On November 6, 1996, the people of the state of California enacted the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, in order to allow authentically ill citizens of the state, under a doctor's care, to use marijuana for medical purposes. However, while enabling the public to receive the benefits of this alternative medicine, the law has also allowed for loopholes in obtaining medical marijuana licenses.
The use of marijuana for medical purposes is regulated, enumerated and codified in Section 11362.5 of the Health and Safety Code. The requirements are that a patient possessing a valid California I.D. be at least 18 years of age unless accompanied by a parent, have the written approval or recommendation of a physician and have medical records that prescribe marijuana as necessary.
This is not a moral issue, but a pragmatic one in that the laws, and ultimately the California government, are not being taken seriously. I'm not making an argument for or against marijuana, but an opinion that respect for the law is crucial to society. Loophole number one occurs when patients take their licenses to medical marijuana pharmacies to receive the prescribed amount of cannabis. What is considered an appropriate illness? Patients have been diagnosed with “appropriate” illnesses ranging from migraine headaches to cancer, a very broad range. Additionally, the list of illnesses concludes with the all-encompassing phrase “physician's decision.” This means that the medical need ultimately varies with every physician.
Despite the eligibility rules, licenses are too easy to obtain. The definition of illnesses that would benefit from marijuana as a pain-killer is vague, and hence can be manipulated by anyone. One Lowell student who requested anonymity claimed that he simply filled out an application for a license explaining that he has insomnia and gave it to a licensed doctor, who then gave him a medical marijuana license with a prescription for $60. Once he had it, he went to a medical cannabis club, where he showed his license to receive a requested amount of marijuana. “It's nice that with it, I can get enough weed that fulfills my tolerance level,” the student said. “Although the club has better quality weed, it is three times more expensive than from a street dealer.” An increasing number of people all over California are not respecting the law that marijuana should be used for medical needs. This becomes a growing problem as it becomes a cultural norm to break free from the laws that are meant to protect us.
As marijuana is a highly valuable drug, the state must create stricter rules that are more difficult to get around. California citizens have been exploiting this program, not only to access drugs, but for other gains. According to the California State Board of Equalization, the state's medical marijuana dispensaries are intentionally evading their taxes. Worse, individual shops may be laundering illegally acquired money and illegally distributing marijuana for other than medical purposes.
The ease at which anyone can obtain a license is striking. Those who truly need the drug for medical purposes are put on the same level as teenagers who know the loopholes, when it should be medically ill who get priority. Most importantly, the Act would outlaw the issuance of fraudulent physician's recommendations.
One proposed solution has been to raise costs. According to the USA Cannabis Physicians Group, the cost for a marijuana license in California is $66 for non Medi-Cal users. Some California legislators have proposed a Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act for the November ballot - an initiative that would impose a 2.5 percent tax on the sale of medical marijuana and establish licensing fees on medical marijuana businesses; the money would be used to fund state regulation.
However, that raises another issue, as the solution impacts patients in need. With higher prices, wouldn't this also make it more difficult for the medically ill to obtain the drug? Of course, to offset increased costs, legitimate patients could be given a state application requesting financial aid for the drug, which the state can provide because of the increase in funds. However, this solution puts the burden on the citizens to deal with more paperwork.
Instead of raising prices, the state should tighten access, just as they do for other medicine. First, medical marijuana licenses should expire within a month instead of a year, since cancer patients undergoing a short spell of chemotherapy can get relief from the side-effects, then no longer be in need of the drug. If many prescriptions, including heart medicine, are only allowed three refills, and each refill has to be done on a monthly basis as a measure of control, why should an otherwise illegal drug be allowed greater access?
Secondly, California should allow only patients diagnosed within a limited number of illness categories, such as glaucoma and arthritis - illnesses that, according to Proposition 215, under the Compassionate Use Act, marijuana was legalized to treat - to receive medical marijuana. After all, not all illnesses are fraudulent. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) conducted four studies, assessing that smoked marijuana can alleviate the neuropathic pain associated with cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and spinal cord injury as effectively, if not more, than currently available medication. With new procedures that ensure greater control, it will be much more difficult to lie about one's condition and get a license.
However, there's a larger picture. If California did have higher prices and more difficult-to-obtain eligibility ratings, students who no longer could obtain licenses would still find other sources. According to a second student who requested anonymity, licenses make obtaining marijuana easier than going to dealers, but not by much. “Without a license, I'd probably just go back to my original dealer in order to get my needed amount,” the student said. “So any new California regulations for licenses probably wouldn't make any difference with how much I smoke.”
The ease at which residents undermine California Senate Bill 420 is undoubtedly an issue California has failed to properly address. In Jan. 2010, this bill was heavily debated over in order to address these potential problems. In the Supreme Court case, People vs. Kelly, the court found that state government is no longer allowed to impose any legal limits on the amount of marijuana that medical marijuana users can grow or possess, which increases the temptation for cannabis as a cash crop for street use. Hence, these state flaws undermine the process. Licenses are meant to be for those truly in pain and ill - such as a chemotherapy patient - not for those who report mild symptoms of a headache to exploit the bill's flaws and obtain marijuana, an otherwise illegal drug. Since some people - including youth - see licenses as a ticket to weed, the system needs to change - not for morality, but in order to give any credibility to the government's effectiveness in a partial legalization of this drug. Marijuana should come first to those in need, and second to those who simply want a high.
Illustration by Hoi Leung