ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
All this week, we're featuring a series called The New Marijuana. Today: medical marijuana. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia allow people to use pot to treat a wide variety of ailments. Each state's law is different, but if you look at them in chronological order, a pattern emerges: The laws are becoming stricter. The states passing laws today include more regulation than the early adopters did.
We sent NPR's Jeff Brady to find out why that's happening. He begins where medical marijuana laws in the U.S. began: California.
JEFF BRADY: Think of California as the Wild West of medical marijuana. Voters there were the first to pass a law in 1996. The language in Proposition 215 was simple. Essentially, it said: allow sick people to use pot.
The broadly-worded language successfully avoided conflict with federal law, under which marijuana possession remains illegal. But with few restrictions, dispensaries flourished. In Los Angeles County alone there are hundreds of places to legally buy pot.
Mr. JAKE COLLINS(ph): In this stretch of block that we're standing on, there's probably 12 to 15 shops.
BRADY: Jake Collins is on Melrose Avenue in L.A. He's not a customer of the dispensaries but knows it's easy to become one.
Mr. COLLINS: Like, my friend Steve(ph), who is, like, oh, I've got insomnia, you know, or, like, they're, like, oh, you know, my appetite's not so good. It's like it seems that you can get it for any, you know, any reason.
BRADY: More than 40,000 medical marijuana cards have been issued in California, more than any other state. And in November, California voters will decide whether to go ahead and make this de facto legalization official.
After California, 13 more states and D.C. passed medical marijuana laws. Some, like Washington and Oregon, don't allow dispensaries at all. But so far, none have gone to the lengths New Mexico has to regulate medical pot.
That state does allow dispensaries but only nonprofit ones. And to date, just five have been approved.
JAYLENE(ph) (NewMexiCann Natural Medicine): Hi, this is Jaylene with NewMexiCann Natural Medicine.
BRADY: The folks at NewMexiCann in Santa Fe spend a lot of the time on the phone explaining the rules to customers.
JAYLENE: First, you need to be a registered patient with us.
BRADY: Getting NewMexiCann licensed to grow and distribute marijuana was a long process, according to Executive Director Len Goodman.
Mr. LEN GOODMAN (Executive Director, NewMexiCann Natural Medicine): There is no application form. What there is is a long checklist: a two-page, single-spaced checklist.
BRADY: The state wants to know things like: Who will grow the plants? What is their experience? What will the distribution model look like? And then there are more mundane matters.
Mr. GOODMAN: Sexual harassment policies, what's your labeling going to look like, what are your invoices going to look like, how are you going to identify your products, what units do you expect to sell in.
BRADY: One complaint Goodman has: the state limits him to 95 plants. That means demand is always outpacing supply, and that's just how the state wants it. If supply increases too much, there's a risk legal medical marijuana could be diverted to the illegal recreational market.
But that means patients like Dennis Garcia can go without. He's a broad-shouldered Iraq war veteran who uses marijuana to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mr. DENNIS GARCIA: Cannabis was the only thing that was really helping me. They had me on about eight, nine different types of medications.
BRADY: When he couldn't find marijuana through dispensaries, Garcia started growing his own out in his garage.
(Soundbite of garage door opening)
BRADY: There you'll see bright lights, fans and a small collection of plants. Just getting approved to use marijuana was difficult. Both a doctor and a psychiatrist had to sign a state form saying traditional treatments failed. They also had to conclude that marijuana would do Garcia more good than harm.
Then there was the grow license. Garcia had to prove that he could keep his crop secure.
Mr. GARCIA: It can't be within a certain amount of distance from a school. It can't be seen or visible from the street or any public property.
BRADY: All these restrictions are designed to ensure New Mexico's program is for medical use, not a backdoor way to legalize pot.
State Senator CISCO McSORLEY (Democrat, New Mexico): It's the result of the practical experiences of trying to get away from the California model.
BRADY: New Mexico State Senator Cisco McSorley says this issue is personal for him. Before New Mexico's law was put into effect, his brother was diagnosed with cancer and given only a short time to live. Senator McSorley suggested he try marijuana, but his brother worried about getting caught and bringing shame on the senator.
State Sen. McSORLEY: And I said Dick, my career is not as important as your living. But I could never talk him into it, and he died. I dont know if pot would've helped him, but I know we never had that option.
BRADY: McSorley says New Mexico has shown that through strict regulation, medical marijuana can be made available only to the sick. But there is a risk in such active regulation. It's possible a federal prosecutor could charge New Mexico regulators with helping people get access to marijuana.
Dr. Alfredo Vigil heads the state Department of Health, which implemented New Mexico's medical marijuana program.
Dr. ALFREDO VIGIL (Secretary, New Mexico Department of Health): So my very first goal was that I didn't go to jail, and none of my doctors went to jail, and nobody in the Department of Health went to jail.
BRADY: To date, there's been no interest from federal prosecutors, and New Mexico's law has avoided the California model of dispensaries popping up all over.
Dr. VIGIL By designing it that way and enforcing that, so far there's really not the kind of money to be made that would underwrite proliferation of those kinds of businesses, and I'm hoping we can keep it that way.
BRADY: Now the state of New Jersey appears ready to go beyond even New Mexico. Under that state's program, virtually every marijuana bud that's harvested will have been closely monitored by a bureaucrat.
In all of this, there's an interesting civics lesson, says Vanderbilt University law professor Rob Mikos. He says federal law in this case the ban on marijuana possession always is supreme, but there are times states can choose to go their own way.
Professor ROB MIKOS (Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University): What they're doing is perfectly legitimate. It's just a passive form of resistance to federal authority.
BRADY: Mikos says states have traditionally prosecuted nearly all of the marijuana possession cases. Now, in response to their citizens, they're actually embracing medical marijuana, and the feds aren't doing much about it.
Prof. MIKOS: On an important level, what they're doing for their own citizens is quite significant, that it actually has some meaning.
BRADY: Mikos says when it comes to using marijuana for medical purposes, our culture is changing, and the states are leading the way.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.
BLOCK: And if you want to know the medical marijuana laws in your state, you can see a map at our website, npr.org.
Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, a visit to a small radio station in the pot-growing capital of Northern California. It lets clandestine marijuana farmers know what authorities are up to.
Unidentified Man: You're listening to Redwood Community Radio, KMUD Garberville.
Unidentified Woman: According to a citizen's observation at 8:45 a.m. this morning, three helicopters were seen headed from Laytonville towards Bell Springs Road.
BLOCK: That story tomorrow on NPR's MORNING EDITION.