Two weeks ago, Dr. Stephen Hosea held an informal symposium for his colleagues at Cottage Hospital — where he’s director of internal medicine — on “Why Marijuana Should Be Legalized for the Sake of Our Children.” Given Hosea’s impressive stature within the medical community — and the intense political heat generated by anything involving marijuana these days — one might have expected a talk so explosively titled to have triggered a bigger splash. Hosea himself was struck by the limited interest his hour-long presentation received.
In a weird way, however, Hosea’s experience parallels the conspicuous silence that’s engulfed the campaigns both for and against Measure T, which if passed, will ban all medical marijuana dispensaries within the City of Santa Barbara. There have been no forums, no debates, and only a smattering of yard signs. To the extent money talks, Measure T partisans are barely whispering. Supporters have raised a paltry $6,500 and opponents twice that. Even when combined, these sums constitute a meager drop in the bucket compared to most city races.
Making this silence starker still was the loud, lengthy, and often rancorous legislative process — including 22 well-attended public hearings — in which Santa Barbara’s City Council sought to balance fiercely competing community interests surrounding the proliferation of retail pot shops. Without storefront dispensaries, the pro-pot crowd predicted, cancer patients would be forced to seek medical solace elsewhere, buying their marijuana on the black market. Dispensary critics countered that pot shop owners politically exploited the sick to make big bucks selling to recreational abusers — often the conspicuously young and able-bodied — who got their medical “recommendations” from unscrupulous pot docs.
All this public debate culminated with the adoption of a much tougher new ordinance late in June, one that would limit the maximum number of dispensaries to three. (Currently, city hall planners estimate there are seven, down from more than 20 during the height of the pot-shop frenzy.) But as part of the deal exacted by anti-dispensary councilmembers, the council also agreed to put Measure T on the ballot. If the City Council was hopelessly deadlocked, the hope was voters might settle the matter once and for all.
Now, several months later, it’s clear that the use of marijuana — medicinally or otherwise — in the State of California remains light-years away from any legal resolution. If Measure T passes, retail storefront dispensaries will be outlawed, but individuals will still be able to join medical pot collectives or cultivate their own for medicinal purposes. If Measure T fails at the polls, medical marijuana dispensaries will continue to occupy an uncertain legal limbo, vulnerable to subtle shifts in the collective wisdom of California judges who have been forced to ferret out answers to questions left dangerously unaddressed in Proposition 215, the statewide ballot measure that legalized the use of medical pot in 1996.
As with pornography laws, the meaning of the state’s medical marijuana laws lies in the eyes of the law enforcement officials doing the beholding. And that varies drastically from place to place and time to time. Recent months have witnessed high-profile raids on several cultivators in Santa Barbara, many of whom insist they bent over backward to comply with both the spirit and letter of the medical marijuana law. What was good enough before, they contend, no longer applies. Whether Measure T passes or fails, it will fall to the courts to determine what activities associated with medical marijuana fall outside the scope of legal protection. Any deliberations over Measure T, however, will be rendered irrelevant should Proposition 19 — which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana — pass at the polls November 2. At this point, however, it appears likely that Prop. 19 will lose.
Shut ’Em Down
Among the medical professionals campaigning to ban dispensaries in Santa Barbara — the only city between Thousand Oaks and Santa Cruz to allow them — is Dr. John Wrench, a radiologist who considers himself no prude when it comes to pot. “Come on,” Wrench said by way of explanation, “I grew up in the ’70s.” But Wrench now has two high school-aged children of his own. And in the course of his medical practice, he said he comes into contact with victims of what he describes as medically inflicted “chronic cannabis syndrome.” One patient, he said, suffers from genuine back pain. “And every day for the past 14 years, he’s been smoking marijuana. In that entire time, he has not held a job,” Wrench stated. “I have to believe being high daily has not helped him get off the disability rolls.” Wrench said he’s encountered others whose medical marijuana recommendations are based on what he termed “silly reasons.”
Wrench said his main concern is for people 18 to 24 years old, especially those in school. Wrench worries that “massive quantities” of medical marijuana are diverted from the dispensaries and sold to high school students. “Cumulatively,” he said, “it’s having a very negative effect on our schools.” Wrench’s concerns have been echoed repeatedly by Santa Barbara School District Superintendent Brian Sarvis, who noted that many students caught bringing marijuana on campus carry their pot in the green plastic vials popularized by dispensaries. Santa Barbara city police officials, however, have yet to document a single arrest that’s resulted from this diversion.
Acknowledging that many high school students experimented with pot long before dispensaries existed, Wrench said that number has increased markedly since 2007, when the number of dispensaries in Santa Barbara mushroomed. He cited a recent study showing Santa Barbara teens using marijuana in higher percentages. (Other recent surveys indicate that Santa Barbarans — teens and adults — lead the state in abuse of prescription pain medication and rank highly when it comes to alcohol abuse.) Dispensaries, he said, increase the quantity of pot moving through Santa Barbara; the existence of storefront operations, he said, send the message that it’s okay to use marijuana. And that, he said, is a dangerous message. “Nine to 17 percent of teens who start using marijuana become chemically dependent,” Wrench warned.
Wrench took exception to the argument that by banning dispensaries, seriously ill people — for whom medical marijuana provides genuine relief — will be denied access. “That’s crazy. We’re awash with it,” he said. “Under Prop. 215, these people can still join collectives, they can cultivate their own, and they’ll have caregivers who know where to go. Come on; you can go online and get the stuff delivered to your door.”
He was not swayed by arguments that doctors writing bogus recommendations could be better regulated. Wrench noted that the California Medical Board had suspended one Santa Barbara physician for running a recommendation mill, but that he’s back in business pending appeal with a line of young people outside his office every Saturday. “That hasn’t been too effective,” he said. Likewise, Wrench was not budged by arguments — put forth most notably by City Councilmember Das Williams — that by banning storefront dispensaries, city voters will chase the problem underground, where it can’t be tracked and it can’t be regulated. “That’s not a desirable result,” Wrench conceded, “but it’s what we had before and I prefer it to what we have now.”
Don’t Scapegoat Dispensaries
Although Dr. Hosea lines up on the opposite side as Wrench when it comes to Measure T, he insists their objective is the same. “I want to keep marijuana away from kids. I’m with them,” he said. “People are trying to blame all the problems of adolescents on dispensaries, but dispensaries are not the problem. They’re being unfairly scapegoated.” The fact is that more than 40 percent of all high school students report they’ve smoked marijuana in the last year. But that was the fact before dispensaries burst onto the scene. “Prohibition has not worked,” he said.
A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Hosea first became aware of marijuana’s medicinal value in the 1980s when he emerged as a major player in the fight against AIDS and HIV. His patients were wasting away, not eating due to the disease itself or the harsh chemicals used to treat it. “I asked them what worked,” he recounted, and came to learn that marijuana was far more effective in fighting nausea, encouraging appetite, and dealing with pain management than many of the pharmaceuticals his patients were prescribed. Since then, Hosea said he’s discovered pot can be equally effective in treating a host of ailments, including anorexia, anxiety, migraines, muscle spasms, and multiple sclerosis (MS). He cited a specific kind of brain tumor — a glioma — that shrinks and dies when exposed to marijuana.
Hosea said his AIDS patients, mostly young males, experienced little trouble obtaining marijuana on their own. But for his older patients, especially those culturally uncomfortable about smoking marijuana, dispensaries filled a critical need. Hosea said he’s treating a woman with MS who experienced relentless pain despite the multiple medications she was taking. Hosea said he issued her a medical marijuana recommendation and she got her first good night’s sleep in five months. “I can tell you, given the realities of her social situation, there was nobody in her circle of friends or relatives who could have gotten her the marijuana.” He took exception with the notion of sick people being forced to grow their own. “Yes, it’s a weed and grows anywhere, but the fact is, marijuana is harder to grow than it seems,” he said. Over the years, pot growers have perfected various strains to produce specific effects, some of which have profound implications for medicinal users. To expect total novices to master such horticultural subtleties, he said, is not realistic.
Hosea said marijuana has been the focus of a relentless misinformation campaign dating back decades. Actual medical studies, he said, tell a very different story. Of 100 people who try marijuana, he said, nine will wind up using regularly. Only one will move on to cocaine. And less than one will graduate to heroin. To the extent there’s a “gateway” involved with marijuana, Hosea suggested it’s the drug dealer, not the drug itself. Dealers, he said, will direct users to other drugs, and if dispensaries are shut down, would-be marijuana users will be pushed into the arms of illegal drug dealers.
New evidence, said Hosea, indicates that marijuana might actually be helpful in weaning abusers off far more addictive drugs, like alcohol and cocaine. It’s a matter of substituting one addiction for another. On a scale of addiction, he said pot is ranked akin to coffee. But on a scale of impacts, he said, no one has yet died from a marijuana overdose, while 100,000 people a year die from alcohol poisoning.
“I am 100 percent for keeping marijuana out of the hands of children,” Hosea said, “but dispensaries are not the problem. Shutting them down is just tilting at windmills.” People’s energies would be better spent, he said, imposing tougher regulations on how doctors can issue medical marijuana recommendations. “By closing dispensaries,” he said, “you’ll wind up hurting the very people who need them the most.”