Marijuana was made illegal in 1937 and for nearly six decades it remained virtually forbidden until 1996 when California voters approved Proposition 215, which legitimized marijuana use for medical ailments within the state. Marijuana is not prescribed under this legislation because prescription is a federally regulated modality which designates the amount a patient should use on a daily basis. Under Proposition 215, marijuana is “recommended” by a physician and individual counties designate the amount a patient can possess or grow, but amount used regularly is not specified.
In 1976, there was an experimental program held on the federal level to assist a very small population in legally obtaining and consuming marijuana. There were thirty patients enrolled in the program at the height of its existence. The federally sanctioned marijuana is legally grown at the University of Mississippi and provided to these select few participants on a monthly basis in the form of machine rolled joints. During the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, the program received a multitude of applications and it was subsequently closed to new members. There are only four surviving patients who continue to benefit from this venture, however, it did open the door for the medical marijuana movement as we know it today.
Following California’s successful solidification of medical marijuana legislation, other states jumped on board and put their own medical marijuana laws into place. The District of Columbia and sixteen states now permit the use of medicinal cannabis. However, the most permissive and extensive medical marijuana program remains California’s Proposition 215.
The language of Proposition 215 was highly ambiguous and consequently allows marijuana for many who are not seriously ill. It does list a number of specific ailments for which marijuana is approved, however, it concludes that sentence with “or any other symptom for which cannabis provides relief.” This wording gives doctors the discretion of determining what is and what is not a serious illness. Many who carry doctor recommendations are males in their early 20’s who claim their cannabis consumption is imperative because of insomnia, anxiety, depression, and nausea, among other relatively benign conditions. In addition, Proposition 215 does not specify an age limit and minors may be recommended marijuana if given consent by their guardian, much like the use of prescription drugs.
In an attempt to clarify some of the elusiveness attributed to Proposition 215, California implemented Senate Bill 420 which was signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. Senate Bill 420 created a voluntary medical marijuana patient ID program, which was devised with the intent of protecting legitimate patients from arrest. 420 stated that each individual county was required to set up an ID card system, however, only a few followed through with this request. The bill also allowed doctors to exempt particularly ill patients from amount limitations and for these cases doctors may specify alternate limits. Senate Bill 420 explicitly permitted cannabis collectives or cooperatives, but this does not safeguard businesses that are profiteering through Proposition 215.
Patients in California are typically allowed to possess 8 ounces of dried marijuana and grow six mature or 12 immature plants at a time. Local governments are permitted to expand these parameters, however, they may not be lowered. For example, in Sonoma County patients are allowed thirty plants and three pounds of marijuana. California restricts medical marijuana smoking anywhere where smoking is prohibited by law, within 1000 feet of a school or youth center, on a school bus, or in a moving vehicle or boat. An employer does have the right to fire an employee for medical marijuana use and this is protected under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.
When a police officer confronts a medical marijuana patient and documentation is provided, the police often call the doctor to verify the status of the patient. Some police enforce Proposition 215 while others arrest the patient which forces him or her to prove medical necessity in court. There are lawyers in California who specialize in defending medical marijuana patients or collectives and are regularly hired for this reason. The patient’s defense tends to rests on the extensive side effect profile of conventional medications and the lack thereof experienced by the patient with marijuana. However, patients need not have exhausted conventional options before obtaining a cannabis recommendation.
On a federal level, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug which means it has no medical value and a high potential for abuse. In 2006, The FDA released a statement declaring that cannabis has no merit in the field of medicine. During George W. Bush’s term in office, there was a crackdown on facilities that provided medical cannabis which consisted of numerous high-profile raids. President Obama’s campaign stated that he would cease medical marijuana raids and in March of 2009 Attorney General Eric Holder released a memo which brought hope to the medical marijuana community, “It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana.” However on October 7th, 2011, the Obama administration publicized its change of heart and warned of an upcoming attack on the sale of medical marijuana that would be greater than ever before. Dozens of dispensaries have received cease-and-desist notices and Colorado banks have responded by closing their accounts held by dispensaries. In addition, last month the ATF released a memo notifying gun sellers that medical marijuana patients may not legally obtain firearms citing a criminal code which prohibits an unlawful user or addict from this right.
There is an alternative to medical marijuana use that is lawful in all fifty states. This is the prescription drug Marinol, which contains synthetic THC. Originally marketed in 1987 to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, five years later it was also approved for AIDS patients experiencing appetite and weight loss. Marinol was initially classified as a Schedule II substance but was moved to Schedule III in 1999, which permits refills. Medical marijuana advocates discount Marinol’s effectiveness because it only contains THC and marijuana contains numerous psychoactive compounds, THC merely being the most notorious. Another argument against the drug is that taking a pill is a difficult task for someone suffering from extreme nausea. However, there is another prescription drug on the horizon known as Sativex which assesses these particular complaints. Sativex is a spray that is extracted from marijuana and contains the plants wide range of chemistry. Sativex has received F.D.A approval for testing and this could provide a compromise for the medical marijuana conflict in the United States.