Damien LaGoy strides down 13th Avenue towards Gyspy House, a small coffee shop in Denver, with a bounce in his step. Atop a gaunt, 110-pound frame with legs embodying a diameter no larger than that of a soda can, LaGoy's face is, nonetheless, vibrant. His walking mannerisms are purposeful; that would not have been the case as recently as a few years ago, even on a transcendently beautiful day like today. We shake hands, exchange brief introductions, order coffee, head to one of the benches outside, and begin talking about his status as a medical marijuana patient.
LaGoy, now 52, was officially diagnosed with HIV in 1986 but believes that his contraction traces back to a regretted hook-up in 1984: "I remember where I was. I had had a really bad feeling after I was with somebody that day. I couldn't explain it--I waited for the garden variety of VD to show up. That didn't happen. And then a couple years later, I got tested, and sure enough...Any tests that came out after that just confirmed it more and more."
Healthy, HIV-negative adults generally have 600-1,200 CD4 T-cells per cubic millimeter of blood while any number under 200 signals the progression of AIDS; LaGoy describes what life was like as his T-cell count went under 100: "[I was] on 11 pills a day, weighed about 101 pounds, and just got really depressed," LaGoy says softly, "I spent most of the time either on a computer or sleeping. Even in the middle of the summer, I didn't go out. I got so pale I looked like writing paper."
He was nauseous most of the time, had occasional stomach cramps, and battled HIV-intensified acid reflux. Unsurprisingly, he had no appetite; often times he would open the fridge, and, despite the fact that it was fully stocked, shut its door without eating anything. On numerous occasions, he came close to quitting his meds and resigning himself to his fate. "I kind of have come back from one foot in the grave," he says with a hint of triumph.
LaGoy has been smoking marijuana on and off since the mid-1990s to help treat his symptoms for both AIDS and Hepatitis C. When he was given a $500 ticket for possession of about a gram in 2006, he told the officer that it was to help treat his HIV symptoms. "Is that any excuse to smoke pot?" the officer retorted smugly. Actually, yes; the ticket was later dropped when it became a PR nightmare for the city.
Although a voter initiative in Colorado allowing patients to possess marijuana for medicinal purposes passed in 2000, it wasn't until the past couple years that widespread existence and regulation of Denver medical marijuana centers (MMCs) gave LaGoy access to medical-grade marijuana. This access is both convenient and affordable--the fact that it is difficult to drive a mile in downtown Denver without seeing a MMC or two has fostered competition that ultimately benefits the patients with regards to both price and quality of their medicine.
LaGoy's personal transformation has been palpable as he finds himself more active and able to cope with his other meds. His nighttime vomiting has almost all but gone away and he's gained about 10 pounds thanks to his new-found appetite. One unfortunate symptom that the medical marijuana cannot ease, however, is LaGoy's conscience: "I started watching my friends drop off like flies. I felt like a man in my 70s," he says. "I even have a little bit of survivor's guilt because I made it and they didn't."
I ask him if he feels that some of his friends would be alive today if they had had the access and affordability that exists in Denver today. "I can say--fairly sure--I had a lot of friends who couldn't take the medicines very well. Eventually, they gave up on the meds and they're gone," LaGoy laments. "I think if they had had [today's] medical variety at the time--they tried to smoke the street stuff--but if they'd have had the stuff that's geared more for an illness like it is now, they'd still be alive. And, as a bonus, I don't think they'd have been trying to drink their pain away."
Gradual then Rapid Growth
As briefly alluded to previously, voters passed the Colorado Marijuana Act, Amendment 20 in 2000. Ballotpedia provides the text of the initiative:
Initiative Constitutional Amendment. Analysis by Colorado Legislative Council: Allows patients diagnosed with a serious or chronic illness and their care-givers to legally possess marijuana for medical purposes. For a patient unable to administer marijuana to himself or herself, or for minors under 18, care-givers determine the amount and frequency of use; allows a doctor to legally provide a seriously or chronically ill patient with a written statement that the patient might benefit from medical use of marijuana; and establishes a confidential state registry of patients and their care-givers who are permitted to possess marijuana for medical purposes.
Background and Provisions of the Proposal: Current Colorado and federal criminal law prohibits the possession, distribution, and use of marijuana. The proposal does not affect federal criminal laws, but amends the Colorado Constitution to legalize the medical use of marijuana for patients who have registered with the state. Qualifying medical conditions include cancer, glaucoma, AIDS/HIV, some neurological and movement disorders such as multiple sclerosis, and any other medical condition approved by the state. A doctor's signed statement or a copy of the patient's pertinent medical records indicating that the patient might benefit from marijuana is necessary for a patient to register Individuals on the registry may possess up to two ounces of usable marijuana and six marijuana plants. Because the proposal does not change current law, distribution of marijuana will still be illegal in Colorado.
Patients on the registry are allowed to legally acquire, possess, use, grow, and transport marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia. Employers are not required to allow the medical use of marijuana in the workplace. Marijuana may not be used in any place open to the public, and insurance companies are not required to reimburse a patient's claim for costs incurred through the medical use of marijuana. Finally, for a patient who is under the age of 18, the proposal requires statements from two doctors and written consent from any parent living in Colorado to register the patient.
Even with the passage of this constitutional amendment, medical marijuana did not proliferate right away in Colorado. "It was really pretty slow. There weren't shops or anything like that. There were only a couple thousand patients for a number of years and it kind of slowly picked up steam," says Brian Vicente, co-director of Sensible Colorado.
The industry didn't really take off until October 2009 when US Attorney General Eric Holder circulated a memo written by then Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden, which suggested that medical marijuana enterprises that were compliant with state-level regulation would be a low priority for prosecution by the federal government. "For example," the memo reads. "Prosecution of individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law, or those caregivers in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state law who provide such individuals with marijuana, is unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources."
Further traction was gained a few weeks later when "LaGoy versus The State of Colorado"--a lawsuit in which Damien LaGoy was lead plaintiff, represented by Brian Vicente and three others--was resolved to allow caregivers to care for many people. "Prior to that caregivers, could only grow for five people," Vicente says. "That's not a business model."
Colorado's state legislature decided to regulate the medical marijuana industry in 2010. According to Vicente, it became "one of the most tightly regulated industries in the state." After the lawsuit, patients could designate others to be their primary caregivers and these caregivers are permitted to grow six plants per patient. Patients may buy and possess no more than two ounces at a time.
As the industry became more legitimate and businesses had the opportunity to profit, the number of MMCs in the state grew from under 50 to more than 1,000. With over 300 in Denver alone, there are more MMCs than Starbucks locations. "The medical marijuana program has generated an incredible amount of government revenue at a time when our state and localities are broke. It's brought in an incredible amount of sales tax and income tax. Vacant lots have been finding businesses," says Mike Elliott, the executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group. With the MMCs and edible companies, there are more than 1,000 legitimate medical marijuana businesses in CO. If the average business has five people working for it--a very conservative estimate--that's 5,000 jobs and this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of economic impact as thousands independent contractors--accountants, lawyers, engineers, construction workers, security firms, and plumbers to name a few--also benefit tangentially from the industry.
The number of registered patients peaked at 128,698 in June 2011 and has since fallen to 85,124 as of January 31, 2012. There are several possible reasons as to why there has been a drop, ranging from increased regulation on doctors to the fact that the registration/renewal fee for a medical marijuana card dropped from $90 to $35 on January 1, 2012 and people had been waiting for the price to go down. Meanwhile, a close friend of mine who is a former patient let his card expire because he was tired of being asked by other people to pick up marijuana for them.
While it is certainly possible to find a quack doctor who serves as little more than a rubber stamp (a friend showed me one with a promotional Twitter account), cite severe pain, and walk out of your appointment with a recommendation to become a patient, it's not nearly as widespread as people might believe. Colorado's Medical Marijuana Registry statistics show that the average age of the patients to be 42 years old while 69% of the patients are male.
"There's a perception that it's a bunch of 19-year old snowboarders that are patients. In reality, as government statistics show, it's more middle-aged people," Vicente points out. "I don't think there's that many middle-aged people that are like, 'I'm going to go to a doctor, fake a medical condition, and pay the health department." There is abuse in the system but it's not as widespread as many might think.
The registry also presents the following table which diagrams the conditions of its patients:
Reported Condition Number of Patients Reporting Condition Percent of Patients Reporting Condition**
Cachexia 1,148 1%
Cancer 2,280 3%
Glaucoma 876 1%
HIV/AIDS 537 1%
Muscle Spasms 14,691 17%
Seizures 1,409 2%
Severe Pain 79,749 94%
Severe Nausea 10,317 12%
**Does not add to 100% as some patients report using medical marijuana for more than one debilitating medical condition.
Colorado's medical marijuana MMCs are very strictly regulated. Local communities are able to determine for themselves if they would like to ban MMCs altogether; in November, a citizens' referendum forced the 23 MMCs in Fort Collins to close. Herbs, a town of 5,200 in northern Colorado, has seen business for its MMCs boom after medical marijuana was banned in Fort Collins and the other neighboring towns of Loveland and Longmont.
Perhaps the strictest policy is the so-called "70-30 Rule," which requires MMCs to be vertically integrated; they must grow 70% of the marijuana that they sell--the remaining 30% is generally accounted for by edible products which are manufactured by various third parties.
One of the most common refrains among the MMCs and their advocates is that, while severe, the regulation is OK as long as it is strictly enforced--this is especially true for the 70/30 Rule. "It would be like requiring liquor stores to distill their own beer. We don't require that from any other business," says Mike Elliott. "It's expensive to create specialists in all these areas. It becomes very difficult for the people who are following the rules to compete with those who find it cheaper not to follow the rules."
To get a sense of MMCs' operations, I spent two days--one at the store, one at the grow operation--with Denver Relief, a highly respected MMC whose Bio-Diesel strain won the 2009 Medical Marijuana Harvest Cup.
As you enter Denver Relief's waiting room, there is a leather sofa on one wall and three single chairs on the adjoining side. The seating area is around a coffee table with a dozen or so graphic-intensive books about marijuana, including five separate editions of The Cannabible. "You're being videotaped. Smile!" a sign reads. Patients have their cards vetted by a receptionist behind a bulletproof glass window. If their information checks out, they are greeted at the waiting room's back door by a Denver Relief employee and led through a small hallway to the marijuana bar.
In the back room, a patient appearing to be in his mid-30s is grilling co-owner Ean Seeb about the selection, carefully seeking to optimize what will be a pretty substantial purchase. After getting quarter ounces of Rectangle, Sour Diesel, and Romulan, he asks Seeb which is better, the AK-47 or ISS? "I think the ISS is better," Seeb says with an air of authority. Denver Relief has since discontinued AK-47.
In the storeroom, there are four individual booths--including one that is handicap accessible--for customers to order from. When I was there, there were two servers--referred to as "budtenders"--Seeb and Michael Chacon. Behind the counter, there are two bookshelves--one with edible products and one with pure marijuana flowers. Edible products include Karma Kandy (offered in cinnamon, sour apple, sour grape, chocolate, caramel flavors), Berry Blast (like Karma Kandy but custom-made for Denver Relief), Olive Oil, Buddha Brownies, CannaBits Lollies, and selections from Edi-pure (resembling, for example, Sour Patch Kids or Nutter Butters). Also on the edibles bookshelf is a new product called Tincture, a single dropper bottle with peppermint-flavored medicine to be applied under one's tongue, providing immediate relief for patients who need it but do not wish to smoke (other edibles generally take a little while longer to kick in).
Customers want to see and smell every strain they're thinking about buying, asking as many as a dozen questions while Chacon and Seeb know every detail of every strain, like waiters who have particularly impressive mental recall of the nuances of their restaurants' menus, calibrating their suggestions to specific symptoms. Denver Relief designates the following strains as elite, which cost $40 for an eighth of an ounce for members (those who designate Denver Relief as their primary caregiver) and $50 an eighth for non-members:
● Blue Dream - A Sativa-Dominant hybrid, Blue Dream smells and tastes like blueberries. Promoting both functionality concentration, it is ideal for daytime use.
● Gumbo - An especially potent Indica, Gumbo carries a bubble gum flavor and scent and is ideal for nighttime use to quell severe pain, muscle spasms, and sleeplessness.
● Outer Space - A Sativa, Outer Space inspires deep thought and creativity as well as appetite stimulation. Like Blue Dream, it is ideal for daytime use.
● LA OG - LA OG is a special Indica which Denver Relief sells faster than it can grow. Shaped like tiny popcorn nuggets, LA OG provides an especially long-lasting body high, making it ideal for treating severe chronic pain.
● Reserva Privada OG - A long-lasting Indica, Reserva Privada OG specializes in treating chronic severe pain, appetite stimulation, and sleeplessness.
● Super Lemon Haze - A multiple-time Cannabis Cup winner, this lemon-scented Sativa-Dominant Hybrid gives a head high, providing patients with energy while reducing nausea.
● Ultimate '91 ChemDawg - Comprised of massive, crystally flowers, this Indica-dominant hybrid strain provides patients with immediate relief and relaxation.
While they are listed on the LCD-screen menu in the middle of the room, the OG's are actually kept in smaller jars off the bookshelf and are not extensively marketed. "They take three times as long to grow and yield about ⅓ less product," says budtender Michael Chacon. As Denver Relief may only grow six plants per patient who designate the MMC as his/her primary caregiver--and they grow exactly this many--there is a finite supply. Therefore, while the OG's are highly sought after and often sell out, Denver Relief must strike a happy medium in growing the highest quality product while ensuring that its patients get enough of the medicine that they need.
Premium strains include Bio-Diesel, Bio-Jesus, ChemDawg D, Dopium, Durban Poison, Flo, Headband, Island Sweet Skunk, The Sister, and Sour Diesel. These cost $30-35 for an eighth for members and $40-45 for non-members. Denver Relief's prices change frequently due to supply and demand and are regularly updated on Weedmaps, a web site that tracks MMCs' locations, menus, and prices.
The next day, I headed out to Denver Relief's growing facility, a 13,000 square-foot warehouse located on the outskirts of Denver. When I arrive, Seeb introduces me to his two full-time growing associates, Grant and Nick. Nick is a childhood friend of one of Denver Relief's founders while Grant found the job through a Craigslist ad. Nick's parents owned a lawn and garden construction center when he was growing up and he's been gardening since he was in third grade. Both Grant and Nick wear thick--though not unwieldy--beards and speak passionately in what might as well be another language about the thousands of nuances involved in growing high quality medical marijuana. With the exception of a handful of part-timers who help out on trimming days, Grant and Nick handle every aspect of the grow operation and do so with surgical precision. While it's unclear as to whether either man has ever been stressed or bothered, they both exude the inner peace and have seemingly found their true calling.
When I arrive, Grant and Nick are checking the ph levels in one of several large reverse osmosis tanks, which help strip unwanted heavy metals out of the city's water. Seeb, meanwhile, proudly describes the process that he and his partner Kayvan Khalatbari, a former engineer, went through to build their state of the art facility. "We decided from beginning that, rather than half-assing it, we were going to spare no expense," Seeb says.
They actually had their lighting supplier specially change the way it builds its ballasts and bulbs, making them hardwired into the warehouse's infrastructure as opposed to being plugged into outlets like the ones that are normally produced. "The way that these companies work is primarily for people growing in their basements, not to grow in large facilities like this," Seeb explains. "They had to get these commercial listings and their lights are not commercially listed because they're generally not used in commercial applications--they're used in these small, basement grows. We wanted to use the best of what we know but needed it to be available for commercial use." As Seeb mentioned, Denver Relief needed its plans approved by city regulators to have its lighting installed in this manner.
The medical marijuana plants cycle through two rooms--they start in the vegetation room then get harvested from the flowering room. Both rooms are filled with two long rows of tables. Plants take about 16-18 weeks to fully grow and there is a harvest scheduled every month. The vegetation room is lit 24 hours a day; this is where Grant and Nick keep cuttings to clone plants and reproduce their genetics.
Per state requirements, each plant is individually labeled from the very beginning and there are different methodologies and techniques for growing their various strains. Some tables in the room have just nine or 10 plants while others have as many as 32. Some plants grow short and stout while others can grow up to six feet tall.
In the vegetation room, Grant shows me a table of OG plants that they are trying to genetically engineer to provide a larger output. He points to one in particular. "It's a little different-looking but this is one that we're trying and it might be a bigger producer. We have six different phenotypes that we're looking through and we've narrowed it down to two," he explains. "Both potentially might be bigger producers and if they taste the same and we get the same kind of feedback from the store, we'll put it in the rotation and feel pretty good about [growing a full] table of it."
Nick, meanwhile, is planting seeds. This is a rare occurrence; as there is a trial and error process that can last more than a year to cultivate quality harvests from a new set of seeds, Denver Relief generally starts its plants from cuttings of cloned plants that are known to be solid producers. "By the end of the day today, hopefully there's at least a half dozen cups in here that have green leaves shooting up," Nick says. When I express shock that it happens that fast, he explains that this is the case because he pre-treated the seeds, soaking them in water to make them softer and therefore pop faster. "If you just took the seed and put it in the cup it might take one-three weeks to see anything but because we've been treating them for the last 48 hours, these things should be reaching the surface within hours. By tomorrow, we'd like to see at least 80-90% of these green leaves coming through." The seeds are being planted in small containers--about four square inches in area--in soil that has been supplemented with pasteurized cocoa fiber, bat guano, and perlite.
The flowering room cycles with 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. About two weeks away from harvest, it is shocking to see the extent to which the plants are taller than their counterparts in the vegetation room. Here, Grant shows me a table full of MK Ultra plants, a strain that he and Nick have been working on cultivating for about a year without much fruition.
Grant explains why the process from planting seeds to quality cultivation can take so long while starting from established cuttings takes 100-140 days. "You start with 50 seeds and you plant them all. It takes some time for them to come up--it takes six weeks to find out if they are male or female," he says. The next step is to take cuttings from all the plants. "We might throw those plants that we've been growing out just to see if they're male or female into the flowering room but for the most part we won't. We'd rather have their cuttings. The cuttings will be a little healthier than the seed--it's still a female but we want to see what the plant can produce for us. So then we take those cuttings and wait for them to get tall enough which might take another four weeks."
The process repeats itself. "We might have seven different females out of 10 seeds. We have to have one of each cutting--one to stay in the flowering room and one to stay in the vegetation room--so we have a mom for every phenotype," Grant says. After another round of cuttings--and another 5-6 weeks--it's now been 4-5 months. And on it goes again. "We pick, maybe, two or three that are good--we don't know yet and don't want to make a rash decision on such an important investment--so then we go back and take cuttings of the ones we want and kill off some of the ones we don't want. Then we still have to go through the same process of growing cuttings for 4-6 weeks in vegetation (which is 10 weeks total until harvest)." It's now been eight months and there is still no guarantee that the products meet Denver Relief's quality quotient. Plants that don't make the cut have their flowers ground into hash for producing edibles.
The entire process is awe-inspiringly planned, organized, and executed for a full-time staff of two men. In addition to the regular responsibilities of growing, cutting, and genetic engineering that Grant and Nick must keep up with on a daily basis, potential nuisances that can destroy an entire harvest and leave Denver Relief with no way to serve its customers for up to two months such as bugs and fires must be closely guarded against.
The monetary and human capital necessary to comply with Colorado's vertical integration regulations present a staggering barrier to entry into the industry. Because of the 70/30 Rule, if the grow warehouse experiences just one month of sub-optimal output, the retail operation cannot provide its patients with medicine.
As Colorado's medical marijuana industry has blossomed so quickly, it's easy to forget that, as presently structured, it's only been around for 2.5 years. As such, there are some kinks in the system that need to be worked through that likely will sort themselves out as more time passes.
While the law stipulates that patients may only buy and possess two ounces at a time, there is not a tracking system that prevents them from going from center to center and buying two ounces at a time, making it very easy for someone to amass a high quantity of marijuana for trafficking purposes in a relatively short period of time. (It should be noted, though, that if someone is planning on illegally re-selling marijuana, there are certainly less expensive ways to purchase it wholesale than buying two ounces at a time at retail rates. Also, if bought from the MMCs, at least one level of the sale is being regulated and taxed.)
Other prescription medications are prescribed to patients' needs by the milligram. A system that enables all patients--regardless of their afflictions--the ability to purchase the same amount of medicine seems like an inexact science. A more precise system should be devised, taking careful consideration to make sure that patients with the most severe needs do not lose their access to necessary medicine. "Some patients require a substantial amount of medical marijuana for their illnesses," says Mike Elliott. "We want to make sure that we're allowing the bona fide patients to get what they need while, at the same time, limiting illicit diversion."
One possible solution to this issue, as Elliott brings up, would be for patients to pre-pay money on magnetized cards, as customers do at arcades. These cards would be able to track patient purchases. These would also help solve another gray area problem: banking.
Although medical marijuana is legal in 16 states and Washington DC, banks do not allow business accounts for MMCs because marijuana is illegal under federal law. This creates massive issues for MMCs, who must choose between operating solely on a cash basis or on a 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy where they do not disclose the source of their legal business revenue to their banks.
More transparency in the system is essential. "What we really want is for these businesses to be able to have a checking account," says Mike Elliott. There were banks that were openly taking accounts until last September and now many people are forced to be cash-only because they can't make deposits. Having a lot of cash around makes everybody involved targets for robbery. "It's a public safety issue for the owner, the employees, the patients, the vendors, and the community at large," Elliott adds.
"The MMIG wants these regulations. We want the licensing, the taxation, the regulation, the transparency, the security. By forcing these businesses to be cash only, it is asking for problems," Elliot continues. "Does the government think they are going to get all of the taxes that they are owed if it's a cash-only business? How do they pay for their utility bill? Are they supposed to pay the IRS in cash?" To the MMIG's dismay, a bill proposing the ability for medical marijuana business owners to form their own financial cooperative so they would not have to go through banks which do not accept their accounts when opened transparently was defeated 5-2 by Colorado's Senate Finance Committee in February:
Beyond simply violating federal law, concerns were also raised over the effectiveness of the legislation itself. Because access to federally insured banking reserves would still be out of reach for the financial cooperatives, the cooperatives themselves would potentially be sitting on millions of dollars worth of cash, likely kept in large safes at a determined facility. The idea struck Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, as odd, who quipped, "They'd better have machine guns."
The legislation also left it uncertain whether the cooperatives would be able to issue checking accounts or establish a credit system for its members. The cooperatives would have been responsible for establishing a banking system, but in the end, the possibility remained that they would still be dealing in only cash.
Perhaps the greatest reason for the banking issue faced by the medical marijuana industry is that the federal government has been sending mixed signals. While U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's circulation of the Ogden Memo in late-2009 seemed to imply that medical marijuana policy and regulation would be left at the discretion of individual states, the federal government intervened in January when Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh sent letters to 23 MMCs located within 1,000 feet of schools, giving them 45 days to close. In March, 25 more MMCs received letters.
One recipient of the first round of letters was Greenwerkz, the MMC that AIDS patient Damien LaGoy bought his medicine from. "They really believed that they were caregivers," LaGoy says. "If I didn't have any money at the time, they'd say, 'Well, don't go without. We'll get you through until you can pay.' And they did." While there are two other Greenwerkz locations, its now-closed spot on Colfax was the only one that is reasonably accessible to LaGoy.
Greenwerkz owner Dan Rogers is understandably aggravated at the development, especially since he deliberately complied with the regulations that he was ultimately forced to shut down for violating. "We were sensitive for the 1,000 foot rule three years ago," Rogers says. "We purposely only looked for dispensaries that we believed were over 1,000 feet. Our dispensary that got shut down was actually 1,300 feet away as the pedestrian distance goes. But as the crow flies--which is what the Department of Justice used to measure--we fell within that measurement."
"I can say with 100% certainty that our dispensary that got closed never once sold to a kid or to an unlicensed patient," Rogers says. "The distinguishing characteristic for me is that street level drug dealers don't make those kind of decisions. I would turn people away because they weren't licensed. You don't get that luxury in the black market. A regulated model does work because it's not worth my risking my business to sell to someone that is not compliant."
Greenwerkz sent a letter of appeal to the Department of Justice but it was to no avail. Its location that provided 60% of the business's overall revenue--which cost nearly $100,000 to build while providing social benefits in the forms of jobs, taxes, and community services--was forced to close its doors.
"There are responsible operators and we take this seriously," Rogers says. "We want to be good neighbors and we want to do the right thing. We just need to be given the ability." Government resources would have been better allocated in seeking out MMCs that do not comply with vertical integration regulation and/or have lax standards in making sure that they only sell to legitimate patients.
A Framework for Other States
Whether or not marijuana does have adverse side effects pertaining to mental health, memory functions, and lungs--and scientific research into these claims has thus far, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, "yielded inconsistent results"--these side effects pale in comparison to dozens of prescription medications whose legality is not a matter of debate. Many pill commercials on television spend half the advertisement spot talking about risks and side effects that oftentimes sound worse than the symptoms they treat.
According to an LA Times analysis of government data, drug overdoses have become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, surpassing traffic accidents:
Fueling the surge in deaths are prescription pain and anxiety drugs that are potent, highly addictive and especially dangerous when combined with one another or with other drugs or alcohol. Among the most commonly abused are OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax and Soma. One relative newcomer to the scene is Fentanyl, a painkiller that comes in the form of patches and lollipops and is 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Such drugs now cause more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.
While marijuana will not cure afflictions, it's been shown to be an effective treatment that significantly improves the quality of patients' lives. "This is clearly one of the greatest medicines that is known to man and it doesn't have to be black or white," says Dr. Paul Bregman, a Colorado doctor who has become an industry consultant, adding that marijuana can be used to supplement traditional painkillers to reduce their dosage, thereby limiting the chances of an accidental overdose. "You can use it in conjunction with the percodan and the percosets as well."
In addition to the 16 states plus Washington DC that have some form of legalized medical marijuana, 12 states have pending legislation to legalize medical marijuana. Despite some of the regulatory gray areas listed in the previous section, there are many good reasons for other states to follow Colorado's format. Requiring costly vertical integration for the MMCs and giving individual communities the opportunity to opt out of allowing the trade are sensible ways to provide barriers to entry, adhere to citizens' will, and limit black market diversion. (And even product that does leak through to non-patients is taxed at one level as opposed to its revenue solely going to drug dealers.)
Medical marijuana legalization and recreational marijuana legalization are separate issues. Voters and policymakers should recognize this difference and, regardless of their preconceived notions about recreational use of the drug, consider the net positive impact that it has on the quality of patients' lives.
Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol?
While recreational marijuana legalization is a wholly separate issue to debate, it is one that is on the forefront of Colorado politics as Sensible Colorado and Safer Colorado gathered more than 159,000 signatures to get it on the presidential election ballot--more than the 86,500 signatures that were needed for it to qualify even if as many as 60,000 of the signatures were illegitimate--this November.
A similar ballot initiative in 2006--Amendment 44--lost 61% to 39% and it will be fascinating to see if a) Colorado residents change their mind this time around, and b) what the federal government would do if Colorado becomes the first state to legalize recreational use. Many medical marijuana patients and business owners privately support recreational legalization but worry that they will lose their hard-fought status as legitimate consumers and purveyors if the federal government decides to crack down on the industry as a whole without regard for its hard-fought, legitimate medical distribution and use.
Marijuana was made illegal in part because Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, told race-baiting lies to Congress in 1937. "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers," Anslinger testified. "Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
While we've certainly moved past this aspect of Reefer Madness, marijuana is still classified by the DEA as a Schedule I substance--defined as Substances in this schedule have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision--with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy (cocaine is a Schedule II substance...). As demographics shift in America and we become further removed from the propaganda that made and kept marijuana illegal--Judge Douglas Ginsburg was forced to withdraw from his Supreme Court nomination in 1987 after admitting to previous marijuana use while we have now elected three consecutive presidents who have done the same or worse--it's only a matter of time before one state legalizes marijuana and others follow suit. Whether or not Colorado is the first to do so, it seems inevitable that increasing amounts of citizens will support legalization. When a state's citizens do finally vote to legalize marijuana--and it is reasonable to suspect that this will happen in the next 10 years--it will be fascinating to see how the federal government reacts to the election's results.
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