With all of the focus on how terrible a newspaper the Seattle Times is, I temporarily forgot how terrible a newspaper the Tacoma News-Tribune is. To be fair, I’ve seen far more incoherent anti-drug editorials than the one in that link, but it ends up completely missing the larger point behind the corruption within the medical marijuana community. The recent violence against members of that community has intensified a few pre-existing rifts, but it also turns out to be a good example of why moderation within that group is as important as ever if we’re to overcome the outdated stereotypes about marijuana and close the curtain on a truly destructive social policy – and why creating a legal and regulated market remains the smartest solution to the problem.
That editorial is a good springboard for tackling various aspects of those topics, so I’ll take it piece by piece:
Imagine a drug company manufacturing and selling uncontrolled doses of its pharmaceuticals right in the owner’s house.
Marijuana isn’t a pharmaceutical. It’s a naturally growing plant with medicinal properties. It’s also far more benign than the vast majority of drugs produced by drug companies. It’s impossible to overdose on it. And it’s often less addictive than a lot of prescription drugs. That distinction aside, I’m not comfortable with any unregulated markets for potentially addictive substances. Marijuana is certainly unique in that large numbers of people use it recreationally for its psychoactive effects, while others use it medicinally for its various other effects. For either use, there’s a distinct advantage to having a regulatory system set up to ensure that people know exactly what they’re buying and to keep the markets out of residential areas and away from children.
Imagine the owner bringing in a doctor on Saturdays and paying them to pass out prescriptions for his product to lines of customers. Both owner and doctor haul in large sums of cash in this tidy little arrangement.
That’s not terribly hard to imagine. While it doesn’t happen so directly, pharmaceutical companies and doctors often operate together in ways that benefit each other financially. What Steve Sarich was doing with CannaCare isn’t too different than what happens on a far larger scale with our nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
The quantity of drugs on hand violates state law, as do the sales themselves. Both the cash and drugs are crime magnets. Burglaries have become routine. The neighbors aren’t happy.
I bet they aren’t happy. I wouldn’t be happy either. But as I mentioned before, the blame for that does not lie solely with Steve Sarich. It also lies with the Governor and the state legislature, who updated the medical marijuana law in a way that continued to keep marijuana dispensaries illegal, and therefore hidden within our neighborhoods. While large amounts of drugs and money in a residential area attract crime, regulated dispensaries have not. In fact, while Los Angeles has seen hundreds of dispensaries pop up around the city, their overall crime rate has plummeted.
Were this some normal, FDA-approved prescription drug, most everyone – especially medical oversight bodies – would be screaming to high heaven.
Who says we’re not? Even Sarich himself would tell you that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. He should be operating out in the open, in a regulated commercial environment. And if his doctors are doing anything fraudulent, they and he should be investigated for that. I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone by now that his operation is more than a little shady. I’ve been tempted to ask him directly about whether he really thinks the 18 and 19-year-olds who nearly shot his head off and tried to rob him were really in need of the medical marijuana authorizations he helped them get. It’s probably not worth the effort on my part.
The drug is non-FDA-approved marijuana, though, and the operation is in King County. So lots of people seem cool with the whole thing. Attach the word “medical” to “marijuana,” and it’s pure humanitarianism.
Personally, I still think that King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg deserves a lot of kudos for how he’s handled the medical marijuana issue. And unfortunately, it ends up being people like Steve Sarich who undermine those efforts in the end. There are a number of people in this state who have a legitimate need for marijuana as medicine, but whenever people without medical needs use that excuse to gain access to an easier, safer, and often cheaper supply of marijuana, it clouds that fact for those who don’t follow this issue closely. Unfortunately, the Tacoma News-Tribune editorial board appears to be in the category of “those who don’t follow this issue closely”.
This particular situation hit the news two weeks ago when Steve Sarich, a marijuana champion who grows and sells marijuana out of a Kirkland house, fought off armed robbers (good for him) who were after the cash sitting around at his place. Sarich said it was his eighth home invasion since May.
At the top of this post, I alluded to the rift in the medical marijuana community. The rift exists because of what I just mentioned in the paragraph above. When prominent medical marijuana advocates do things that are obviously outside of the spirit of what the voters approved in 1998, it plays into all of the arguments that law enforcement rely on to keep marijuana prohibition alive. When teenage armed robbers have medical marijuana authorizations, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the public is less trustful of the next thing that comes out of the mouth of a medical marijuana advocate. This isn’t any different than the dynamic between moderation and extremism that exists within any political movement, but drug law reformers have typically (and unfairly) been at a disadvantage for years in demonstrating that removing prohibitions on drug use is actually the moderate solution to the problem of drug abuse. Within an environment like that, it can be easy to resort to extremism yourself, but all that does is play into the false frames that exist. Sarich falls into this trap all the time, and to make it even worse, he’s constantly accusing nearly everyone else in the medical marijuana movement of trying to undermine patients whenever they strive for more moderate positions.
Sarich – who has a doctor’s authorization to use pot as medicine – says he’s no drug dealer. But he’s certainly an entrepreneur.
Sure, and there’s nothing wrong with being an entrepreneur. Despite his faults, I’d still rather have the money being spent on marijuana (medicinal or not) going to someone like Sarich than going to criminal gangs from Mexico. Within every medical marijuana law in the country, there are going to be entrepreneurial types who are willing to bend and stretch the law to allow for non-medical users to obtain that authorization. And there will always be a doctor or two willing to go along. Hell, it even happened during alcohol prohibition, even though – unlike marijuana – medical organizations no longer considered alcohol to have any medicinal properties. The answer at that time wasn’t to prosecute more people, it was to re-establish legal and regulated markets for the recreational use of that drug.
After the attempted robbery, police say they found $10,712 in cash in his safe and what looked like records of $14,653 worth of sales between March 1 and 5. Also, 116 medium and large-sized marijuana plants and 259 starter plants in the house, plus a load of marijuana products and a small arsenal of guns.
Anyone can do the math to figure out that Sarich was sitting on a profitable enterprise. In states where dispensaries are already legal, those who run them are making good money. In the absence of legal dispensaries though, that money goes to criminal organizations – often based in Mexico – which continues to fuel the massive amount of crime and violence down there.
State law allows a medical marijuana patient a maximum of 15 plants; Sarich’s live-in girlfriend also has an authorization, so their combined max would be 30.
Sarich – who was caught with 1,554 plants in 2007 – readily admits he’s been providing the drug to numerous users. Police say he sells it to customers who pay up to $200 to attend his Saturday seminars, where his hired doctor hands out authorizations to use marijuana as medicine.
Steve Chapman does an excellent job here of summing up the problem of Mexican crime stemming from prohibition. The lesson that we should have learned by now is that if you prohibit folks like Steve Sarich from continuing to run his operation, it may feel like you’re accomplishing something, but in reality, the people who would have bought his product are just going to find supply elsewhere. And whenever the enforcement of those laws gets more and more aggressive, the numbers of people willing to take that risk to supply others dwindles accordingly. What we have now, after several decades of an aggressive nationwide war on the marijuana trade, is that it’s overwhelmingly controlled by very dangerous people who aren’t afraid to break the law. The fact that Sarich was cynically getting people medical marijuana authorizations and growing a few hundred extra plants to sell to them is a rounding error in that larger equation.
Let’s cut through the haze: Dispensaries and shill doctors are not what Washingtonians approved when they legalized medical marijuana – with strict limits – at the polls in 1998. That year’s Initiative 692 explicitly forbade sales, limited quantities and allowed a caregiver to provide marijuana to a patient – but only one patient, not dozens and not hundreds.
That’s correct, but the reason that there was an effort to rework the law in the legislature in 2007 was because of those shortcomings in the voter-approved law. Without legal ways to distribute the medicine, patients (many of whom are disabled) were forced to grow plants themselves or had to find someone they knew and trusted who could do it for them. This left a large number of patients with only a theoretical way to use the law without relying on the criminal black market. No one is happy about the shill doctors and the 18-year-old hoodlums with medical marijuana cards. But that’s a bigger problem when you force the distribution underground. If you bring it out of the shadows, people less shady than Steve Sarich will get involved. But it’s up to the state legislature to act upon that. It’s already fully legal in Colorado, Rhode Island, New Mexico, and California. It should be made legal here too.
Weeds must be pulled before they go to seed. Official tolerance of “medical” grow operations insults the voters, subverts the law, fosters de facto drug houses and invites violence in the bargain. Quasi-commercial marijuana dispensaries are a disease; the cure is prosecution.
No, prosecution is by far the worst response to this situation. All that would do is hand more of the local market for marijuana back to people who are less afraid of law enforcement. The last thing we need to be doing is giving more money to organized gangs. We have enough gang violence already.
There’s always a temptation to believe that news outlets like the News-Tribune know this and cynically give bad advice in order to keep law enforcement budgets fat, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think they’re just stuck in a mentality that has far too long gone unquestioned in our society. The idea that you could prosecute your way to success in the drug war is pure folly. It has left us with ailing budgets, overcrowded prisons, and far too many situations where law enforcement isn’t protecting us, but waging war on us.
Believing that adult possession of a psychoactive and medicinal plant constitutes a crime is the disease. Legalization and regulation is the cure.