Is cannabis a medicine or a toxin?
The question is the problem. It’s a false dichotomy.
The struggle at the local level
I was at Camden City Hall on Monday night for a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The subject was the application by two property owners (under common control and owning adjacent properties) to lease space to one of two entities licensed by the State of New Jersey to operate an Alternative Treatment Center (“ATC”), i.e. a cannabis dispensary.
I couldn’t stay past 8 since I needed to get back to New York at a reasonable hour and my only option was the 9 p.m. bus, so I missed testimony by opponents of the proposed dispensary. Even so, what I saw was very informative.
The narrow issue before the Board, as far I understand, was whether the Board should grant a variance for a non-conforming use in the zone in which the adjacent properties are located so that a dispensary can operate there. I know next to nothing about zoning law but as far as I could understand from the presentation by the property owners’ attorney and his witnesses, a City officer had denied the initial application for approval of the lease on the grounds that he could not determine whether use of the space for a cannabis dispensary was permitted under the area’s zoning. It was therefore necessary that the issue go the Board for interpretation.
As you might expect however, the case was not about a specific question of land use law. It was a referendum on the medical use of cannabis.
Camden is a small city directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. I had never been to Camden before Monday night but in my years of living in Philadelphia as a teenager (too) many decades ago, I understood that Camden was and is a low-income community with significant social problems. Camden’s identity came out front and center during the hearing. Three of the Board members were outright hostile and dismissive to the property owners’ lawyer and his witnesses. Their questions or, more commonly, their comments, indicated that they saw the proposed medical cannabis dispensary as a scheme to exploit Camden by placing a drug-dealing operation in a community that has too many drug problems already and other real problems that need real solutions, and needs a cannabis dispensary – and the attendant resale of “medicine” by “patients” to the street market – like it needs a hole in the head.
That was my first-ever land use hearing, so I was only picking things up on the fly, but I understand that there are certain factors which a zoning board must consider when evaluating an application for a variance, those being primarily the projected positive and negative impacts on the area. I assume that these factors drove the testimony presented and the questions asked, which frequently focused on proximity to transportation and the ideal nature of the location as well as whether the proposed dispensary would fit other proposed uses of the surrounding area.
What came up again and again was the point that the New Jersey medical cannabis statute is the strictest in the USA. I haven’t looked at the statute for a long time because it is huge nor have I looked at the implementing regulations, which I understand are about 100 pages long – but I will go with the consensus that it is the strictest. Certification as a patient requires determination by the treating physician that no other therapy has been effective for the patient’s condition. There is a cap on the THC strength in the cannabis that can be dispensed. An ATC must be a fortress, with outdoor lighting, 24-hour presence, and video cameras linked to monitors in the state capital.
Revelation: cannabis is radioactive
As I sat in the Council Chambers, I had a flash. Cannabis must be radioactive or at least highly toxic. That’s the only explanation for the extreme safety precautions which medical cannabis proponents must accept.
The medical cannabis model accepts – concedes – the prohibitionist argument that cannabis is dangerous, so dangerous that it must be guarded like radioactive material lest it escape and contaminate people. It is the ludicrous image of people in white Chemical/Biological/Radiological suits handling the fissionable cannabis material through thick gloves.
This concession is fatal.
One of the angry challenges that came from Board members on Monday night was that the suburban communities in New Jersey have all denied applications to locate ATCs there and now, since they couldn’t get a space anywhere else, an ATC wanted to come and take advantage of Camden. I believe that I have seen that argument expressed in the form of “environmental racism” critiques: poor communities of color are where society puts toxic materials and industries that would not be permitted to operate in more affluent locales. This may be a valid critique of land use practices in the US but – does it apply to cannabis dispensaries? Are they toxic?
Back in the summer of 2010 I offered my analysis that the great irony in the medical cannabis fiasco is that as state medical laws have become restrictive – in order to create order and stability by allowing greater participation by the state in the licensing of producers and consumers in the medical cannabis market – there has been no recognition that the market participants seek greater regulation in order to cooperate with the state and local authorities.
Instead, severe mischaracterization of these conservative laws has continued and perhaps increased. I have said before and will say again that there are only two explanations for the mischaracterizations which I have seen, for example that by New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In those cases they either (a) did not read the proposed New York medical cannabis law before they made public statements or (b) they did read the law and deliberately decided to mischaracterize it. Either of (a) and (b) should disqualify the speaker from public office but somehow no journalist challenged Brennan or Bloomberg on their obvious mischaracterizations. The attempts by medical cannabis to create more restrictive laws to allay fears seem only to encourage the opposition.
The proponents of medical cannabis have attempted to demonstrate that the cannabis will be so securely guarded that none of it can get out and fall into the wrong hands.
In doing so they have handed the argument back to prohibitionists.
A different future
The argument should be that “medical” and “non-medical” uses of cannabis are not opposites. Instead they are points on a continuum.
Some people may have acute conditions for which they need cannabis as an immediate life-saving or health-protecting intervention. Other people may need it for pain relief. Other people may use it to help relax. Other people may treat it like an intoxicant – as if it were alcohol.
The issue then is not how to ensure that cannabis, like a radioactive or highly toxic substance, only be permitted to contact people in cases of last resort; the question is how to ensure that health care providers are sufficiently familiar with cannabis and that the market of suppliers is sufficiently sophisticated that they can provide appropriate relief to people who could benefit from cannabis but might not consider using it. These considerations are not relevant to healthy adults who wish to ingest cannabis and do not need to do so for medical purposes – their use does not necessarily require medical supervision and, since cannabis is not dangerous, there is no other reason for medical supervision and controls that are stricter than those for alcohol and tobacco. There is then no longer an obsession with keeping cannabis out of the hands of healthy people and restricting its use to being a treatment of last resort.
Not every environment is appropriate for making that argument, including the Camden Zoning Board of Adjustments. However it is necessary to address head on the relationship between cannabis-as-medicine and cannabis-as-something-else, because it is fear of the latter that is interfering with the former.
As essential part of this program is discussing the safety issues in cannabis.
There is no way to advance as long as the states continue to operate on the premise that cannabis is a supremely dangerous substance, like uranium, that cannot be allowed to come in contact with anyone except in an extreme case.
In order to do all of the foregoing, it is necessary to turn the discussion around.
In response to assurances that the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services would monitor the ATC once it set up in Camden, Zoning Board members spoke bitterly about the State’s neglect of Camden and failure to act on, for example, actual toxins in the Camden environment. Distrust of the government runs deep, especially in Camden and similarly-situated communities. US drug control should be identified as exactly the same of kind of misconduct by the government: a policy of lies, deception, willful mischaracterizations, and threats and actual acts of violence by a government bureaucracy that has assigned itself the job (supported by an equally-determined prohibitionist constituency – more on that later) of determining which truths are inconvenient and which are sufficiently ideologically correct. It should not be so difficult to take off the gloves and explain that cannabis prohibition rests on seventy-five years of propaganda. In order to do so, it is necessary to state that cannabis is actually a relatively benign substance – the Fort Knox precautions that are appearing in the state medical cannabis bills do not reflect the actual nature of cannabis and its risks but instead are concessions to the residual fears in the public and their representatives generated by those seventy-five years of propaganda and the attendant repressive mental health ideologies that both nurture and derive support from such propaganda.
I have said before that the Obama administration is looking like the Carter administration on drug policy: positive words by the administrative encouraged activists to believe that official drug policy would change, but there was no change in laws or regulations and so the tide swept back and smashed the movement. I think it is safe to say that what is happening is the result of a failure to clear out the old prohibitionist bureaucracy in 2009 (witness the appointment of Michele Leonhart as DEA Administrator) and so it continues on in its mission to prohibit cannabis forever as a permanent government-within-the-government.
If you do not pull up this weed by the roots, it will continue to grow, spread, and choke out all the other plants. Advancing state laws that account for the fear of the populace and local government by treating cannabis like uranium may have been a good idea at one time, but I believe that failing to challenge the DEA characterizations of cannabis has imperiled the survival of the medical cannabis movement and the broader cannabis law reform movement.