Relief in California over federal crackdown on medical marijuana

Community leaders from the San Diego area applaud last week's announcement of a widespread federal crackdown on sham medical marijuana dispensaries: 'We’ve heard youths often ask why marijuana is such a big deal when, after all, it is 'medicine'. '

As leaders of community and parent groups in California, we were greatly relieved last week when four US attorneys announced a widespread crackdown on bogus “medical” marijuana dispensaries in our state. This enforcement could not come at a more urgent time.

California was the first state to approve a medical marijuana law 15 years ago, and 15 states followed. Now it leads the nation in abuse of that law. In the intervening years, “pot shops” – poorly disguised as “clinics” – have proliferated. “California’s marijuana industry supplies the nation,” US Attorney Benjamin Wagner said last week.

New studies show how dispensaries have sparked marijuana use in communities. In California and elsewhere, their presence has increased drug dealing and use among vulnerable populations, such as underage youth and people with mental health and addiction problems. And young people are getting the wrong message that marijuana is harmless.

Researchers at Columbia University have found that marijuana use is almost twice as high in states with medical marijuana laws compared to states without them. This, according to an article published in an upcoming issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Another recent finding underscores that disturbing message. Among youths aged 12 to 17, marijuana usage rates are higher in states with medicinal marijuana laws, says a study in last month’s Annals of Epidemiology. This is concerning, because marijuana, according to the National Institutes of Health, is linked with dependence, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and cognitive impairment, among other negative effects. In fact, more kids now go to treatment because of a primary marijuana condition than for any other drug, including alcohol.

But during the time that medical marijuana has gained public acceptance, perceptions about the drug’s dangers have receded among young people.

The 2010 Monitoring the Future Survey revealed the perceived harm for smoking marijuana occasionally or regularly has been decreasing among students in the 8th grade since 2007. These teens feel less social disapproval for using the drug than their peers did four years ago.

Softening attitudes generally precede an increase in drug use rates by about two years. As community members, this does not surprise us, as we’ve heard youths often ask why marijuana is such a big deal when, after all, it is “medicine.”

It is important to remember that medical marijuana laws were advertised to California’s electorate as a way to serve the very sick. However, it is increasingly obvious that this isn’t playing out in practice. The average user of medical marijuana in California is a 32-year-old white male, according to a study analyzing over 3,000 medical marijuana users in the state. An overwhelming majority (88 percent) of those queried about the details of their marijuana initiation said they had tried it before the age of 19. Many users had taken other drugs in their lifetime – cocaine and methamphetamine.

These don’t sound like very ill patients. Another study from this year indicates they’re not. Of more than 1,600 medical marijuana applicants in California, very few of those who sought a recommendation had cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, or multiple sclerosis. Medical marijuana, as described recently by former Obama drug policy senior advisor Kevin Sabet, has turned into a “sad joke.”

Clearly in California we are having buyer’s remorse. Hundreds of towns have now banned dispensaries. As community groups, we are seeing and feeling the negative effects of such establishments – even though a recent RAND study concluding that closing down dispensaries has the effect of reducing crime has been discredited and taken off of RAND’s website.

We can’t thank the US attorneys enough for their action, and stand side by side with them as they put brazen dispensary owners, many of them profiting dearly off of other people’s vulnerabilities, out of business for good. As marijuana use has been increasing over the past few years, this action is long overdue.

John Redman is executive director of Californians for Drug-Free Youth (CADFY); Gabrielle Antolovich is executive director of Voices United; Aaron Byzak is president of North Coastal Prevention Coalition; Staci Anderson is chief executive officer and president of People Reaching Out. These authors are all from the San Diego area, which has been flooded with medical marijuana dispensaries.

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