The Dirty Dozen Myths about Medical Marijuana Associations

By The Union of Medical Marijuana Patients on January 8th 2012

The great debate that has raged in our city about the regulation of medical marijuana collectives (we refer to them as medical marijuana patient associations, or “PAs”), has been heavy on speculation, rhetoric and assumptions and light on facts.  The confusion has only grown with the recent Second District decision in Pack v. City of Long Beach. Here are the twelve most common misconceptions and the real facts about them:

1.            Marijuana has no legitimate medical application.

Fact:      Hundreds of double blind clinical studies worldwide have proven medical efficacy for a wide range of problems including high blood pressure, depression, cancer pain, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders – and the list goes on and on.  An exciting new study shows that marijuana has such wide application because our bodies have their own natural cannabinoids which, when depleted, lead to a variety of symptoms that are relieved by marijuana.  The United States is one of the few countries where medical research on marijuana is illegal.  (Research is permitted on cocaine, but not on marijuana.)  You can find a convenient footnoted source on Wikipedia under the search term “medical cannabis.”

2.            Most medical marijuana patients are recreational users who are abusing the system by pretending to have a medical need.

Fact:      A recent study by the University of California at Santa Cruz found that half of all medical marijuana users had switched from pharmaceutical drugs which they found to be less effective and which had unpleasant side effects.  Anyone who takes the time to speak to medical marijuana users will overwhelmingly hear of their legitimate physical or psychological issues that led them to medical marijuana.  It is true that many physically healthy users are young, poor and members of minorities, but those groups face psychological stresses for which marijuana provides relief.  Certainly there are some patients who game the system, but likely no greater percentage than those who cheat on their taxes.  The notion that recreational users go to the trouble of getting a doctor’s recommendation, joining a PA and abiding by its rules just to get marijuana when it is still so easy to acquire from the black market, makes no sense.

3.            All or almost all PAs are operating illegally.

This contention breaks down into five separate claims, which we’ll take one at a time:

Under California law, each and every member of a PA must be fully involved in the cultivation of marijuana, or else they are not entitled to any protection under state law.  Since the members aren’t doing that, the PA is illegal.

Fact:      The law authorizing PAs is found in the Medical Marijuana Program Act (the “MMPA”).  The MMPA nowhere speaks of “unanimous” cultivation.  It refers to “collective” cultivation.  Members of food collectives don’t all grow food – most of them just pay for food that the collective’s farmers grow.  But they are considered a collective because they are pooling their money, supplies and efforts for a common cause.  The same is true for PAs, where some members grow, some members provide their time, and some members help pay for expenses – but all are collectively cultivating under the law.

Under the MMPA, all cultivation must happen at the same location where the medical marijuana is dispensed.  Since PAs don’t do that, they are illegal.

Fact:      It’s a mystery how and why this belief developed.  Nowhere in the MMPA is any reference made to limiting the location of cultivation.  The only way to support this claim is to assert that where the MMPA says “collectively” it means “collectively and on the spot,” which is a pretty big stretch.  In fact, there are a number of Health and Safety Code drug laws specifically listed in the MMPA from which PAs are to given immunity, and one of the laws for which PAs cannot be prosecuted is the law against transportation of marijuana.  Why would the MMPA render PAs immune from prosecution for transportation if the intention was for them to grow where they dispensed?

Under the MMPA, all sales of marijuana are illegal.  Since most PAs engage in sales or exchanges of money, they are illegal.

Fact:      It’s untrue that sales are not permitted under the MMPA – in fact, the opposite is true.  As referred to above, there are a number of state laws specifically cited in the MMPA as laws that PAs are given immunity from.  The laws against the sale of marijuana, possession for sale, and occupying a location for the intent to sell marijuana are all on that list.  The MMPA therefore plainly says that properly run PAs may not be prosecuted for sales.  Note that there is a way to run a PA without sales but there will always be an exchange of money, either to reimburse expenses or to pay membership dues, and the courts have always supported such an exchange.  Many people who complain about sales are really complaining about profit or about an illegal source of purchased marijuana.  More on that below, but here it’s enough to point out that plenty of nonprofit corporations, such as Goodwill, engage in sales, but they do so in such a way that there is no profit after expenses.

Under the MMPA, PAs may not make a profit.  Since they are all profiting, they are all illegal.

Fact:      This is simply untrue.  As discussed above, sales do not equal profit.  Another misconception is that any amount of cash found at a PA means the PA is deriving profit.  PAs are a cash business and so may have cash on hand, but any money that comes in is spent on their considerable expenses in cultivating, storing and dispensing marijuana, including full-time salaries, rent, utilities, equipment, security, accounting, legal, patient services, and set-asides for political advocacy, research and development, and emergency funds for members who are arrested and prosecuted.  Most PAs know the law about profit and follow it.  Most of the PAs who don’t are simply misinformed and would correct their operations if there was a single comprehensive understanding of the law instead of the welter of conflicting positions being offered on both sides.

Under the MMPA, PAs may not receive or dispense marijuana outside of the closed circuit of their members.  Since they are all breaking the closed circuit, they are all illegal.

Fact:      This contention arises among those who believe that marijuana must be grown where it is dispensed, though the law says otherwise.  They view with suspicion medical marijuana brought into a PA from a member grower who lives at any distance from the PA.  The fact is that if a member cultivator with physical, monetary and personnel support from his PA and at the orders of his PA grows medical marijuana at a protected, isolated site exclusively for his PA, the closed circuit is maintained.  If any PA does not fully understand the details of the closed circuit provision, they can easily be educated, but almost all PAs operate on the principle that they are growing and dispensing only for the benefit of their members.

4.            PAs are magnets for crime.

Fact:      In 2009, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck testified before the City Council that he had done a study of PAs and found that they were one-quarter as likely to be robbed as banks – yet no one calls banks magnets for crime.  Chief  Beck found no evidence of a crime wave being caused by PAs.  A recent Rand corporation study found that crime actually increased in areas where PAs shut down.  This study was heatedly objected to by the City Attorney, who said that L.A. crime statistics had not been used in the study – yet neither the City Attorney, nor the California Police Chiefs’ Association in their White Paper, cited in L.A.’s Ordinance, nor anyone else, has provided any actual statistical evidence to support the assertion that PAs increase crime.  The Rand study is presently under review to include L.A. police statistics, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the prestigious Rand Corporation felt confident enough initially to publish its results.

7.            PAs are a source of neighborhood complaints.

Fact:      The 250,000 to 350,000 voters in L.A. who use medical marijuana are certainly not complaining about PAs.  A few very vocal opponents of medical marijuana have made their voices heard, but from their testimony it appears they have never been inside the PAs they are criticizing.  Their claims are largely based on rumor and speculation and they provide little actual evidence.  In reality, most PAs try very hard to keep a low profile, to maintain tight security and to be good neighbors.  Though once there were over 800 PAs in Los Angeles there are now only around 350, but citing neighborhood concerns the City wants to further limit their numbers to 100, meaning the average PA would have 2500 to 3500 members and larger PAs would end up with well over 10,00 members, increasing security risks and opportunities for abuse and inviting federal intervention.  By contrast, there are 3,400 liquor licenses in Los Angeles.  Where is the outcry against all those liquor stores?  Marijuana has known medical benefits while alcohol has no medical value (unless you are disinfecting a wound with it) and is extremely destructive when overused.  A recent study cited in the Wall Street Journal has found that cities that allow medical marijuana actually experience a nine percent drop in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

8.            PAs should be kept far away from sensitive use areas and confined to nonresidential neighborhoods like strip clubs are.

Fact:      Frequenters of strip clubs do not go out of medical necessity.  We do not restrict hospitals to the City’s periphery because of the need for patient access, and the same should be true for PAs.  Regarding sensitive use areas such as schools, the closer analogue is not strip clubs, with their moral and aesthetic drawbacks, but liquor stores.  Both liquor stores and PAs provide substances that we would not want in the hands of children  and would not want children to be attracted to.   But there are hard facts to support the destructive impacts of liquor stores on communities and none regarding PAs.  A recent study in L.A. found that each new liquor store in a neighborhood resulted in 3.4 more assaults per year.  In New Jersey, researchers found that the number of liquor stores was the single most important predictor of crime in neighborhoods —a stronger predictor than unemployment rate or income.  No such comparable results have come out of studies of marijuana use, except for the fact that young users of marijuana are more likely to be convicted of a crime later in life – but only the crime of marijuana use.  This doesn’t mean medical marijuana should be available anywhere, but it should be restricted no more than liquor stores (which number 3,400 in Los Angeles) and in fact restricted considerably less.

9.            PAs operate in secret because they’re trying to hide lawbreaking.  There is no way to tell if they are following state law or not.

Fact:      We admit it – it’s true that PAs are trying to hide lawbreaking.   But the only law they’re breaking is federal law.  Marijuana cultivation, possession and sale is still illegal on the federal level even though the state of California has decreed that it will not prosecute the marijuana laws on its books against properly run PAs.  Therefore PAs must protect the Fifth Amendment rights of their members against self-incrimination.  They must also protect the medical privacy rights of their members under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) and protect the privacy of their money and supplies from thieves and black marketeers.  As a result, PAs operate with as much secrecy as they can manage.  There is a way, however, to inspect them thoroughly for compliance with state and local law while preserving their needed privacy: the solution is third party verification through a trusted and licensed private company.  Please refer to our other reports on this subject, in particular “Challenges and Alternatives in the Wake of the Pack Decision.”

10.          The Pack decision held that California’s medical marijuana laws are all preempted by federal law and so the MMPA is null and void in California and no PA is exempt from prosecution.

Fact:      The Pack court said nothing of the kind.  The court specifically noted that California’s laws are written in a way that avoids federal preemption issues, as many other courts have also pointed out.  The MMPA does not repeal California’s marijuana laws, it simply orders that they are not to be enforced against properly run PAs.  It does not actually legalize or authorize marijuana use and so is not preempted by federal law.  Local ordinances that would provide permits to PAs, on the other hand, were found by the Pack court to be authorizing PAs and therefore to be in conflict with, and preempted by, federal law.

11.          The Pack decision means that Los Angeles can’t regulate PAs and so the only way to control them is to ban them. 

Fact:      Again, this is a misreading of Pack.  The Pack court held that the City is free to load restrictions on PAs without danger of federal preemption issues.  The trick for the City is to find a way to regulate PAs without issuing them permits.  The City is presently unsure how to limit the numbers of PAs or collect fees from them without some form of permit or authorization, but there is a solution through independent third party verification, a solution that accomplishes far more for Los Angeles than the permit process ever did.  Please refer to our other reports on this subject, in particular “Challenges and Alternatives in the Wake of the PackDecision.”

12.          A complete ban of dispensary locations for PAs, or a complete ban of PAs altogether, is better for Los Angeles.  Patients will just grow for themselves or grow in small groups without the negatives of large PAs. 

Fact:      A ban is not a solution, it is the beginning of a host of problems that legislators have yet to think through.   The 250,000 to 350,000 medical marijuana patients in Los Angeles will not go away or stop consuming marijuana.  They will also not grow it for themselves because it is difficult for most to grow to any level of potency and it puts them at risk of theft.  In fact Los Angeles’s biggest nightmare would be one and a half to two million marijuana plants (since each patient is allowed six plants by law) being grown unseen and unregulated in every residential neighborhood in Los Angeles next to nonpatients and children, exploding and metastasizing crime and diversion throughout Los Angeles.  It is more likely that patients lacking access to PAs will turn to the black market so that criminal gangs and smugglers will be the big winners in any ban.  In a ban it will be impossible for Los Angeles to raise fees from PAs at a time when our budget could desperately use them.  Banning is definitely the way to go – but only if you want to impoverish Los Angeles and gift criminals with a monopoly and a huge raise in salary.