Did you know that since 1968 the United States has has a federally funded medical marijuana farm and production facility? The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) contracts with the university the production of the cannabis for the use in approved research studies. NIDA also manages the distribution of cannabis to the seven surviving medical patients grandfathered into the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program (established in 1978 and canceled in 1991).
Numerous types and strains of marijuana are grown in [the University's] large indoor facility. The pot is grown, harvested, dried and broken up, at which point it is used to fill cigarettes or joints, which are distributed to the patients…The federal government, as it has ruthlessly at times gone after dispensaries that are legally operated under state law, has had, all of this time, millions and millions of dollars’ worth of marijuana growing and stored at the University of Old [sic] Miss’.
University of Mississippi (Old Miss) Marijuana Farm Pictures
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The Washington Legislature should enact Senate Bill 5615, which would reclassify adult possession of marijuana from a crime to a civil infraction, write guest columnists Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, and former state Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland.
ONCE again, the Seattle Hempfest drew tens of thousands to parks along the waterfront this weekend. In its mission statement, the all-volunteer organization that produces the event says, “The public is better served when citizens and public officials work cooperatively in order to successfully accomplish common goals.”
We agree. That is why we, as a Democratic state senator and former Republican state representative, support state Senate Bill 5615. This bill would reclassify adult possession of marijuana from a crime carrying a mandatory day in jail to a civil infraction imposing a $100 penalty payable by mail. The bill was voted out of committee with a bipartisan “do pass” recommendation and will be considered by legislators in 2010.
The bill makes a lot of sense, especially in this time of severely strapped budgets. Our state Office of Financial Management reported annual savings of $16 million and $1 million in new revenue if SB 5615 passes. Of that $1 million, $590,000 would be earmarked for the Washington State Criminal Justice Treatment Account to increase support of our underfunded drug-treatment and drug-prevention services.
The idea of decriminalizing marijuana is far from new. In 1970, Congress created the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. A bipartisan body with 13 members — nine appointed by President Nixon and four by Congress — the commission was tasked with conducting a yearlong, authoritative study of marijuana. When the commission issued its report, “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding,” in1972, it surprised many by recommending decriminalization:
Possession of marijuana in private for personal use would no longer be an offense; and distribution of small amounts of marijuana for no remuneration or insignificant remuneration not involving profit would no longer be an offense.
Twelve states took action and decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s. Nevada decriminalized in 2001, and Massachusetts did so in 2008. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, states where marijuana possession is decriminalized represent more than 35 percent of our nation’s population.
These states have not seen a corresponding increase in use. Nor have the 14 states that have adopted legal protections for patients whose doctors recommend the medical use of marijuana. Nor the several cities and counties that have adopted “lowest law enforcement priority” ordinances like Seattle’s Initiative 75, which made adult marijuana use the city’s lowest law enforcement priority in 2003.
On the flip side of the coin, escalating law enforcement against marijuana users has not achieved its intended goals. From 1991 to 2007, marijuana arrests nationwide tripled from 287,900 to a record 872,720, comprising 47 percent of all drug arrests combined. Of those, 89 percent were for possession only. Nevertheless, according to a study released earlier this year by two University of Washington faculty members:
• The price of marijuana has dropped;
• Its average potency has increased;
• It has become more readily available; and
• Use rates have often increased during times of escalating enforcement.
We now have decades of proof that treating marijuana use as a crime is a failed strategy. It continues to damage the credibility of our public health officials and compromise our public safety. At a fundamental level, it has eroded our respect for the law and what it means to be charged with a criminal offense: 40 percent of Americans have tried marijuana at some point in their lives. It cannot be that 40 percent of Americans truly are criminals.
We hope that the citizens of this state will work with us to help pass SB 5615, the right step for Washington to take toward a more effective, less costly and fairer approach to marijuana use.
State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Seattle, left, chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee. Toby Nixon was state representative for the 45th legislative district, 2002-2006, and served as vice-chair of the House Republican Caucus and ranking member of the House Committee on State Government Operations and Accountability.
As part of the fact-finding process of the cannabis dispensary moratorium, the Sacramento city government is taking a look at how, exactly, medical pot stores operate. Without many precedents to refer to, dispensaries don’t have solidly established business practices. All dispensaries are somewhat similar, but none are alike.
Dispensaries all have the same basic foundation. By state law, pot shops must be collectives or cooperatives of medicinal cannabis patients.
After ill Californians get cannabis recommendations, they have the ability to medicate and cultivate as they see fit. Last year, California Attorney General Jerry Brown published some guidelines on how many plants (six) and how much prepared cannabis (8 oz) independent patients should grow or possess at one point in time, but such guidelines aren’t law. Instead, these guidelines are sort of a threshold of acceptability to avoid state legal action. Brown’s recommendations are more binding of cooperatives, which he requires to operate within the law.
“California law isn’t really specific on any of this stuff,” a spokesman from Capitol Wellness Collective said, who requested SacPress to not use his name. “It’s still evolving.”
If multiple patients pool their resources, they can quickly come into possession of far more cannabis than the guidelines suggest or that they’re even capable of using. Remember, this plant grows like a weed. A single indoor plant can grow up to six feet tall, producing up to 10 ounces – so even within guidelines, stockpiles can overflow.
If they feel like making a practice out of it, state law allows them to open a dispensary. Dispensaries often start with several growing patients and occasionally another entrepreneur who may not grow or have a doctor’s recommendation for THC medicine.
Aspiring club owners must then make the difficult decision of where to set up shop. Dispensaries have to take on a number of concerns when shopping for property, said American Association for Medical Cannabis State Director Ryan Landers. “They need to be a good distance from other dispensaries to avoid being redundant, and they have to be away from parks or kid-friendly businesses.”
AAMC is a nationwide activist group that works with lawmakers and law enforcement to make medical cannabis safer and more available.
Friendly landlords are also a must, as opening a pot shop can be a touchy matter.
“Nobody wants to lose their property for renting to a dispensary, so they usually think twice,” Landers said. “It’s never happened in Sacramento, though.”
Accessibility is another major component of a shop’s location. Many cannabis patients have limited mobility, and private transport may be a luxury they physically or financially can’t afford. Local dispensaries choose to open near bus or light rail lines. Clubs usually avoid busy metro areas: None are presently open in the heart of the downtown grid. Capitol Alternatives, a club on 16th Street, was raided by DEA agents and local police in April 2006, though no charges were made, according to news reports. The club reopened the next day at another location.
Then there’s the question of how the medicine gets to the dispensary in the first place. As mentioned before, most dispensaries are run by cultivating patients, but once demand goes up, for the sake of stable prices, so must supply. Patients outside the dispensary are invited to donate their excess medicine if they have an abundance, which is common. Contributions are given free of charge and serve to keep prices down and to increase the variety of strains available. According to local club owners, there is a wide network of patients making regular donations.
Dispensaries are always nonprofit businesses, as required by state law. This means that all of their profits need to be redistributed back to the community. Employee salaries are included in that interpretation of ‘community.’ According to a spokesman for Hugs Alternative care, about 25 percent of profits go back to salaries. With the remainder, clubs also give back in other ways.
Every club gives a charitable amount back to patients who donate their excess medicine, usually in the range of $100 an ounce, according to local club owners. Doing some quick math, at $50-60 per eighth-ounce, this adds up to a $300 or more profit margin on each ounce sold.
Some clubs also use their excess earnings for other health services, like massage therapy or group counseling, and a few even offer hobby classes and other services.
“At Capitol Wellness Collective, we have a lot of basic outreach programs,” CWC’s spokesperson said. “We have a full-time spiritual counselor, condition-specific support groups, a masseuse, cooking classes and peer counseling, all of which are provided free of charge.”
Some local clubs also make donations to charities to redistribute their income. Capitol Wellness donates to Loaves and Fishes, the local Shriner chapter and “other people that are just doing great work,” according to its spokesperson.
Lastly, dispensaries point out that they usually offer ‘compassion plans,’ that reduce or eliminate the cost of medicine for disadvantaged patients. Veterans can often get a discount, as can the disabled and patients with MediCal and Medicare.
“Clubs should never present an undue hardship to the people that need medicine most,” Landers said. “Medical cannabis saves lives.”
Dispensaries are almost always incorporated. They charge sales tax for their wares and pay federal and state taxes, although they aren’t federally listed to avoid DEA entanglements. They usually employ between five to 10 full-time employees and pay a “comfortable” salary, according to club owners and employees.
“As profits go up, so do salaries. If we’re in a good time, we’ll meet up and discuss pay,” Clyde Baker from Hugs Alternative Care said.
Patients can volunteer their time to help out at some local dispensaries, and some receive free medicine in return for their time. Alexander Skibo volunteers at Northstar Healing Collective and positively loves doing it.
“This is the most convenient arrangement I’ve ever had with any medicine,” he said. “I haven’t been able to drive a car since my injury, so walking in to volunteer is just great. I’m definitely a proponent.”
Specifics on the actual cannabis commerce that takes place at dispensaries are tough to get. Questions on profits, salaries and even day-to-day business are usually met with “that’s a private matter.” Some general facts can be learned, but accounting figures will be checked out by the city government, if even then. Clubs still have two more weeks to register with the city and prove they were open before the moratorium’s June 16 requirement. After that point, if clubs fail to register, they’ll get hit with a misdemeanor every day they stay open.
“That’ll add up really quickly,” Landers said. “Most clubs have already registered, but we’re still expecting more.”
BOULDER, Colo. — Boulder County Caregivers offers 16 glass jars of marijuana with names like Skinny Pineapple and Early Pearl Maui, priced at $375 to $420 an ounce. There are marijuana capsules and snacks made with cannabis butter, such as rice crispy treats.
Co-owner Jill Leigh urges customers to try a syrupy tincture she calls “the Advil of medical marijuana.” A drop under the tongue gives less of a high but the same pain relief as smoking, she says.
Leigh’s sales are legal — and taxed — under Colorado’s voter-approved medical marijuana law. Her marijuana dispensary and nearly 60 others serve a rapidly growing number of users with little oversight. Critics of the system say it’s prone to abuse and point to a growing number of younger patients. But a recent state effort to impose more controls failed.
More than 9,000 people are registered in Colorado to use medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation — up 2,000 in the past month.
The total is expected to rise to 15,000 by year’s end, according to the state health department, which blames the rapid increase on patient confidentiality guarantees and federal plans to stop raiding medical marijuana operations, which the U.S. government considers illegal.
Last week, the state health board rejected a proposal to limit suppliers to five patients. Dispensary owners said the plan would force many to close. Others, including Leigh, say Colorado should better regulate its dispensaries to deter abuses. But Chief Medical Officer Ned Calonge said he simply doesn’t have that authority under the 2000 law.
Some towns are stepping in. On Tuesday, Breckenridge will consider rules to keep dispensaries away from schools and restrict their hours to prevent thefts. Police Chief Rick Holman said the ideas came from Cannabis Therapeutics, a Colorado Springs dispensary believed to be the state’s largest with 1,400 patients.
The Denver suburb of Commerce City also is drafting its own rules. In Boulder, police have reached out to dispensaries after thieves stole two 20-gallon barrels of marijuana from one business in June.
Leigh’s waiting room could be found in a dentist’s office, save for coffee-table reading material that includes a copy of High Times and a Timothy Leary book. Spice jars feature samples of marijuana available for sale. All sales are by appointment only, and Leigh’s business collects about $10,000 in sales tax a month.
Leigh’s patients are mainly middle-aged women with multiple sclerosis and men coping with hepatitis C. One employee said he takes tincture drops to help prevent seizures. A customer, a jiujitsu coach, said he uses it to treat pain from four surgeries and regular fights.
Leigh said she and her husband, who uses marijuana to cope with degenerative disc disease, started selling marijuana he was growing to avoid running up against the law.
Patients can only possess up to 2 ounces of usable marijuana under Colorado law. But a patient or his designated caregiver can grow six marijuana plants — but only three can flower at any time.
Today Leigh, a self-described soccer and karate mom, has seven employees, offers health insurance and plans to add 401(k) benefits. She worries federal agents might raid her business, even though the Obama administration says the government will stop targeting medical marijuana operations that are in line with state law.
For luck, Leigh hangs Tibetan prayer flags in her offices and has a statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god of Ganesh. She says a California dispensary that had both items was spared in a recent federal raid.
Fresh off their ballot victory in Oakland, marijuana advocates plan to submit a initiative to the secretary of state to legalize the recreational use and taxation of pot statewide.
“We’ve already hired a professional petition firm to take start collecting the signatures,” said Richard Lee, whose Oaksterdam University has been at the forefront of the pot legalization movement. He expects the effort to hit the streets in September.
The initiative, which Lee hopes to file Thursday, would make possession of up to an ounce of pot by adults legal throughout California. It would also give cities and counties the option of allowing the cultivation, sale and taxation of marijuana within their borders.
“It’s patterned after Texas liquor laws, which leave it up to cities and counties to decide if they want to be ‘dry’ or ‘wet,’ ” Lee said.
The initiative would also leave open the door for a statewide per-ounce pot tax, something has already been proposed by state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.
The move to qualify the initiative comes in the wake of a special election Tuesday in which Oakland voters overwhelmingly approved Measure F, to tax medical marijuana sales in that cash-strapped city.
The statewide measure would expand the idea to include taxes on recreational-pot sales to adults.
SAN FRANCISCO — A drug deal plays out, California-style:
A conservatively dressed courier drives a company-leased Smart Car to an apartment on a weekday afternoon. Erick Alvaro hands over a white paper bag to his 58-year-old customer, who inspects the bag to ensure that everything he ordered over the phone is there.
An eighth-ounce of organic marijuana buds for treating his seasonal allergies? Check. An eighth of a different strain for insomnia? Check. THC-infused lozenges and tea bags? Check and check, with a free herb-laced cookie thrown in as a thank-you gift.
It’s a $102 credit-card transaction carried out with the practiced efficiency of a home-delivered pizza — and with just about as much legal scrutiny.
More and more, having premium pot delivered to your door in California is not a crime. It is a legitimate business.
Since the state became the first to legalize the drug for medicinal use, the weed the federal government puts in the same category as heroin and cocaine has become a major economic force.
Based on the quantity of marijuana that authorities seized last year, the crop alone was worth an estimated $17 billion or more, dwarfing any other sector of the state’s agricultural economy.
And pot also props up local economies, mints millionaires and feeds a thriving industry of startups — stores that sell high-tech marijuana-growing equipment, pot clubs that pay rent and hire workers, chains of for-profit clinics that specialize in medical-marijuana recommendations.
The plant’s prominence does not come without costs, some critics say.
Marijuana plantations in remote forests cause severe environmental damage. Authorities link the drug to violent crime in otherwise quiet small towns.
Still, some lawmakers are pushing for broader legalization as a way to shore up the finances of a state that has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The state’s top tax collector estimates that taxing marijuana like liquor could bring in more than $1.3 billion annually.
On Tuesday, Oakland will consider a measure to tax the city’s four marijuana dispensaries, which the city auditor projects will ring up $17.5 million in sales in 2010. The city faces an $83 million budget shortfall, and it expects the marijuana tax to raise $315,000.
With a recent poll showing more than half of Californians supporting legalization, pot advocates believe they will prevail.
And they say other states will follow.
Tim Blake is the proprietor of a 145-acre spiritual-retreat center that holds an annual marijuana bud-growing contest in the heart of Northern California’s pot-growing country.
Politicians, he says, are “going to see the economic benefits, they’re going to see the health benefits and they’re going to jump on the bandwagon.”
Where it’s grown
On a property flanked by vineyards, Mendocino County farmer Jim Hill grows marijuana for up to 20 patients, including himself and his wife.
Hill’s plants enjoy careful nurturing in a temperature-controlled greenhouse. On a recent spring day, his college-age son spread bat guano to fertilize two dozen 6-foot-tall plants.
Hill, 45, says he spent $10,000 to set up the garden. Patients receive their drugs free in exchange for helping with his crop.
“It’s kind of like living on an apple orchard,” Hill said. “You don’t pay for an apple.”
Although marijuana is cultivated throughout California, the most prized crops come from the forested mountains and hidden valleys of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties — the Emerald Triangle.
The economic impact is difficult to gauge. Authorities say the largest grows are run by Mexican drug cartels that simply funnel money from forest-raised crops into their bank accounts.
Still, marijuana money from outdoor and indoor plots inevitably flows into local coffers. Marijuana increases residents’ retail buying power by about $58 million countywide, according to a Mendocino County report.
In Ukiah, the county’s largest city at 11,000 residents, business owners say the extra cash is crucial. “I really don’t think we would exist without it,” said Nicole Martensen, 37, whose wine and garden shop is stocked with bottles from county vintners.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman says medical-marijuana operations that follow state and county laws will face no hassles from his department. His deputies left intact 154 marijuana grows they visited last year, he said.
“If you’re living in the boundaries,” Allman said, “I’m not going to mess with you.”
Which is not to say there is no legal risk to growing, selling or buying marijuana. Federal laws still apply, and pot dealings not deemed medicinal are considered criminal by the state, where police made about 74,000 pot-related arrests in 2007.
Even people accustomed to buying marijuana over the counter are impressed when they visit the Farmacy, a dispensary-cum-New-Age apothecary with three locations in Los Angeles. Decorated in soft beige and staffed by workers in lab coats, the Venice store sells organic toiletries, essential oils and incense along with 25 types of marijuana stored in glass jars.
During a two-hour span, the dozen or so customers who made a purchase all bought pot products and paid the 9.25 percent state sales tax on top of their purchases. The clubs, which are not supposed to turn a profit, call their transactions “donations.”
Allen Siegel is 74; he is dying of cancer and wants to try smoking marijuana to ease his pain without knocking him out like prescription drugs do. So his wife, Ina, brought him to the Farmacy for his first visit as a legal pot patient.
“You go in there, and they have so many choices,” she said.
California’s “green rush” was spurred by a voter-approved law 13 years ago that authorized patients with a doctor’s recommendation to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use.
Although a dozen other states, including Washington, have adopted similar laws, California is the only one where privately owned pot shops have flourished. Los Angeles County alone has at least 400 dispensaries and delivery services, nearly twice as many outlets as Amsterdam, the Netherlands capital whose coffee shops have been synonymous with free-market marijuana for decades.
California’s pot dispensaries now have more in common with a corner grocery than a speak-easy. They advertise freely, offering discount coupons and daily specials.
Justin Hartfield, a 25-year-old Web designer and business student, founded WeedMaps.com, where pot clubs and doctors who write “medi-pot” recommendations list their services and users post reviews. Hartfield says the year-old site brought in $20,000 this month, an amount he expects to double in August.
Like virtually everyone else connected to the cannabis trade, Hartfield has a letter from a doctor that entitles him to buy medical marijuana. But he sees no point in pretending he is treating anything more than his taste for smoking weed.
“It is a joke,” he said. “It’s a legal way for me to get what I used to get on the street.”
The future of cannabis
What would happen if marijuana was legal — not just for medical uses, but for all uses?
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, wants the state to tax and regulate all pot as it does alcohol. State Board of Equalization Chairwoman Betty Yee, a supporter, projects the law would generate $990 million annually through a $50-per-ounce fee for retailers and $392 million in sales taxes. (The state now collects $18 million each year in taxes on medical marijuana.)
Meredith Lintott, Mendocino County’s district attorney, argues that big-time growers never would bother filing tax returns. “Legalizing it isn’t going to touch the big money,” she said.
But others predict the black-market business model would fall apart.
Large-scale agri-businesses in California’s Central Valley would dominate legal marijuana production as they already do bulk wine grapes, advocates argue. Pot prices would fall dramatically, forcing growers to abandon costly clandestine operations that authorities say trash the land and steal scarce water.
And legalization, supporters insist, would save state and local governments billions on police, court and prison costs.
But others survey California in 2009 and say the cannabis future is now. Richard Lee has parlayed two Oakland dispensaries into a mini-empire that includes a marijuana-lifestyle magazine, a starter-plant nursery and a three-campus marijuana trade school. Oaksterdam University’s main campus is a prominent fixture in revitalized downtown Oakland.