California Marijuana Legalization Debate

For the first time in United States history, the majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana, according to a Gallup poll revealed in October.

With 20 states having already legalized medicinal marijuana, including Colorado and Washington, which have also legalized recreational marijuana, does the poll reveal a growing belief that marijuana is more beneficial than harmful?  What can we expect to be the future of marijuana in the U.S.?

In California, opinion seems to be strongly divided, even though it was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 with Proposition 215, stating that a person with cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, arthritis, or other chronic illnesses has the right to obtain or grow marijuana for medicinal purposes as recommended by a doctor.

 Brief History on Marijuana in California and the United States

In the city of Los Angeles, the number of medical marijuana shops outnumbers all the Starbucks, 7-Elevens, banks, schools, and parks combined, said Dr. Paul Chabot, president of the Coalition for a Drug Free California, during a phone interview.

Though these numbers may be skewed from a time when many believed there to be over one thousand medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, but according to a 2012 UCLA study, there are less than 500 dispensaries in the city today.

And Morgan Fox, Marijuana Policy Project’s communications manager, wrote in an email, that there have been more raids on medical marijuana dispensaries during the Obama administration than during any other presidency.

On the other hand, in a 2013 L.A. Times article, it’s estimated that there’s 850 dispensaries operating currently in Los Angeles, though the Times wrote the disclaimer that no one really knows the actual number.

Chabot, a former police officer and one-time marijuana rehab patient, said that Los Angeles is an “example of what other cities should not become.”

Chabot credits the recent poll to people feeling indifferent toward marijuana, but not actually wanting marijuana shops in their neighborhoods, like how people are often against liquor stores opening close to their homes.

Despite being the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana, the push to legalize it recreationally has not been as successful with Californians voting against its recreational use in 2010.

And in May 2013, Angelinos voted for Proposition D, setting a cap on the number of dispensaries at 135, the estimated number of dispensaries before September 2007.

Chabot said that California has actually been one of the bigger opponents to marijuana use with more than 90 percent of its cities banning medical marijuana dispensaries.

And these bans are quite popular, according to John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association, who said that there hasn’t been a single city council member who has lost his or her seat after voting to ban dispensaries in the community.

The real reason for marijuana’s growing popularity is not because people are finding marijuana to be less harmful, said Chabot, but because of the advertising and propaganda put forth by what he calls “Big Marijuana.”

Similar to “Big Tobacco,” Big Marijuana is the supposed agenda of a few billionaires trying to make recreational marijuana legal in order to gain a future profit, according to Chabot.

Chabot names the big financers of the pro-marijuana movement as George Soros; John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix; Peter Lewis, founder of Progressive Insurance; and George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Warehouse.

The first step for these alleged marijuana tycoons, was to get medicinal marijuana legal in at least 17 states, then move toward legalizing it recreational state-by-state until demand grows to the point that federal law would have to be overturned, according to Chabot.

Since Big Marijuana wasn’t able to get favorable legislation in California, it targeted states Oregon, Washington and Colorado, and in 2012 successfully got recreational marijuana legalized in Washington and Colorado, because they didn’t have a unified community to fight against the bill, said Chabot.

This brings up the additional problem of marijuana being illegal under federal law due to the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, and the supremacy clause of the Constitution stating that federal law trumps state legislation when the two conflict.

Yet states have passed legislation regarding recreational marijuana, and the Obama administration has chosen to look the other way, said Chabot, who hopes the issue will be of greater concern in the next presidential election.


In Chabot’s opinion, the pro-marijuana movement is like a cult that is better organized, funded, and staffed than opponent groups.

The act also states that marijuana is a Schedule I substance (the most tightly restricted category) meaning that marijuana has no recognizable medical use and is characterized as having high potential for abuse.

Now while it’s agreed that marijuana does have some medical benefits, the two sides disagree on what medical studies show and how the benefits of marijuana should be administered and regulated.

In a televised special, neurosurgeon and chief CNN medical correspondent Sanja Gupta, showed how smoking marijuana changed the life of a little girl, bringing the number of seizures she experienced down from 300 a week to two or three a month.

And while the girl’s parents tried several other methods to lessen the number of seizures, the only effective method was smoking marijuana that was high in cannabidiols, said Gupta.

But Kevin Sabet, a former senior advisor on drug control policy under President Barack Obama, said during an interview, a dispensary with people who don’t have medical experience, giving away joints, is not the right way to do medicine.

Sabet believes that the medical benefits of marijuana should be harnessed through FDA approved drugs, like Marinol and Sativex, which are concentrated forms of the two main components of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol.

The average medical marijuana user in California is a 30-year-old white male, with more than 98 percent of users having no serious ailment, said Sabet.

But a University of Southern California student and medical marijuana user, who prefers to remain anonymous and who I will refer to as John Doe, said that the different methods of taking marijuana shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

Doe said that he suffered from sleeping problems due to the death of a loved-one and as a result, became addicted to sleeping pills while experiencing extreme anxiety.

In order to wean himself off his addiction, a doctor recommended Doe start smoking marijuana, which he instantly noticed had less residual effects than the pills while still giving him the ability to sleep.

Doe said that both methods should be available for patients and believes where pills might work better for one person, smoking marijuana might work better for another.

But Sabet thinks, “We are forgetting the public health concerns [of marijuana],” referencing marijuana’s association with addiction, underage use, and other health problems.

Scientists at USC discovered a link between testicular cancer and recreational marijuana use, according to a study that compared 163 men with testicular cancer to 292 men who were healthy and of the same age and race/ethnicity.

Victoria Cortessis, one of the study’s authors, said in a November interview, that young men who smoke marijuana regular have a much higher risk of developing non-seminoma testicular cancer, but clarified that she wouldn’t be surprised if one of the many chemical compounds found in marijuana were to have some medicinal benefits.

Furthermore, Cortessis said the study only found a link, and does not show what specifically in marijuana causes testicular cancer, while the rate of acquiring such cancers is still relatively low at a little more than 1 percent.

“All sorts of medicines and drugs in the world have some affects on like a very small percentage of people.  So it only makes sense that a very small percentage of people would have adverse effects,” responded Doe when hearing about the study.

But there is still the addiction argument, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that nearly 10 percent of marijuana users become addicts with the rate increasing to about 17 percent for underage users.

And more underage drug users are entering rehab for marijuana addiction than for all other drugs combined, according to a Harvard medical study.

After alcohol, marijuana has the largest number of abusers amongst all other drugs.


Though comparatively marijuana is less addicting than heroin, cocaine, alcohol and tobacco, according to

Yet Joanne Naughton, former New York City Narcotics Officer and one of many speakers for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, doesn’t believe marijuana has severe addictive qualities or that it’s a natural gateway to harder drugs.

Naughton’s views go against Lovell’s notion that dispensaries should be shutdown because they attract criminal behavior.

But in the city of West Hollywood, its code compliance manager, Jeff Aubel, said the city hasn’t had any rise in criminal activity in the areas surrounding West Hollywood dispensaries.

Naughton also believes that legalizing marijuana would help clear up prisons, and Neil Franklin, executive director of LEAP, said on Aljazeera America that legalizing marijuana would hurt Mexican cartels and free up law enforcement for more violent crimes.

According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, more than $200 million a year is being spent on marijuana drug enforcement in California.

But Sabet argued that cartels make very little money off marijuana, 20 percent being the highest estimate, and with marijuana being decriminalized in California very few people are in jail for its possession.

Mark Kleiman, UCLA professor and chief advisor for Washington state’s marijuana laws, said in a PBS interview, that less than 10 percent of all people in prison for drug offenses are marijuana-related.

And a black market for marijuana would still exist because dealers would undercut the price of cannabis, said Sabet.

Some believe a competitive marijuana market would also increase demand for strains of marijuana high in THC, increasing the dangers of marijuana use.

Lovell proclaimed that more people should read their history, explaining how underground organizations running alcohol prohibition didn’t go away, but instead found ways to takeover lawful alcohol businesses with crime staying fairly consistent.

Now Sabet does believe that marijuana users shouldn’t go to jail, but Naughton exclaims that it’s not the jail time, but the mere conviction for possession that often ruins a person’s career and life.

In the workplace, businesses may still test and fire their employees who take marijuana, said Bruce Margolin, director of NORML’s Los Angeles chapter, who finds the marijuana legal system unjust.

Kleiman disagrees with the current method of sentencing, stating in the PBS interview, that “we ought to start basing sentences on the conduct of the people engaged…If we make that change, I think we’ll have a more sensible set of sentences whether we use mandatory sentences or not.”

Current California law states that possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is an infraction, punishable up to $100 fine with no criminal marks recorded, according to Margolin.

Anything more than an ounce is considered a misdemeanor punishable up to $500 fine and six months in jail, though first- and second-time offenders may avoid jail time by going to a treatment program, which upon completion their conviction is erased, said Margolin.

Sabet also said that legalizing marijuana will increase its use amongst young people, but several studies have shown that usage rates in California would only go up marginally because marijuana is already so easily accessible to young people.

“If you want a symbol of what has gone wrong in the American drug policy debate, try the Prop. 215 victory,” said Kleiman, pointing to 1996 when people without chronic ailments celebrated the bill’s approval by smoking a joint, even though the campaign was based on legalizing marijuana only for sick people.

Kleiman believes in legalizing marijuana on the basis of creating a new drug policy stating, “Any drug policy is a good policy if it reduces the total damage that drugs do.”

Though Lovell doesn’t believe legalizing marijuana will further develop or improve upon society.

Kleiman proclaimed that the current drug policy system just isn’t working and “We ought to start looking for policies that work rather than policies that fits somebody’s ideological preconceptions.”

A law that 30 million people a year break is not a good law, said Kleiman to the L.A. Times.

In Novemver the city of Portland, Maine legalized marijuana for recreational use, and in December Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize it nationally.

California may see marijuana legalization on the ballot once again, during next year’s election if the 2014 California Cannabis Hemp Initiative is able to gather 500,000 signatures from registered voters by late February.

In the end Kleiman believes that it’s only a matter of time before marijuana is legalized recreationally stating in his PBS interview, “As with alcohol, we gave cannabis prohibition a try and we couldn’t hold it together. At some point, you stop fighting the tiger. Legalization is going to happen. The question is: Can we do it in a way that’s not heavily devastating? Am I happy or unhappy that it’s going to be a legal commodity? Ask me five years from now.”