As the year of weed progresses and the idea of “adult use” (the focus group politically accepted means-tested term for “recreational”) cannabis becomes a mainstream policy goal in many states across the country, there is certainly cause to celebrate. Fewer people facing the devastating the effect of criminal penalties are a net benefit for society, and those same benefits are intensified when viewed alongside evidence of commercial marijuana’s simulative effect on a moribund domestic economy. However those who preemptively celebrate the “end” of prohibition should be wary, as the current policy trend towards recognizing recreational puts medical marijuana (the vanguard of this entire movement) in severe political danger.
It’s a weird legal paradox, but as recreational marijuana — i.e. cannabis that can be produced, distributed, and sold to adults without an underlying medically related qualification — becomes a reality, the place for medical weed becomes perilous. Some of this was to be expected in the evolution of the law. Obviously the present medicinal market was bound to naturally contract once consumers are able to drop pretense of a medical necessity in order to have access to their preferred intoxicant. However what we are seeing now in California, in the form of lotteries, bans, and restrictions on access, demonstrate the vulnerability of any future medically-based cannabis business. This developing form of severe local control is both an acknowledgement by legislators of the inevitability of adult use cannabis, as well as the manifestation of their own long term prejudice against the medical benefits of the drug. And if you are a patient who needs daily, and in many cases subsidized, access to medication, the idea that a city might be able to ban any form of cannabis distribution after 2016 is pretty frightening.
Advocates for recreational weed in California are attuned to this problem and assure patients’ rights activists that “there will be a place for medical” after whatever happens in 2016. However, as marijuana becomes a fully mainstreamed policy issue, the people on the margins who defined the medical movement in the 1990s and 2000s (and in many cases bore the brunt of governmental resistance to the program that laid the foundation for today’s quasi-legal cannabis industry), are at a risk of losing the important place they’ve earned in the general legalization campaign.
It’s a terrible irony in the evolution of this movement on several levels. Traditionally the health benefits that veterans, seniors, and even children could derive from cannabis were a potent political tool for driving recalcitrant legislators towards liberalizing rules regarding the drug. However, as Colorado recently showed, once a state essentially reclassifies the legal cannabis industry in a manner similar to other intoxicants, the necessary cleanup legislation to prevent employers or local governments from enacting discriminatory policies against medical cannabis users just doesn’t materialize. As a result an individual in a wheelchair who uses cannabis to control symptoms related to MS is in no way different from an able-bodied stoner.
This is not to say that reform isn’t necessary. Obviously changes need to be made on the federal level to ensure that cannabis can be made available at a subsidized rate to applicable individuals who are also on Medicare or Medicaid. But at the state level there is also a legitimate reason to be concerned with an entire generation of people who are used to self-medicating with little to no observation from a medical professional. And while early studies show that cannabis has been shown to be effective in combating cancer, advocates who loudly conclude that “WEED CURES CANCER” are in danger of being seen as analogous to vaccine deniers (which thankfully isn’t a politically advantageous place to be in 2015). Expanding opportunities to create a professional medical apparatus inside of the existing quasi-legal cannabis industry isn’t a bad idea as long as legitimacy helps expand access.
Protecting medical cannabis patients needs to remain a priority after 2016. Patients created this movement in the midst of the worst era of the drug war, and the medical research regarding cannabis has helped buttress its overall mainstream acceptance. Abandoning patients by subjecting them to the same taxes and restrictive local ordinances that are (being proposed) for adult use cannabis is both unfair and arguably unconstitutional. This critically important group of users needs consistent and formidable support, even if it negatively impacts profits for the future recreational market.
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