There has been high drama in the debate over medical marijuana ever since federal authorities began cracking down on California's pot dispensaries last October.
Last week when federal authorities announced that they were filing forfeiture lawsuits to seize the property that houses Harborside Health Center in Oakland and San Jose, the operators of the cannabis dispensary featured on the reality TV show "Weed Wars," held a news conference.
The star of the event was Jason David who appeared in one of the "Weed Wars" episodes. David got teary as he talked about how medical marijuana had made such a difference in the life of his 5-year-old son who suffers from seizures. Thanks to medical marijuana, he said his son had gone from needing two dozen pills a day to four. "After he had medical cannabis, it was the first time he went seizure free," David said. "Imagine your kids having seizures every day, being in pain for hours crying and screaming."
David's son is exactly the type of person whom the medical marijuana law -- the 1996 Compassionate Use Act -- was designed to help. Seriously ill people for whom marijuana helps to alleviate pain and other debilitating symptoms. I had a family member with cancer who suffered from terrible nausea while she was undergoing chemotherapy. Marijuana helped to restore her appetite so she could eat -- unlike other drugs prescribed by her doctors which didn't work. I don't have to be convinced that marijuana should be legally available for really sick people.
However, there are many, many people abusing the law. They have gotten medical marijuana cards based on phony illnesses thanks to doctors throughout the state who dole out prescriptions to pretty much anyone who wants one. Medical marijuana is a hugely lucrative industry -- not because there are so many sick people in California but because medical marijuana mills will give a person a prescription no questions asked.
Last September, during the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo in downtown Oakland, vendors were brazenly selling 50 percent off coupons for quickie medical marijuana "exams" on the corner for anyone who didn't already have a medical marijuana card and wanted to join the pot-smoking festivities steps from City Hall.
There is no central database to track the doctors writing prescriptions nor the patients receiving them. The state marijuana policy is little more than very poorly disguised de facto legalization.
The vague language of the medical marijuana law left open the door for abuses.
It says that doctors and osteopaths (practitioners of alternative medicine) can prescribe marijuana for any illness "for which marijuana provides relief."
Which could mean just about anything: anxiety, mood swings, alcoholism, insomnia, joint pain, back pain, headaches, you name it.
It's much harder to get a prescription in other states with medical marijuana laws. There, a person as to have a serious illness like AIDS or cancer. Most of those states also require patients to register, which at least creates some oversight. There is no paper trail in California.
Harborside -- the largest cannabis dispensary in the country -- has 100,000 customers and $20 million in annual sales. That's a whole lot of weed. I wonder how many patients are sharing their stash with friends who don't have cards?
This isn't about whether or not pot is good or bad. It's about the lack of honesty among those who claim that the medical marijuana debate is all about sick people. It's not. It's about a multi- billion-dollar industry that pays $100 million in state taxes. Which is why elected officials are willing to wink and nod and look the other way at the flagrant flouting of the law.
Harborside's operators insist that their high volume doesn't equate to "profiteering." Attorneys for Harborside say the dispensary has abided by all local and state regulations.
Federal prosecutors allege the dispensary is using the state law for cover to engage in drug profiteering. They will have to prove that in court.
It is true that it will be harder for people who truly are sick to get easy access to marijuana if the legal cannabis dispensaries are forced out of business.
But whose fault will it be?
The feds who are enforcing the law or a greedy pot industry that kept pushing the envelope in search of ever greater profits?