small handful of states that have passed laws allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes under certain restrictions. One of the first was California. In 1996 voters passed Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act that allows the use, cultivation, and transportation of marijuana for medical purposes as long as it has been recommended by a physician. But what exactly does that mean?
If a California resident has a persistent medical condition and their physician thinks marijuana might help ease their pain, that doctor would sign an official letter which gives the patient access to a medical cannabis distribution center for a period of 3, 6, or 12 months. The reason these letters expire after a certain period of time is because this is a "self medication" program, and the doctors have to check up on your progress regularly, making sure the cannabis is working and the patient isn't overdoing it.
But how is it legal? Soon after California passed Prop 215, the Federal government made it very clear that this was a state law, and federal drugs statutes would still apply to anyone possessing marijuana. So basically, if you are a patient of the medical cannabis system, local and state police can arrest you, but if you have a doctor's recommendation the charges will most likely be dropped in court. On the flip side, if for some reason anyone within the medical cannabis program is busted by someone on the federal level they have no protection. All federal drug laws apply to all California residents, superseding proposition 215. Federal agents have publicly stated they have no interest in busting patients who only possess enough for personal use, but there have been cases where Cancer patients in the medical cannabis system have been taken to federal court for their sizable cultivation efforts.
So once you have the doctor's note, now what? Well what's interesting about Prop 215 is that distribution is not defined, so the hand to hand sales and interaction is left up to local authorities. Different counties within California can have different regulations about how much one is allowed to buy or possess at one time, how much someone can grow on their own, or what exactly the distribution centers can sell. The most common is a simple storefront run by an independent investor where patients are buzzed in through security doors and allowed to browse the available strains of marijuana available, usually presented as a list on a whiteboard or on display in a glass case. Most distribution centers sell other forms of cannabis, such as hash, keif, goo, and edibles. Each distribution center is different, so for safety's sake most patients find their local favorite and stick to just that one.
The debate on the validity of this law has raging since it first passed. Advocates of the program point to the fact that very sick people are getting help from an alternative form of medicine with little to no side effects, compared to the long list of negative side effects associated with almost all prescription drugs available in this country. Opponents of the program claim that such an idea is just a smoke screen to cover up the fact that this is just a loop-hole that allows people to take one step closer to legalization. Well the truth of the matter is they're both right.
According to the D.E.A., 40% of patients in the medical cannabis program use the drug to treat chronic pain, 22% are patients with AIDS related complications, 15% use marijuana to control mood disorders, and all other categories fill the remaining 23%. That proves that very sick people are reporting relief, but truthfully many people who are just fine, and have doctors recommendations, buy marijuana regularly. Is it illegal? Not on the local and state level. Is it immoral? That's up for debate, but people in the program tend to support each other, so there seems little tension between terminally ill patients and casual users.
Is it a loop-hole for legalization? Yes and no. The medical marijuana program is not outright legalization, but some say it’s a shining example of how positive and orderly legalization could be. Users say distribution centers as they exist now, are safe, secure, friendly, and regulated. Patients can walk in the front door, tell the person behind the counter what they are looking for from the use of marijuana, and the employees will direct the patient towards which strain, product, or plant might serve them best for their needs. The pot that these places sell is not only assured to be clean, fresh, and natural, but most of it is grown locally by other patients, selling or trading it with their local distribution center.
Some believe the old adages that marijuana is an addictive, “gateway drug” that causes you to do things you wouldn't do sober, although there’s a lot of research that seems to refute that claim. But there are always some people (and their numbers are growing) who believe marijuana should be legalized and regulated outright, opening up the same or similar medical marijuana distribution centers to anyone who feels the need for a smoke in any state. Where your opinion falls is a choice we leave to you, but do some research, catch up on some reading, and make it an educated decision. The fate of programs like this will always depend on the court of popular opinion.