By Mike Sager
Just past midnight on Friday, about the time many of you were lighting up your favorite strain in celebration of the weekend, the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives was doing something that was neither moronic nor divisive. After some debate, the lower house of Congress voted to end federal raids on medical marijuana establishments in 22 states and the District of Columbia. It was the first time in history the federal legislature approved a bill clearly aimed at the reform of marijuana laws nationwide.
I live in San Diego, not far from Pacific Beach, an epicenter of sk8ters, surfers, tourons and college group houses. The home of Garnet Street and its legendary college bar scene (think Real World meets Jersey Shore), it is also the birthplace of the X Games. After weed was legalized in California in 1996, some of the earliest dispensaries sprung up here, but before I could even get my first license, local cops started routinely busting the shops. State law be damned -- all the money and all the weed was confiscated.
As well as the lists of the patients.
Since medical marijuana was made legal in California, voted by the people though a ballot initiative, legal weed in practice has been a murky proposition. Sure, the dispensaries open, but as we have seen, local officials in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles have often ordered police to shut them down, defying state laws.
Likewise the Feds. In Los Angeles, the owner of my favorite dispensary came to work one day to find a letter from the US Department of Justice telling him to choose: shut down voluntarily or be raided. He was about to be cleaned out of money and product, subject to fines, jail time or both. He was one among many. State laws might be sovereign in theory, but in practice, state marijuana statutes have been under fire from both the top and the bottom.
I remember consoling my dispensary-owner friend, trying to figure out why our great liberal hope, President Barack Obama, was so intent on harshing our buzz. After a couple of good bong rips, we came up with an interesting conspiracy theory: Perhaps Obama's teenage daughter had been caught smoking pot with some of the rich kids with whom she attends private school in DC. Now momma Michelle was on the warpath. You could just see her, finger wagging at her man, the president of the most powerful nation in the world, ordering him to act.
In no time the Obama was on the phone to his buddy the Attorney General, Eric Holder, and the threats and the closures began. Private property was seized. Patients were denied their medicine. My dispensary-owner friend and his wife ended up moving into an apartment with his young son. Whether or not he was forced to go underground to make a living is another issue. Certainly his patients were scattering.
And so it has continued in a pendulum fashion. Shops open, neighbors protest, officials get itchy, shops are raided and closed. Laws be damned. Many people I know have switched to delivery services, more of a moving target for police. Other patients continue to buy from street dealers, where the prices have dropped considerably, and where nobody keeps any medical histories, driver's license numbers or dates of birth.
Of course, shopping on the DL, you never know what you're getting.
Maybe your pain or anxiety demands weed that is high in CBDs, for instance. Maybe you like super-creative strains high in THC.
When you're calling that dealer, you're getting whatever he can cop, and you're chancing arrest.
There are hundreds of thousands of Americans currently serving jail time or on parole for the very things you and I were casually doing this weekend.
As strange as it sounds, the historic legislation was introduced by US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from Huntington Beach, California. As always, the power is in the purse; the bill was proffered by Rohrabacher as an amendment to the budget of the Department of Justice, or more specifically, it was attached to the "Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2015." In a roll call vote, the measure passed 219-189 (408 out of a possible 435 votes). While it was the Democrats who carried the vote (170 plus 49 Republicans) it is important to note that the measure was backed overall by members of both parties.
The language of the bill orders the federal Justice Department not to interfere with states' medical marijuana statutes. If the bill is passed in the Senate, funding for Drug Enforcement Administration raids on marijuana operations would cease.
"This is historic," said Rep. Rohrabacher, "a victory for states' rights, for the doctor-patient relationship, for compassion, for fiscal responsibility. This vote shows that House members really can listen to the American people, form coalitions, and get things done."
The vote in Congress was hailed as by DC-watchers as a clear indication of a shift in attitude in recent years regarding the use of marijuana, primarily for medical purposes. That a Republican congressman introduced the bill was particularly significant in a party long known for a propensity to legislate morality.
Clearly, when politicians are willing to be counted in a recorded roll-call vote, the tide has shifted. Polls show that a majority of Americans favor legal marijuana. A more sane policy seems closer at hand then ever before.
"Various members of the House have been trying to protect state medical cannabis laws for nearly a decade; it appears Congress is catching up with the will of the voters," said Nushin Rashidian, co-author of A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition. "The disconnect between state and federal law is in urgent need of a resolution, so this seems to be a step in that direction," added co-author Alyson Martin.
Last summer, after years of making the three-hour trek to Los Angeles to get my medical card (a legal environment that was slightly more stable) I finally took my chances in San Diego. There's a place right down the street that has a sweet concentrate sale every Friday. The shop is in its third incarnation after previous busts.
It still gives me the willies a little bit, knowing that the government might show up any minute and confiscate my personal information.
At least I'm a rebel with a cause -- and a bit of newfound hope.
Mike Sager is a writer-at-large for Esquire and a special correspondent for High Times. For more info, please see www.MikeSager.com or www.TheSagerGroup.net.
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