It is so seldom that we get honesty in drug war politics. In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer has been talking about imaginary drug cartel beheadings for months. And we all know that marijuana is a “gateway” drug (or isn’t it?).
That’s why I was so pleased while reading The Arizona Republic recently to see the head of the campaign to defeat Proposition 203, Arizona’s medical marijuana initiative, call for a “genuine discussion.” (You know, an honest debate about reality, devoid of propaganda and scare tactics.)
Then I saw why Carolyn Short said she was leading the “Keep AZ Drug Free” fight against medical marijuana: because her stepdaughter is a meth addict. She also trotted out problems in other states with far different medical marijuana restrictions than would be in place in Arizona. There goes that “genuine discussion” thing. (Read E.J. Montini’s completely unskeptical column here.)
Last week, while I was on vacation, it got worse. Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall spoke out about her concerns with the measure at a Tucson City Council meeting. When the medical marijuana campaign manager got up to correct her misinformation, it was so bad that one local television station insisted that LaWall was set up for embarrassment.
Here’s the “genuine” reality: Arizonans voted to legalize medical marijuana 14 years ago, the same year as voters approved it in California and by a larger margin. The Legislature blocked the law, voters reauthorized it, but a wording error kept Arizona’s law from going into effect. (It said doctors could “prescribe” marijuana, which is against federal law, instead of “recommend.”)
In the meantime, 13 more states legalized medical marijuana with vastly different regulations. In California, nearly anyone with $150 can get a prescription for pot. In Arizona, truly sick people who use marijuana to treat their illnesses or the side effects of chemotherapy risk felony arrest. (Read my Phoenix Magazine story about the genuinely sick patients I met at an underground medical marijuana co-op in Tucson here and a previous blog post on medical marijuana and Mexican drug cartels here.)
In November, Arizonans will get to vote on a medical marijuana initiative that would probably be the strictest in the nation. It is not the panacea desired by pot activists. (As a reporter I attended a Phoenix NORML meeting last year where a heated debate broke out over support for the measure by members who thought it didn’t go nearly far enough.)
- Under Arizona’s proposed measure, most sick people would not be allowed to grow their own marijuana. That drives most pot activists crazy. You could only grow your own if you live more than 25 miles from a dispensary.
- While Short and LaWall both talked about the vague conditions and lax regulations that allow not-so-sick people in some other states to qualify for medical pot, that wouldn’t be the case under Arizona’s law. You would have to be suffering from a “a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition” or its treatment (i.e. chemotherapy). (Read the measure yourself here. See #3 under the “Definitions” section.)
- At the council meeting, LaWall resorted to a powerful NIMBY scare tactic: She noted that there were 545 medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles “more than the number of Starbucks and Subway sandwich shops combined.” She failed to note that the Arizona initiative imposes a strict cap: a maximum of 124 dispensaries would be allowed statewide. Statewide. That’s a maximum of one dispensary for every 10 licensed pharmacies.
- Then there is the contention that medical marijuana is the first step toward complete legalization. It took 14 years for California to take step number two then, and it is the only state that has moved forward with legalization. Proposition 203 campaign manager Andrew Myers says we should be able to consider the two issues separately, and he’s right. Medical marijuana shouldn’t be defacto legalization, but opposition to legalization shouldn’t halt the debate about medical use either. OxyContin, morphine and any number of much more dangerous and addictive drugs are legal by prescription and no one says that is the first step toward legalizing them for recreational use.
- And then there is the marijuana to meth pipeline. The truth is that Short’s stepdaughter and every other meth addict probably did try marijuana first. And they probably smoked cigarettes. And drank alcohol. They may have raided their parents’ medicine cabinets and huffed their cleaning products, too. Plus they likely had sex, had emotional problems or body image issues. Some of them had bad parents or bad relationships or just really thought they would like the feeling of bugs crawling under their skin or look cooler with meth mouth. Who knows. But new research has disproven the whole “gateway” drug thing. And the statistics don’t hold up: According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 14.4 million Americans had used marijuana in the last month in 2007. Only 529,000 people had used meth.
I’m not advocating for passage of Arizona’s medical marijuana initiative. And there are legitimate arguments to be made against it. Frankly, as with immigration reform, I would prefer to see the federal government take action. The truth is that I agree with opponents: we need to be having an honest discussion.