The Never-Ending California Marijuana Debate

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

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 in the benefits of marijuana, or is a lack of information combined with growing use, driving public opinion?

Maybe both.

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 people suffering from cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, arthritis, or other chronic illnesses have the right to obtain or grow marijuana for medicinal purposes as recommended by a doctor.

In 2010, the push to legalize recreational marijuana in California failed and in May of this year Angelinos voted for Proposition D, setting a cap on the number of dispensaries at 135, the estimated number of dispensaries before September 2007.

 Brief History on Marijuana in California and the United States

Yet there are close to 850 dispensaries operating in Los Angeles, according to the L.A Times, which is more than the number of Starbucks and 7-Elevens combined in the city. (Though the Times also claims that no one knows the exact number).

Dr. Paul Chabot, president of the Coalition for a Drug Free California, said during a phone interview, that California’s medical marijuana program comical.

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

According to Chabot, California has been one of the bigger opponents to marijuana use with more than 90 percent of its cities banning 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: George Soros; John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix; Peter Lewis, founder of Progressive Insurance; and George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Warehouse.

These marijuana tycoons worked to get medicinal marijuana legal in at least 17 states, then moved toward legalizing it recreationally state-by-state, trying to increase demand to the point where the federal government would have to change the law, according to Chabot.

Since Big Marijuana wasn’t able to get favorable legislation in California, it targeted states Oregon, Washington and Colorado. In 2012, recreational marijuana was legalized in Washington and Colorado, because there was not a unified community to fight against the bills, said Chabot.


Colorado and Washington were able to legalize recreational marijuana, despite it being banned under federal law through the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, and despite the supremacy clause of the Constitution declaring that federal law trumps state legislation when the two conflict.

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

The federal act also maintains 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.

While both sides agree that marijuana has some medicinal use, the two 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.

After trying several other methods to cure their daughter’s severe seizures, the girl’s parents had her smoke a special strain of marijuana, which effectively brought the girl’s seizures down from 300 a week to two or three a month.

But Kevin Sabet, a former senior advisor on drug control policy under President Barack Obama, doesn’t believe people should smoke marijuana, but instead harness its medicinal use through FDA approved drugs, like Marinol and Sativex, which are concentrated forms of the two main components of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol.

But a University of Southern California student and medical marijuana user, who asked to remain anonymous and will be referred 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. While trying to cope with his loss, Doe became addicted to sleeping pills and began 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,” 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, race and ethnicity.

Victoria Cortessis, one of the study’s authors, said in a November interview, those young men who regularly smoke marijuana have a much higher risk of contracting non-seminoma testicular cancer.

But the study only proves a link between marijuana and cancer. It does not specifically show what in marijuana causes testicular cancer, and the rate for acquiring such cancer is relatively low at a little more than 1 percent.

Also Cortesiss said that she wouldn’t be surprised if one of the many chemical compounds found in marijuana were to have some medicinal benefits.

When told about the study Doe replied, “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.”

But there is still the addiction aspect, 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.

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

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

But this doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere, at least not in West Hollywood, where reports don’t show a rise in criminal activity in the areas with dispensaries, according the city’s Code Compliance Manager Jeff Aubel.


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 (NORML), more than $200 million a year is being spent on marijuana drug enforcement in California.

But Sabet argues 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.

Even if marijuana were to eliminate a large percentage of illegal drug businesses, the people running them wouldn’t go away, said Lovell. He referenced Prohibition as an example of underground syndicates finding ways to take over lawful brewerys and sell alcohol illegally.

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.

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.

Mark Kleiman, the chief advisor for creating Washington’s new marijuana laws, also says the California law system is broken, stating in a PBS interview, “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.”

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

Kleiman also proclaimed that the current drug policy doesn’t work because its based on “ideological preconceptions” and that we should simply look for a policy that works.

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.”

See the published piece here