Monday, July 21, 2008

Growing in California

How medical marijuana is transforming the pot industry. 

California now has more than two hundred thousand physician-sanctioned pot users and hundreds of dispensaries.

Since 1996, when a referendum known as Proposition 215 was approved by California voters, it has been legal, under California state law, for authorized patients to possess or cultivate the drug. The proposition also allowed a grower to cultivate marijuana for a patient, as long as he had been designated a “primary caregiver” by that patient.

In 2003, the California State Legislature passed Senate Bill 420. The law was intended to clear up some of the confusion caused by Proposition 215, which had failed to specify how patients who could not grow their own pot were expected to obtain the drug, and how much pot could be cultivated for medical purposes. The law permitted any Californian with a doctor’s note to own up to six mature marijuana plants, or to possess up to half a pound of processed weed, which could be obtained from a patients’ collective or co√∂perative—terms that were not precisely defined in the statute. It also permitted a primary caregiver to be paid “reasonable compensation” for services provided to a qualified patient “to enable that person to use marijuana.”

The counties of California were allowed to amend the state guidelines, and the result was a patchwork of rules and regulations. Upstate in Humboldt County, the heartland of high-grade marijuana farming in California, the district attorney, Paul Gallegos, decided that a resident could grow up to ninety-nine plants at a time, in a space of a hundred square feet or less, on behalf of a qualified patient. The limited legal protections afforded to pot growers and dispensary owners have turned marijuana cultivation and distribution in California into a classic “gray area” business, like gambling or strip clubs, which are tolerated or not, to varying degrees, depending on where you live and on how aggressive your local sheriff is feeling that afternoon. 

Most researchers agree that the value of the U.S. marijuana crop has increased sharply since the mid-nineties, as California and twelve other states have passed medical-marijuana laws. A drug-policy analyst named Jon Gettman recently estimated that in 2006 Californians grew more than twenty million pot plants. He reckoned that between 1981 and 2006 domestic marijuana production increased tenfold, making pot the leading cash crop in America, displacing corn. A 2005 State Department report put the country’s marijuana crop at twenty-two million pounds. The street value of California’s crop alone may be as high as fourteen billion dollars.

In the past five years, an unwritten set of rules has emerged to govern Californians participating in the medical-marijuana trade. Federal authorities do not generally bother arresting patients or doctors who write prescriptions. Instead, the D.E.A. pressures landlords to evict dispensaries and stages periodic raids on them, either shutting them down or seizing their money and marijuana. Dispensary owners are rarely arrested, and patient records are usually left alone. Through trial and error, dispensary owners have learned how to avoid trouble: Don’t advertise in newspapers, on billboards, or on flyers distributed door to door. Don’t sell to minors or cops. Don’t open more than two stores. Any Californian who is reasonably prudent can live a life centered on the cultivation, sale, and consumption of marijuana with little fear of being fined or going to jail.

Marvellous, worth the read.


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