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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Medical Marijuana

"Don't let us become Mexico."

That was my comment to Long Beach Bob Foster last week at a meeting at Community Hospital of Long Beach. He knew exactly what I was referring to and replied, "that is my biggest concern."

The City of Long Beach is very close to passing a medical marijuana ordinance. According to my Google search this morning there are currently ten MedPot dispensaries in the city (by the way a similar search for gun shops shows one within the city limits, guns are legal and protected under the 2nd Amendment, pot is not). MedPot advocates want the ability to have more facilities available, opponents want no facilities in the city.

Federal law considers marijuana an illegal drug and while California and several other states have laws that make use of marijuana for medical treatment legal, federal law supersedes the state law. Under President Bush the Attorney Generals raided medical marijuana dispensaries in California, enforcing the federal drug laws. During his campaign Barack Obama said he would not allow raids by the Drug Enforcement Agency, and after a few months in office current Attorney General Eric Holder called off the raids.

As a result of the change in federal enforcement pot shops have sprung up across California. Late to the game many cities suddenly realized they had no ordinances on the books to regulate the sale of medical marijuana within their city limits. With several MedPot shops open in the city, the Long Beach City Council has put together an ordinance that meets with the approval of the City Attorney and has been through two required votes, each passing 5-4, that will soon become the law of the city.

Areas of contention have been how far from any schools and parks to the dispensaries need to be? Where does the pot come from? Dispensaries providing list of "clients" or "patients", I'm not sure what the official legal term would be. And whether to limit the number of dispensaries. All valid and good concerns.

I understand there are significant medical benefits that many people suffering from debilitating illnesses derive from ingesting marijuana. I also understand there are significant numbers of people who scam the system to get medical marijuana prescriptions, or "recommendations" from doctors to sustain their pot habits legally. My concern with any ordinance in the City of Long Beach is how many pot dispensaries do we need? How many residents of Long Beach are under doctor recommendations to obtain and use medical marijuana? Are there enough individuals with legitimate needs to support ten, or more, MedPot facilities?

In 1996 the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was put into law. Enforced under the Office for Civil Rights under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The purpose of the law is to protect the privacy of individuals "identifiable health information." HIPAA set national standards for the "security of electronic protected health information." Reviewing the HHS website under "Covered Entities" it appears that if a provider does not "transmit any covered transactions electronically" it is not a covered entity and not subject to HIPAA regulations.

Unfortunately the Long Beach City Attorney Robert Shannon has advised the City Council that it may not require MedPot dispensaries to provide updated lists of clients, members or whatever they may be termed. His ruling prevents the law enforcement of Long Beach, and the state, from knowing whether those visiting and buying at MedPot shops are legitimate clients with doctors' orders, or just some dude scoring his weekend weed. Has the Long Beach City Council investigated the HIPAA requirements thoroughly as the Act pertains to medical marijuana dispensaries? Has the City received a ruling from HHS as to how it would rule if a complaint was received?

An argument against releasing such records is the privacy of the individual and the city knowing private medical information. Where I under doctors' orders for using marijuana for a medical condition I would have no such problem, since I am breaking federal laws I would want local law enforcement that is being told to look the other way for certain conditions to know I fulfill that condition. As well, the doctor is covered under HIPAA, but the dispensary is not. The dispensary is given a prescription or order for MedPot, not what the condition may be. Essentially by requiring MedPot facilities to provide client lists they are giving the names of those who are able to carry and use pot in Long Beach.

A very large point of contention in the ordinance has been where can the pot being sold be grown. This is where some of the fear for not becoming Mexico with its huge drug wars and the thousands of murders that have accompanied the struggle for drug supremacy comes in. Who ever controls the cultivation of the pot stands to reap significant income. Since Long Beach is licensing the sale of pot, who licenses and controls the growth of pot? Growers in Mendocino? Oregon? Smuggled pot from Mexico? How much product can be delivered into Long Beach and how much is really needed? By limiting the cultivation of MedPot to the facilities themselves the City is putting a limit on how much pot can be provided in the city and therefore, hopefully, limit the sale and use to those with legitimate prescriptions. With no extra pot from over-supply a lot of temptations and problems are eliminated.

From the shops I have seen so far, admittedly without having been in one, it appears that head shop owners have gotten the entrepreneurial spirit. The media I have seen on the drivers who deliver shows them to be indistinguishable from my pizza delivery guy--who may have a "prescription" for all I know, or may be combining his jobs of delivering the pot and the munchies at the same time to save gas. Those who sell and distribute the drug should be licensed in the same what that pharmacies and their workers are licensed to handle and distribute drugs.

Pot proponents have some valid arguments. Some are over done and push credibility, but many are valid. Yes there are proven medical benefits to marijuana. Yes there are millions who use pot recreationally like alcohol without significant adverse affect to themselves or others. However, pot is also a "gateway" drug to meth, coke, and heroin, just as alcohol can be a gateway to pot. And most importantly marijuana is an illegal drug in the United States. Looking the other way by the California Attorney General or Long Beach City Prosecutor does not change Federal law.

Of greatest concern to me is the illegal drug trade. It is a huge industry involving billions of dollars. It is the primary source of gang wars, theft, prostitution, murder and debilitating addictions that push and/or keep people in poverty. Mexican drug cartels are in a power struggle with the government and winning in many areas. The wars between the cartels have spilled into Texas, California and Arizona and are growing. Thousands annually are being murdered to protect and secure new delivery routes, distribution networks, cultivation acreage and most importantly more and more cash. With legal use of marijuana in California, in Long Beach, threatening their profits, where are protections against the Mexican cartels from entering the market at any point, from cultivation to transportation to distribution?

I am in favor of MedPot, but in favor of a very tightly controlled process of prescription and distribution. If the HIPAA concerns are so great then the City should limit the sale of MedPot to pharmacies that choose to sell the drug, hospitals or the Health Department. Unfortunately our city has been overly lawsuit adverse and throughout his tenure as City Attorney, Robert Shannon has repeatedly warned the council, "people will sue us over this" and the Council has reacted to avoid the possible lawsuit. In the case of medical marijuana and ordinances to control the sale and distribution of the drug I feel the Council should make the law as strict as possible to allow the sale and distribution to those in need, but at the same time allowing a tight control on who, where and how the drug is cultivated, sold and distributed. Law suits be damned this is about protecting our community.

DCS 03242010

Update: A local commercial real estate broker has sent me a list of MedPot facilities in Long Beach, the number currently operating is 33 facilities throughout the city.


David said...

Your bias against the 'devil weed' is surprising considering that the users that you have intimately known (and know to this day) never stepped through the 'gateway' and are some of the most productive and giving people in their communities.

Dennis C Smith said...

David: My bias is for stricter controls on the selling and dispensing in the city. I am very aware of those I know and have known who have and still smoke pot. Not everyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic, nor everyone who smokes pot becomes addicted to other narcotics--but many of them try and experiment with them at some point. A regular user of pot is much more inclined to start harder narcotics than someone who does not use pot. Is your point because many people close to me in my life have and do smoke pot I should not be for stricter controls of its distribution in my city?

Dennis C Smith said...

Here are some comments I have received via email:

"Liquor stores are worse"

From a commercial real estate broker: "thanks for the article on your blog this morning. We of course get approximately 2-3 calls per day from people looking to open MedPot dispensaries." Attached was a spreadsheet showing 33 pot shops in the City of Long Beach.

David said...

The volume of trade and use of marijuana in the city has not been significantly affected by the opening of dispenseries since the MM law was enacted.
Knowing who is using the dispenseries will not make us safer, but it could cost the city millions in the opinion of our C.A.
Monitoring and regulating the origin of marijuana sold in the dispenseries is likely an impossible, but costly endeavor that again provides no additional safety to our communities.

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