People were welcomed into Thursday night’s “Stirring the Pot” public forum with the offer of (marijuana-free) brownies before two hours of heated debate.
The meeting, hosted by the Santa Barbara Foundation and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, was focused on the hypothetical ramifications of having marijuana legalized in California in 2016, though the narrative often had to be reined in. Panelists gave statements and responded to audience questions.
“Marijuana is the most-used illegal drug in the world, bar none, by a huge percentage,” said moderator Stan Roden, a mediator and former Santa Barbara County district attorney. He added that 17 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, but the federal government doesn’t recognize those laws.
If — or when, in this meeting’s case — marijuana is legalized, most panel members agreed on the basics, saying that there will need to be regulations for growing and distribution, keeping it away from children, and putting some of the tax revenues toward prevention and treatment programs.
A key point, panelist Dale Gieringer said, is that the whole issue is moot if the federal government keeps marijuana classified as a Schedule 1 drug (the same as heroin and methamphetamines).
“You see, in California, the medical marijuana laws are trashed and trampled by the federal government; they won’t even respect those, they won’t respect recreational use,” he said.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has raided, sued and sent warning letters to medical marijuana dispensary operators and landlords in Santa Barbara County and throughout the state.
Gieringer is the California coordinator for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and co-founder of the California Drug Policy Reform Coalition and Californians for Compassionate Use. He said NORML approves the right of adults to use marijuana under similar rules as alcohol, tobacco, firearms and other legal things.
There are multiple legalization models to look at, but Gieringer points to the Netherlands and India. In Amsterdam, he said, anyone older than age 18 can buy marijuana over the counter and the use rates are lower than the United States. In India, where it was legal until the 1980s, licensed producers grew it, took it to an inspection house to get examined and taxed, then licensed vendors sold it to adults.
Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Von Nguyen, who has worked with drug and juvenile cases, said her office obviously would not prosecute marijuana-related crimes if the substance was legalized. If it was, she would want to see regulations in place for growing, quality control (like the level of THC, the active ingredient) and distribution.
“What we’re seeing is an increase in youth who are in fact abusing marijuana, and that is a huge concern not only for me as a prosecutor but as a parent of teenagers,” she said.
She stressed the importance of education — for children and their parents — and making clear, effective regulations. She added that more access could lead to more use by children and young adults and more driving under the influence cases.
Dr. Dave Bearman, who created the Isla Vista Medical Clinic and writes medical marijuana recommendations for patients, said cannabis is a medical issue, not a criminal justice issue.
“The drug war has not served the American public well,” he said.
If legalized, he said, the tax revenue could be directed to teaching parenting skills, providing substance abuse treatment and researching cannabis further. Children would have more confidence when adults warn them of “truly dangerous drugs like alcohol and tobacco,” and criminal justice resources could be shifted to non-drug issues, he said.
As to health effects, most side effects come from smoking it — such as lung irritation or coughing — with rare cases of anxiety or panic attacks in “naïve users,” Bearman said.
The line seems thin, too, he added: He can prescribe Marinol, an anti-nausea drug also used to treat loss of appetite or weight loss, which has THC (marijuana’s active ingredient), and government agencies have said people can drive after using. Another cannabinoid drug, Sativex, is derived directly from the cannabis plant and is coming to the United States by 2015, he said.
In his opinion, he said cannabis should be sold out of a drug store, with dispensaries held to the same rules and regulations.
“Politicians have dropped the ball on this one,” Bearman said. “The regulations we have in this state are laughable.”
Political adviser and consultant Alexandra Datig, a recovering addict who has been sober for 13½ years, opposed Proposition 19 and works on drug policy and public policy issues on a state and national scale. She is president of the High Road L.A. business and government relations firm.
“Los Angeles County pot laws are a joke — throwing a Frisbee on the beach has a higher fine than getting caught with an ounce of pot,” Datig said.
If drugs were legal and more available, she said, there would have to be a lot of focus on recovery and treatment, adding that it costs about $50,000 per year to incarcerate someone and treatment would cost a lot more.
Most of the dispensary owners in town came to the forum, and former Hortipharm operator Joshua Braun, whose business was raided and closed, said legalization would help lower crime rates and be a boon to the economy. He said that when there were more dispensaries in Santa Barbara, there was less of a black market.
Nguyen disagreed, saying growers were selling backpacks full of marijuana to dispensaries for cash during that time.
Bearman argued, however, that legalizing marijuana wouldn’t cause an increase in black-market sales.
“Between the choice of going into a storefront or going to the parking lot and getting it from some sleazy person, what would your choice be?” he said.
To wrap things up, Roden asked panelists about the potential health risks and what they would include in legalization legislation.
Gieringer, who has helped write legislation in the past, said a state agency should oversee regulation and that taxation is a must. Without any controls, the free market cost could plummet and raise issues in generating increased abuse, he said.
Bearman said that if cannabis was rescheduled as a medicine, there could be more research and quality control testing done on the product.
Every panelist at Thursday’s forum agreed that potential tax revenues need to be linked to some kind of prevention and treatment programs.