Exactly How Legal Is Medical Marijuana? California's medical marijuana law conflicts with federal law, which says the growth and sale of the drug is illegal. But taxing marijuana could provide hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for state and federal governments.
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‘Day to Day’s Madeleine Brand takes a journey through the medical marijuana industry.”

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Exactly How Legal Is Medical Marijuana?


‘Day to Day’s Madeleine Brand takes a journey through the medical marijuana industry.”

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This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Alex Cohen. You know, Alex, life can be a bit surreal here in California, especially Southern California. Get this: I was driving down the street the other day; I saw this billboard, giant pot leaf, and underneath, a 1-800 number you could call to buy some.

CHADWICK: You could except that it's illegal, right? Marijuana's illegal. But our colleague Madeleine Brand has been getting into this fight that's going on between California, which is at the vanguard of the medical marijuana movement, and the federal government, determined to shut down medical marijuana. So this is part of our series, California Dreaming.

(Soundbite of music)

MADELEINE BRAND: Surreal is right, you guys. This is an Alice in Wonderland world, and it's not just the caterpillar getting high.

When I start nosing around asking people about this, I discover A, lots of people smoke weed, and B, quite a few of them get it legally. They have prescriptions for medical marijuana. There are people out there who are really sick who say marijuana helps them a lot. Then there are people like Mike Pishada (ph), a stand-up comedian here in LA.

Mr. MIKE PISHADA (Standup Comedian, L.A.): I had subscapular tendinitis in my back and insomnia. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PISHADA: It helps me sleep.

BRAND: The California law, approved by voters 12 years ago, says you can grow marijuana, possess it, smoke it if you have a serious illness. What's serious? Well, that's up to interpretation. Here in Southern California, there are more than 200 medical marijuana dispensaries, some with doctors there to write a prescription on the spot. Other doctors, like Mike Pishada's, have decided to specialize.

When you walk in, do you say, I want a medical marijuana card, or do you say, do you kind of talk about it obliquely?

Mr. PISHADA: Pretty much as soon as you walk in, they just handed you a clipboard with medical marijuana information. They know why you're going in that clinic.

BRAND: 200,000 Californians now have medical marijuana prescriptions.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BRAND: We went to a dispensary in West Hollywood. There's a huge security guard outside who buzzes us in, and another just inside.

(Soundbite of talking)

(Soundbite of buzzer)

BRAND: And when I'm buzzed in - wow! I have to say, when you first walk in the door, you are at first, well, astonished by the beefy security guards, but also by...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: By the aroma.

Mr. DON (Medicinal Marijuana Dispensary Owner, West Hollywood): There is an aroma, and we do work to do some aroma abatement. But obviously, if this were a bakery, it would smell like bread, and because we are not a bakery, we smell like what we are.

BRAND: Don is the owner. He didn't want to use his last name because he's been raided before by the DEA. With his short hair, button-down shirt and tie and office pallor, he kind of looks like a DEA agent - or a pharmacist. His dispensary, though, feels more like a head shop than a CVS. The receptionist is wearing a T-shirt that says, Skunk Number One. In the back room, there are a couple of display cases filled with different varieties of marijuana.

Mr. DON: And each of these glass jars that you see has a label on the top that identifies the variety of cannabis. Of course, the labels - the names on the labels are colloquial names. These aren't scientific names, so we're not quite to the point yet where we have standardized strains that are available from a catalogue. So you'll see ones called Outdoor Purple, another one's called Green Goblin. Some of these names can be a little bit comical.

BRAND: Don says between 50 and 85 people come here every day to buy their "Green Goblin," or their "Outdoor Purple." He checks their prescription and makes sure their doctor is board-certified. He says half the people who come here have cancer or HIV. The rest, he says, have other serious medical problems. But remember Mike Pishada, the guy with insomnia? He admits that he smokes $300 worth of medical marijuana a month simply because he can.

BRAND: Do you feel like you're getting around the law, the intent of the law?

Mr. PISHADA: Absolutely. Yeah, and that's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PISHADA: That's the point, but I think that it's a law that doesn't make any sense. And in this country, there's somebody jailed for a marijuana offense every 41 seconds. That's a risk that I don't feel I want to take, and it's a risk I don't think I should have to take if I can legally use.

BRAND: That is what makes the feds hopping mad.

Mr. TOM RILEY (Spokesman, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): Cultivating, manufacturing and trafficking marijuana is against the law, you know. There's this perception that somehow or other, you slap the term medical on it, it's legal. It's not.

BRAND: Tom Riley is a spokesman with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Mr. RILEY: The ballot initiative in California making it not illegal in terms of state law, that doesn't do anything to change federal law. Now, that issue got tied up in the court system for a number of years, and that gray area is what allowed all these dispensaries to kind of build up and flourish. Well, the Supreme Court ruled two years ago that there is no conflict between the state and federal law, that the federal law prevails.

BRAND: And so the DEA has trained its guns, legal and real, on the medical marijuana dispensaries in California. They're raiding, seizing records, even pressuring landlords to evict them. In rare cases, federal prosecutors bring drug-trafficking charges against dispensary owners, the ones, they say, who are the most flagrant, who are making the most money.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: A showdown between state and federal law, with a Central Coast man stuck in the middle. Good evening...

BRAND: That man is Charlie Lynch. He ran a dispensary in Morro Bay, a small town along the central California coast. When Charlie opened his dispensary, there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the town leaders. But last year, the DEA raided his dispensary and shut it down. Federal prosecutors accused Charlie of selling more than $2 million worth of marijuana in the year he was open. He went to trial a few weeks ago. Tom Roszak is the spokesman for the prosecutor's office in L.A.

Mr. TOM ROSZAK (Spokesman, L.A. Prosecutor's Office): He was a drug distributor and after an investigation, determination that he was selling to minors, among other people, and hiding behind the cloak of medical marijuana, we decided to seek an indictment. And now, we've convicted him on five federal criminal charges that carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.

BRAND: In the courtroom, Charlie looked shell-shocked. His lawyer, John Littrell, says he was never able to bring up evidence that Charlie was following California law, that he never sold marijuana to someone who didn't have a prescription.

Mr. JOHN LITTRELL (Lawyer for Charles Lynch): In fact, there's a point where we called as a witness one of his patients and, in the first couple of sentences, the judge stopped the trial, ordered the jury out, and then ordered the jury to disregard everything he said.

BRAND: It probably wouldn't have made a difference anyway. Kitty Meese was the jury forewoman.

Ms. KITTY MEESE (Jury Forewoman): We didn't feel he was an evil man out to do evil things, but under the guidelines we were given from the federal government, we had no choice.

BRAND: With her white, upswept hair, Kitty looks like someone who's comfortable on a Palm Springs golf course. And despite the fact that she voted to convict Charlie Lynch, she believes medical marijuana should be legal. But she doesn't think federal laws will ever change.

Ms. MEESE: I'd like to see them get it past Bible Belt, mid-America. I don't think - I won't live to see it.

BRAND: But then again, who would have thought a decade ago that you could walk into a storefront in the middle of the day and legally buy an ounce of high-quality weed? Don, the dispensary owner in West Hollywood, said this when I asked him, how's business?

Mr. DON: We don't have to compete with Walgreens because they're not allowed to sell these products. Unlike what was happening 10 years ago in the state, the facility where you're standing has a payroll. We pay our payroll taxes. Everyone gets a paycheck at the end of the week with their taxes withheld. We pay for our liability insurance. We pay for our workers comp. We pay for our health insurance for the staff. We pay sales tax on the medicine. And so this business has all the same overhead expenses as any other retail business. The only difference is that this business can be closed down at any moment because of DEA interference.

BRAND: Did you catch that? He pays taxes. California takes in more than $100 million a year in taxes on medical marijuana. Marijuana is among the top five cash crops in most states now, not just California. One analyst says, if it were legal and taxed, the U.S. Treasury could bring in $31 billion - $31 billion a year.

OK, Alex, I'll step back through the looking glass now, but as the caterpillar in "Alice in Wonderland" would tell me, if I asked, when you spend some time in an alternate reality, it can change the way you see the reality you live in.

CHADWICK: And if you're looking to maybe stretch your time in alternate reality, go to our Web site, npr.org/daydreaming. Tell us, what do you think about this medical marijuana issue, npr.org/daydreaming. And there's more to come on Day to Day.

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