Wednesday, August 12, 2015

On the Battle for Medical Cannabis: Grokking the Root Problem

When you begin to unpack them, all the major injustices in our society -- healthcare, poverty, rampant militarism, the debasement of our food system, and on and on -- can be traced to the same root corruption (the "rootstriker" issue). My own awakening to this notion came through one corner of the War on Drugs, the battle for medicinal cannabis (the proper name for marijuana). The people of California voted almost twenty years ago to allow our citizens to use cannabis for "any condition for which it provides relief" upon receiving an oral recommendation from a doctor. Santa Clara County, where I live, had one of the highest percentages of YES votes in the state. 

This should be a slam dunk, no? The citizens say cannabis should be available. How is it to be available? Growers grow it and sell it to providers? Providers sell it to patients? 

Sadly, the battle for access to medical cannabis has been an uphill one.

Cannabis remains illegal at the Federal level (we'll examine that crime later). So anyone who buys or sells cannabis is committing a Federal crime. The workaround for this was for patients to form non-profit collectives that grow their own medicine and make it available for a donation.

Various government entities have tried to define this as meaning the entire system should be closed-loop. People in the collective can only grow for their own collective and not anyone else's. Collective's aren't supposed to source their medicine from multiple sources. That sort of thing.

To anyone who understands the nature of medicinal cannabis this model is ridiculous. Cannabis is not all that easy to grow well, and furthermore cannabis exists in literally hundreds of stains. Various patients with specific conditions can respond differently to each one. Medicinal cannabis encompasses not only the whole plant, but also concentrates, tinctures, edibles, topical creams and myriad other valuable products. The idea that a collective full of cancer and other patients will have the time, space and resources (including security) to grow and process all their own medicine is absurd. A few collectives have managed to pull this off (WAMM, the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz being the most notable) but for most patients a well-run storefront dispensary where they can go and buy their medicine -- pardon me, give a donation to get their medicine -- is the most convenient and humane solution.

A few years ago, when a number of cities were considering whether to allow cannabis dispensaries, and under what conditions, a colleague and I found ourselves running the Silicon Valley chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a leading activist group. We attended city council meetings up and down Silicon Valley, from Redwood City to San Jose, where we testified about the importance of cannabis for the tens of thousands of their constituents who use it daily. 

In one city, a woman who was up on the dais (not a City Council member but part of their staff) confided to us during a bathroom break that her husband, an amputee, was a cannabis patient. "I probably shouldn't be telling you this," she realized at the time. Of course, she never volunteered this information publicly, never thought to take the courageous step of telling her co-workers on the City Council that she herself was affected by their decision.

That city decided NOT to allow cannabis dispensaries. In fact, one-by-one, all the cities where we testified refused to allow safe access to this valuable and completely non-toxic medicine (you literally can't overdose on cannabis). In my hometown of Mountain View, virtually all the City Council members privately told my colleague they supported us. The Mayor even spoke publicly about how she herself had survived cancer and would have used cannabis if she had thought it would help. Nevertheless, they stabbed the patients in the back and voted against allowing dispensaries.

Cowards they are, Leaders they are not. 

At this time, the majority of the Silicon Valley Peninsula is served only by cannabis collectives that deliver, and not by storefront dispensaries.

All the cities fell like dominoes, as they betrayed their own sick and suffering constituents and refused to follow the will of the people, I realized my efforts to effect change at the local level were doomed as long as cannabis remained Federally illegal. All the City Councils had the same rationale: 

We support you, we want patients to be able to use cannabis, but we are scared the Feds will come in and arrest us if we allow cannabis dispensaries to operate. Our neighboring cities said no, so we will, too.

Along with this excuse, another is worth noting. The police in every city misled the City Councils and claimed cannabis dispensaries created a host of problems, from bringing in "the wrong element" to causing traffic to attracting crime. None of this is true; the police chiefs in LA and San Francisco both made the same claims then had to publicly walk them back when they were challenged. In fact, dispensaries are robbed at lower rates than banks or 7-11s. 

[When dispensaries do get robbed it's often because they have a lot of cash on hand; as a result of Federal prohibition banks won't allow dispensaries to use credit cards or even, in many cases, bank accounts. Exacerbating the problem are draconian zoning requirements, which can force dispensaries into industrial areas that tend to be darker and have much less traffic in the evenings.]

In general, crime in areas with dispensaries will often go down, probably because dispensaries have security cameras and guards. There simply is no good evidence that the presence of cannabis dispensaries increases crime. We continually pointed out that police claims were false and pernicious but City Councils are not wont to go against the wishes of their own police forces.

The notion that the police lie regularly will be unsurprising to anyone following the current movement against police violence. Police are being caught on video over and over and over again abusing and even killing people, then lying about it. In the case of cannabis dispensaries, City Councils apparently chose to believe the police even when their lies were publicly called out (as we did, repeatedly) and even when their lies did actual harm to their sick and suffering constituents. 

The only other explanation is that City Councils are scared to cross the police. Either option is quite unsettling, in its own way.

When we lost the battle in city after city, one thing became clear. The City Councils had never had any intention of allowing dispensaries. The whole dog-and-pony show of seeking public comment, spending months "studying" the issue, and then voting against it was simply a simulacrum of democracy, not real democracy. The public overwhelmingly supported safe access to cannabis back in 1996 but the politicians actively subverted the will of the people.

One final note will illustrate the contempt with which the politicians held those of us who supported safe, legal access to cannabis medicine. Almost every city used the same strategy to deliberately fuck with us. They would announce that they would discuss the issue on such-and-such a date at the City Council meeting that started at 1:00 pm, or 7:00 pm., or whenever. Then, when the activists would show up and fill the room (including patients in wheelchairs, or with chronic debilitating pain, or suffering with serious illnesses), they would schedule the cannabis discussion for later in the day, often making it the last item. So activists, who were often the majority of the audience, would have to wait 2, 3, 4, sometimes 6 hours to be heard. The sickest and weakest would obviously have to give up and leave. Those of us who had waited all day for our 3-minute comment time would be told there were too many of us so they would have to cut our time to 2 minutes each, or even 1 minute.

This strategy was so consistent from city to city that it could not have been an accident. 

In a number of cases, they would run out of time and reschedule the cannabis deliberations for another day. Getting activists to show up once is tough, getting them back again is even harder and guaranteed to reduce the number. Of course, I realized later it didn't actually matter since the City Councils had no intention of following the will of the voters in any case. The whole "democratic" process was a sham, just for show.


From my experience playing the activist game I understood that medical cannabis policy was perfectly illustrative of an injustice springing from a larger injustice, tied to root corruption: a classic rootstriker issue. I was wasting time trying to fix a sick branch while the entire root system of the tree was rotted. And the piece I was trying to mend is not even a major limb but rather a small branch -- local medical cannabis policy. The Drug War itself is a major limb. Lots of great people have been working for decades to revise or end our current drug policy. No one really got very far because the root problem remains unchanged.

We have been hacking at the branches of evil.

Then the Internet came along and with it actual free speech unhampered by government and corporate media propaganda. The rot at the roots is beginning to become clear. The drug war is starting to die only because a growing segment of We the People have grokked that it is BULLSHIT.

But what's the root issue? 

Next: Unpacking the limbs of the Drug War...

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