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Weeding good from bad

New guidelines on legal marijuana use are a welcome shield for Californians with medical needs.

August 27, 2008

They're more than a decade overdue, but the guidelines on medical marijuana issued this week by California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown could finally help divide the gray area in which the state's growers and dispensers operate into clearer shades of black and white.

Brown's 11-page directive is aimed at giving police the ability to distinguish between criminals and legitimate medical marijuana sellers under state law, as well as protecting patients from arrest. It won't stop federal drug enforcement agents from raiding law-abiding dispensaries and prosecuting innocent business owners whenever they see fit, but it will make such raids harder to justify -- and might ramp up the pressure for more sensible federal marijuana policies.

When California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 215 in 1996, allowing the sale and use of marijuana for people with demonstrated medical needs, it set off a host of consequences both positive and negative. As voters intended, thousands of people suffering from AIDS, glaucoma and other serious ailments now have access to a safe, legitimate treatment. Yet as voters didn't intend, the state is now riddled with dispensaries that employ on-site doctors who will write a prescription to nearly anyone who walks through the door, while places such as Humboldt County have been invaded by criminal elements running underground grow houses to supply these middlemen.

Most of the negative consequences can be attributed to the gap between state and federal marijuana laws. The fact that even sellers considered legitimate by the state can be prosecuted and ruined by federal agents encourages black-market dealers, who endanger their communities by ignoring fire codes, selling to healthy minors and fighting turf wars with other dealers. The centerpiece of Brown's directive is its insistence that medical marijuana sellers must operate as nonprofit collectives or cooperatives, and the marijuana they sell must be grown by state-certified patients or caregivers. That will empower municipal police to weed out the bad guys.

Overall, Proposition 215 has done more good than harm. In addition to marijuana's medical benefits, its legitimate sale brings in $100 million a year in tax revenues, and even though it can be abused by users, it isn't demonstrably more dangerous to society than tobacco and alcohol. The state's new guidelines will help reduce the measure's harmful side effects, but the only long-term solution is for the feds to stop the medical marijuana raids and leave California law enforcement to California officers.

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