In California, Medical Marijuana Laws Are Moving Pot Into the Mainstream

Entrepreneur Richard Lee founded Oaksterdam University in Oakland, Calif. It offers training for workers in "the cannabis industry."
Entrepreneur Richard Lee founded Oaksterdam University in Oakland, Calif. It offers training for workers in "the cannabis industry." (Vance Jacobs - For The Washington Post)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- With little notice and even less controversy, marijuana is now available as a medical treatment in California to almost anyone who tells a willing physician he would feel better if he smoked.

Pot is now retailed over the counter in hundreds of storefronts across Los Angeles and is credited with reviving a section of downtown Oakland, where an entrepreneur sells out classes offering "quality training for the cannabis industry." The tabloid LA Journal of Education for Medical Marijuana is fat with ads for Magic Purple, Strawberry Cough and other offerings in more than 400 "dispensaries" operating in the city.

Los Angeles officials say applications for retail outlets surged after Feb. 26, when U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that the Drug Enforcement Administration will no longer raid such stores. Those pressing for change in drug laws regard the announcement as a watershed in a 40-year battle against marijuana's official listing as a dangerous drug -- a legal fight that, in California, is being waged on ground that has shifted dramatically toward acceptance.

All told, 13 states have legalized medical marijuana, a trend advocates credit in part to growing openness to alternative healing. As a "Schedule 1" drug under the 1970 federal narcotics act, marijuana officially has "no currently accepted medical use." But doctors have found it effective in reducing nausea, easing glaucoma, and improving appetite and sleep in AIDS patients.

Marijuana use is widespread -- government surveys show that 100 million Americans have smoked pot or its resin, hashish, in their lifetimes, and 25 million have done so in the past year. Yet polls show that the public is still wary of legalization. As President Obama recently said when asked about legalizing marijuana, "I don't think that's a good strategy to grow our economy."

But in California, pot is such a booming growth industry that lawmakers are being asked to consider its potential as a salve to the state's financial woes. Betty Yee, chairman of the California State Board of Equalization, endorsed a bill in February to regulate the estimated $14 billion marijuana market, citing the state's budget problems. California currently collects $18 million in sales taxes from marijuana dispensaries, and Yee said a regulated pot trade would bring in $1.3 billion.

"I think the tide is starting to turn in terms of marijuana being part of the mainstream," she said. "The pieces seem to be falling into place."

In Los Angeles, Councilman Dennis Zine warned that half the city's sales outlets might be forced to close, but only to control the growth of what the city now regards as an accepted business. "We're not getting complaints about people smoking marijuana," said the retired motorcycle policeman. "We're seeing complaints about the proliferation of facilities. They opened up right down the street from my district office, in the same complex as a liquor store. Got the big green leaf in front."

The new reality can be disorienting. In Mendocino County, the heart of Northern California's "Emerald Triangle," marijuana farming has been openly tolerated since the arrival of counterculture refugees in the late 1960s. But elected officials say they are being forced to crack down on growers who offended neighbors with aggressive farming after medical marijuana laws hastened pot's shift from the black market to a gray zone.

"Prop. 215 opened up a new world for people who had been underground," said Scott Zeramby, referencing the 1996 ballot proposition that legalized pot for medical users. By 2007, Zeramby's garden supply business in the town of Fort Bragg was doing $2.5 million in business amid a land rush by new growers eager to cash in.

"Things were getting a little crazy, even out of hand," Zeramby said. "What happened? A critical mass."

At the other end of the supply chain, some 200 dispensaries have opened using a legal loophole in an L.A. moratorium on such outlets, some making only the thinnest pretense of operating as "caregivers," the legal justification for providing cannabis directly.

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