May Day, once and elsewhere a pagan fertility festival, was declared Law Day by Dwight Eisenhower in 1958, the intention being that Americans focus on the role that law plays in their lives. Saturday afternoon, local lawyers Sharon Byrne and Luis Esparza discussed the legal quagmire of medical marijuana with interested citizens and sparked off Law Week.

Law means different things to different people — there is nothing uniform about how individuals approach the broad terms and conditions by which we agree to live amongst each other. Some say that the law is a limit. Others, that it provides necessary protection. And still others say that the law is, in a sense, the definition of reality — the world we agree to live in. And of course there are those who say that rules are meant to be broken. But regardless of what one thinks, the law is constantly evolving, a body in itself, working to describe, define, and maximize effect in these rapidly changing times. Law works on many different levels, from federal to state to local — and of course to personal — which inevitably creates confusion and ambiguity, along with the freedom to interpret and navigate the lawful world of words. Marijuana’s relationship with the law is a fitting example of these dynamics.

Medical marijuana was first pushed in part by a Methodist Church in Los Angeles under the Compassionate Use Act to relieve the suffering of those at the end of their lives. It was meant for cancer patients and those suffering from AIDS to help them in their final transition. Over time, the legality of the substance has changed drastically, and now practically anyone with a headache, phantom pains, depression, or the ability to describe insomnia convincingly has access to the substance.

There have been legal hurdles along the way. Marijuana is still viewed as a Schedule 1 Substance, alongside heroin, which means that it has a high potential for abuse and no medical value. This is constantly disputed, both medically and legally, and the result is the impassioned and absurdly expensive clashing of the gears between federal, state, and municipal policy and action, as well as finding clever ways to interpret the law. For instance, California’s medical marijuana is not legal — the state just chooses not to punish certain offenses if there is a physician’s recommendation, which is legally different than a prescription.

Byrne discussed the original intention of the Compassionate Use Act, and how it has been, in her opinion, corrupted — but could this also be a change and evolution in the currents of social thought? The way we view substances, she said, is largely historical and political, not entirely founded in fact. In other times and other places, marijuana was viewed as a sacrament.

Byrne says that the Compassionate Use Act was just the first step in making a pipe dream come to life — full-blown legalization, which now seems imminent. She, however, criticized the dispensary system and said that proponents of marijuana are looking to profit, not to make the world any healthier, and that the measure to make it legal is driven by dispensaries for them to ensure their role as the place of sale. She was more sympathetic to collectives and nonprofits cultivating and distributing marijuana. She says that cities will still have to negotiate the levels of legality they’ll accept, resulting in a confusing patchwork of policy.

Esparza, who works for NORML, says that the law empowered doctors and allowed the approach and use of medical marijuana to expand. He described it as a “fascinating government experiment” which has turned into a beastly legal war, and says that if marijuana is legalized for those over the age of 21, there will still be legal battles to go. One issue is that employers will not be obligated to accommodate their employees. The term and meaning of disability will likely need to be reworked. Still, he says that drug laws do not work, and the effects of the laws are often more harmful than the substances whose access they restrict.

There was a lot of charge on either side of the issue. One woman in the audience recommended the United States adopt Singapore’s no tolerance laws regarding the substance — the death penalty — because it works so well. Another audience member retorted that, “So does pot.”

There will be events held in Santa Barbara’s downtown library throughout the week to allow people to become aware and engaged with the law, and policy, and the role it plays in their lives. From 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, there will be a Town Hall Meeting with the candidates for District Attorney. On Wednesday, from 7 to 9 p.m., there will be a Human Rights Presentation. On Thursday, at 5 p.m., in the courthouse’s Department 6, there will be Kids’ Court, where children will adopt stuffed animals with a real judge. From 7 to 7:30 p.m., there will be the Law Day Essay Contest Award Presentation, and from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., Ona Russell will present “Literature and the Law.” At Noon on Friday, there will be a luncheon benefitting teen court at the University Club.


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