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D2D California Dreaming Series

The Land of Weed

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In addition to learning how to wait for the light, newcomers to California often marvel at the fact that it is (kinda sorta) legal to buy doctor-prescribed pot under the 12-year-old medical marijuana statute described in today's California Dreamin' segment. (Also check out a this report of trip taken to pot business school Oaksterdam University by NPR Digital's own Heather Murphy.)

Disbelief was certainly my reaction. One of the first people I met after moving to Los Angeles' historic core was a "clinic supervisor" who worked out of my favorite coffee shop brokering appointments between potential patients and a band of doctors stashed in a nearby loft. Dude was the picture of the gentleman pot dealer — relaxed, congenial, informed, non-threatening — and on more than one occasion he expounded on California's pot laws to me, this as a prelude to pressing a club-style flyer into my hand and assuring me a quick and easy diagnosis for "anxiety." It seemed too good to be true, and, given the way he abruptly disappeared one day, I think it actually was.

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I have to confess that these encounters left me a bit cynical about how the state's medical marijuana system functions. In my circle of non-Californian friends, the popular perspective on these statutes tends to be aligned with Federal law enforcement's: the prescription is a get out of jail free for drug use. Don't get me wrong: I personally can't think of a bigger waste of limited government resources than the relentless pursuit of stoners. I also know that for every quasi-legal entrepreneur like the gent working his cell-phone over latte's downtown there are likely 5 organizations like Santa Cruz's WAMM - The Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana - which works with about 250 chronically and terminally ill medical marijuana users.

Also, Larry David's fictional misadventures aside, it's relatively easy to get marijuana in most major metropolitan areas. A healthy, able-bodied person eager to toke is (to my mind, at least) more likely to just go find their local dealer than expose themselves to the privacy risks and insurance complications that can be caused by having a medical marijuana prescription in their increasingly centralized and digitized medical records.

These insurance concerns are real. I'm not shy about writing that I've been in therapy (my dad had just died, and it's requirement of working in the media, especially in Manhattan), and one of the first conversations I ever had with a shrink was a convo about privacy, my therapist advising me to be aware of what he termed the "long-term consequences" of having even the mildest mental health diagnosis—adjustment disorder—in my files. His suggestion was that I pay out of pocket to protect my anonymity (he would charge me on a sliding scale), but, seeing how I was fully insured at the time, cheap, and had no ambitions to run for president (this was pre-Obama; it just didn't seem possible), I figured I'd let my insurance cover it. Years later, when I became self-employed and started paying for my own health coverage, that one year of therapy combined with sinusitis and high cholesterol to make me uninsurable. When I got the letter from a company informing me that I was being rejected due to high risk, pre-existing conditions, I thought I had mislaid a cancer diagnosis during my move west. I was, fortunately, able to get coverage —at a premium— under California's Managed Risk Medical Insurance Program, but I can only imagine what how much worse my profile would have looked with pot prescription thrown into the mix, no matter how legitimate.

Those suffering from serious and chronic illnesses face the same insurance and employment concerns. Just earlier this year, the State Supreme Court found that companies can legally fire employees who use marijuana legally under the state program:

Employers can fire workers found to have used medical marijuana even if it was legally prescribed, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The high court upheld a small Sacramento telecommunications company's firing of a man who flunked a company-ordered drug test. Gary Ross held a medical marijuana card authorizing him to use the drug to treat a back injury sustained while serving in the Air Force.

The company, Ragingwire Inc., argued that it rightfully fired Ross because all marijuana use is illegal under federal law, which does not recognize the medical marijuana laws in California and 11 other states.

The justices upheld that argument in a 5-2 decision.

``No state law could completely legalize marijuana for medical purposes because the drug remains illegal under federal law,'' Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the majority. [full story]

Obviously, the terminally ill have more important things to worry about than their files, but one imagines that chronically ill (as opposed to terminal) patients who might get relief from marijuana staying out of the system due to a healthy dose of non-pot-induced, privacy paranoia.

But what say you? What do you think about California's medical marijuana statutes and the recent push by the DEA to close down dispensaries? Also: what about healthy people with bogus prescriptions? An unintended consequence of a good law, or the inevitable consequence of a bad law? Let us know!

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