Medical cannabis and the culture wars

It’s no longer the policy of the Federal government to beat up on the hippies.

When Devlin Barrett, now covering the Justice Department for AP, asked me for my interpretation of the White House statement about not using federal drug enforcement resources to arrest people selling cannabis out of the “dispensaries” that are legal under California law (though of course still illegal under the Controlled Substances Act), I shot from the lip as usual, saying “It means that it’s no longer Federal policy to beat up on the hippies.”

I was surprised when Barrett managed to get that quote past his editors.

I think it’s more or less the right analysis, though. The whole “medical marijuana” fight is culture-wars Kabuki.

Many of the “dispensaries” are about as medical as a wine store; the ads in the back of the LA Weekly (which come just ahead of the escort-services ads, if memory serves) advertise brand names and “1 gram free for first-time visitors,” not levels or ratios of the active chemicals, which is what an actual patient would be interested in. The list of available preparations is usually called a “menu.”

And while DEA raids the dispensaries, it is also (in partnership with the National Institute of Drug Abuse) still actively blocking research that might lead to FDA approval of either whole cannabis or an extract.

The current California system &#8212 which is much more radical than the original Prop. 215 permission for patients and their primary caregivers to possess or grow cannabis for medical use &#8212 actually makes legal cannabis much more easily and widely available than would prescription availability; with on-site physicians to write “recommendations” based on imaginary ailments, the dispensaries are much closer to Amsterdam-style “coffee shops,” and if the Feds actually get out of the way they may ramp up their marketing effort.

That’s part of the reason most of the “medical marijuana” advocates have no particular interest in doing actual clinical research. (The other half of the reason is that medical pot is one of the few issues where the drug-warrior position is actively unpopular.)

It will be interesting to see whether the Obama Administration decides to make this issue a poster child for science-based policy.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: