More dispensaries than Starbucks

A first-hand account of a trip through California’s “medical marijuana” system.

Just talked to a friend who decided to go through California’s “medical marijuana” rigamarole in order to be able to light up legally.  I thought his account might be of interest to those curious about how the system works in practice.

First stop was the office (one of three) of Michael Morris, M.D.  The window of the storefront office helpfully lists a range of conditions for which the good doctor is happy to write “recommendations.”    Dr. Morris’s website gives the flavor:  the theme is marijuana and the sale of permission to purchase it, not the practice of medicine if that means diagnosing and treating disease.

After a cursory physical examination (blood pressure, listening to the lungs, tapping the liver) and a medical history consisting of a non-specific account of occasional difficulty sleeping, the “patient” was asked whether he wanted a six-month recommendation for $75, which would cost another $75 to renew once it expired, or a one-year recommendation for $140. That seemed, to my friend and to me, a remarkably frank disclosure of the doctor’s actual business model; there was no suggestion that a one-year recommendation would require a more thorough history and physical.

Total time spent with the doc:  about 15 minutes, mostly consumed by discussion of legal matters (e.g., the patient was warned not to bring cannabis onto federal reservations, including parklands).  No suggestion that the “patient” follow up with the physician about effects or side-effects.

Next stop was a store, whose name I think I’ll withhold but whose website has a “menu” page listing such items as “Snicklefritz,” “Purponic,” “U2 Kush,” and “Mystery Girl” (described as “a smooth, flavorful smoke we know you’ll enjoy”). The website also promises that  “New members receive a free 1/8 of medicine, so stop in soon while supplies last.”  The shop’s colorful, glossy business card adds a careful proviso:  “Minimum donation required.”  The pretense is that “members” are receiving their medicine as a gift, and are making “donations” (credit cards accepted) rather than payments.  Ergo, no sales tax.  I’m still trying to puzzle out the logic of the phrase “Minimum donation required;” I don’t think it quite parses, though I might think otherwise had I been sampling the product.

My friend had heard (from me) about the significance of the ratio of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to cannabidiol (CBD).  Since he wanted to be relaxed rather than energized, he asked for something with relatively high CBD content.  The very friendly but somewhat puzzled folks running the store had never heard about any of this and had no idea of the chemical content of the products they were selling, but suggested the “indica” strains, specifically “U2 Kush,” described on the website as “Very potent, with a couch lock effect.”  (Does that mean the user is too stoned to stand up?   Sounds that way.)

Confusingly, my friend was quoted a “suggested donation” of $20/gm., which sounds remarkably high.  But for $20 he was handed a plastic vial marked “U2 Kush” and “Qty. 1/8 oz.”  Since an eighth of an ounce is about 3.5 grams, that’s actually a fairly low price for sinsemilla, and the “free” additional 1/8 oz. (of “OG Kush”) made the package a remarkable bargain (<$3/gm.) assuming that the product and weight were as described.  But of course the price of the “recommendation” meant that, for small quantities, the street market would have been much cheaper.

My friend’s comments:  “How do they stay in business at that price?” and “Why don’t they just legalize pot and stop this ridiculous pretense”?

I’ve heard medical-marijuana advocates argue that Los Angeles has an especially out-of-control dispensary system, and that behavior in the rest of the state is less outrageous; at least one store, in Oakland, reportedly provides quantitative information about the chemical content of its products.  But I have no reason to think that the doctor’s behavior was atypical.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

11 thoughts on “More dispensaries than Starbucks”

  1. Bay area dispensaries are collecting sales tax and in Oakland a special tax of $18 per $1000 in gross sales.

    It's uncommon to have assays of THC/CBD/CBN at any dispensary I've visited (all in the bay area). Some information on strain (indica/sativa) and qualitative effects is usually available.

    Recommendations amount to a license to possess and purchase in California. Opponents warned about this very thing happening prior to Proposition 215 passing, pointing out that Dennis Peron's "any condition" language allowed recommendations for hangnails. Voters passed Proposition 215 anyway.

    Next year voters in California will have the opportunity to remove penalties for adult possession. Former SF Mayor and Speaker of the CA State Assembly Willie Brown expects it to pass , explicitly pointing to the ease of getting a recommendation as a factor in the change of public opinion.

  2. Bay area dispensaries are collecting sales tax

    Given the legal fiction that no "sales" are occurring, I wonder how this is managed.

    I'm ignorant about the truth behind the reputed benefits of medical marijuana for people really needing relief and not otherwise finding it (people with MS, chemotherapy patients, etcetera), but the ongoing farce that is "medical marijuana" in practice is just absurd, and unjust. I'm in favor of legalizing marijuana for all sorts of reasons, including that I'm given to believe it's fairly harmless as intoxicants go, but the inequity and hypocrisy in "medical marijuana" is unacceptable. It's deeply unfair that Mark's middle-class friend, who can afford $75 to pay off a corrupt doctor, gets legal protection for his recreational use, and can supply his wants cheaply and safely from a reputable supplier, while kids and people with less money are forced to deal with criminals or driven to use a more readily accessible intoxicant such as alcohol, which I'm informed is more dangerous than marijuana.

  3. bay area dispensaries have retail sales licenses issued by their municipalities. The State Board of Equalization issued (pdf) Special Notices in June of 2007 answering questions about tax policies for medical marijuana sales.

    Presumably indigent MS and chemotherapy patients get their recommendations from their attending physician as part of their ongoing care.

    I agree with you that the medical gatekeeper is a bad policy and likely results in some substitution of alcohol.

  4. "the inequity and hypocrisy in 'medical marijuana' is unacceptable."

    It is inequitable and hypocritical, but it is far more acceptable than locking people up for using marijuana. It is a move from total insanity to merely partial insanity. It will also eventually lead to legalization; you can't expect sanity to arrive overnight. So quit complaining about California and lets get medical marijuana legalized in other states.

  5. well, no, Henry, it isn't. My whole point was that nice middle-class people are now safe but all the persecution you decry is still on the books for people without money, who can't game the system.

  6. The California arrangment may offend against a certain sense of order (I'll avoid the Freudian term), but hypocrisy & ridiculousness are often great vehicles of progress. Warren, I don't doubt some people may be better able than others to navigate the system. Do you think it would be politically possible (or desirable) for "kids" – a group you name – to be granted legal access to marijuana on the same terms as adults? Do I understand you to think it's no better for some, but not all, people to be free of an onerous law than for nobody to be free of it?

  7. (Accurately) labeled THC/CBD ratios, pesticide-free guarantees, warning labels, and other protections we'd like to see might be impossible to impose in a grow-your-own policy. For the individual user, GYO might end up worse than CA's system.

    Obviously L.A.'s city council didn't lift a finger to regulate for many years (assuming the DEA would do that for them), but what's stopping CA's state lawmakers from imposing sensible rules on the dispensaries? Surely a vague law that's open to gaming can be gamed from both sides.

  8. K, I'm just worried that if comfortable people are protected in their marijuana use, there will be little impetus towarss addressing the criminalization of marijuana use by the less privileged.

  9. The kinds of abuses that you describe will quickly discredit the whole experiment, which is a shame, but not for the usual reasons. It is mostly a shame because it is an irrelevant sideshow that provides yet another convenient excuse to avoid thinking through the real problem, which is addiction.

    Some people are addicted to substances, others to behaviors, others to ideas.

    All addicts, no matter what thing or what kind of thing they are addicted to, are totally unfit to participate in society. In the general case, their perceptions, thoughts, words, and actions have no connection with reality. In other words, they are insane and (in the legal term of art) incompetent.

    But we, as a society, are entirely without courage, so we cannot call this for what it is, let alone decide what to do with insane and incompetent persons. Then we pat ourselves on the back, with the sound of a thousand bass drums, and call ourselves tolerant, when all we are is lazy and cowardly.

  10. K,

    "hypocrisy & ridiculousness are often great vehicles of progress". I love that – bumpersticker worthy.

    And I think it goes to Frank's worry that the whole thing will end up hurting proper legalization. The opposite may also be true: the public might increasingly see de facto legalization as having little negative impact in proportion to the cost of continued criminalization. Hence, the silliness making its point.

  11. When you look at this in the total context of the insanity that is marijuana prohibition, the medical marijuana dispensaries are a tiny little piece of the picture. This is what happens when the "legitimate" public discussion is closed.

    Every major commission to have studied the matter has recommended legalization. Every reliable scientific study has found the stuff is harmless. Tens of millions of Americans over a period of decades have decided for themselves the stuff is harmless.

    There are a variety of ways people could respond to such longstanding and senseless oppression, most of them not very pleasant. In this case proponents for change are out in the open, making their pitch in the full glare of public opinion- and for this, they get criticized.

    If the opponents of legalization had any real concern for the people they pretend to be protecting, they would say, "Fine- sell marijuana to everyone who can demonstrate they are regularly seeing a doctor". That would be a step up from seeing a doctor for five minutes to get a scrip, and more than adequate to safeguard against the incredibly low health risk of smoking marijuana, which of course can be vaporized or eaten when you're not paying blackmarket prices to buy it.

    Sane systems generate sane responses, and, in this case, an insane system is generating a nutty response. What did you think would happen?

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