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Make Marijuana Legal? California Leads Way in Drug Policy Debate

A sign advertises a medical marijuana provider in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles
A sign advertises a medical marijuana provider in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles

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DOUG JOHNSON: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Doug Johnson.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week on our program, we look at drug use and drug control policy in the United States.


DOUG JOHNSON: Last month, the government released its latest findings on illegal drug use in the United States.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: "The report contains both good and bad news."

DOUG JOHNSON: Gil Kerlikowske heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He said the use of marijuana, ecstasy and methamphetamine all increased between two thousand eight and two thousand nine. So did the misuse of legal drugs like painkillers.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: "Frankly, we are disappointed by these results. They represent a serious challenge to law enforcement, treatment, prevention and recovery communities and to parents."

DOUG JOHNSON: Mr. Kerlikowske said the good news was a decrease in the use of cocaine. He praised a partnership among the United States, Colombia and Mexico for helping to lower cocaine use by twenty-one percent since two thousand seven.

At the same time, though, a campaign launched by Mexico's president against traffickers has led to bloody drug wars. Groups in Mexico are fighting each other to meet American demand for drugs.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Each year the United States government surveys almost seventy thousand people throughout the country. The research is called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Among other things, people are asked if they have used illegal drugs within the past month.

In two thousand eight the survey found that eight percent of the population age twelve and older used illegal drugs. Last year that number increased by almost a full percentage point.

Officials said that was mainly the result of increases in the most commonly used illegal drug: marijuana. Use of marijuana increased by eight percent between two thousand eight and two thousand nine.

DOUG JOHNSON: Drug policy director Gil Kerlikowske says recent findings have suggested a softening in the concerns of young people about the risks of drugs. He says they see marijuana especially as less threatening than it seemed in the past. And he suggested some possible reasons.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: "Some we cannot rule out are the constant discussions of so-called medical marijuana, marijuana legalization, and the downplaying of marijuana harms so prevalent in today’s media."

FAITH LAPIDUS: In California, though, a new state law reduces the offense for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law on September thirtieth.

A person with less than twenty-eight grams will now be charged with an infraction instead of a misdemeanor. An infraction is the same level as a minor traffic violation.

The punishment will not change: violators cannot be jailed or fined more than one hundred dollars. But under the new law they will no longer have to worry about getting a criminal record.

Governor Schwarzenegger said California's finances were the main reason the Legislature changed the law.

DOUG JOHNSON: But the governor restated his opposition to a ballot measure that would legalize marijuana in California. Californians will vote on the measure, Proposition 19, during elections on November second.

Proposition 19 would permit the personal use of marijuana by people age twenty-one or older. It would also permit local governments to regulate and tax the production and sale of marijuana by businesses. But people would not be permitted to use marijuana in public or while children are present.

An employee, behind the counter, helps clients choose from jars at a medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles
An employee, behind the counter, helps clients choose from jars at a medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles

FAITH LAPIDUS: California is already one of nine western states that permit the use of marijuana to treat pain or for other medical purposes. So do Oregon, Washington state and Alaska, along with Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Hawaii.

Michigan in the Midwest and Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont in the East also permit some medical uses. Voters in the nation's capital just passed a medical marijuana law.

The laws differ. Most states require written documentation from a doctor about a patient's condition and need for treatment.

Some states only permit use for certain diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis or AIDS. And rules differ about how patients can get the drug, how much they can possess and who can grow and sell it.

DOUG JOHNSON: California passed the nation's first medical-marijuana law in nineteen ninety-six. The state permits the use of marijuana for most medical conditions. Patients are not even required to get a written order from their doctor.

The law protects both the patient and the doctor from the risk of legal action. To follow the law, patients must get their marijuana only from officially recognized marijuana cooperatives and dispensaries.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Marijuana dispensaries and clubs need permission to operate under rules that are set by local officials.

The laws on medical marijuana in California are liberal -- some people say too liberal. Opponents say the dispensaries are nothing more than businesses that make big money selling marijuana.

DOUG JOHNSON: Officials in the city of Los Angeles have been taking action to shut down hundreds of dispensaries that are not legally registered. Patients argue that the closings make it difficult to get their marijuana as their doctors have advised.

But critics say the city has more than enough places to supply marijuana to patients. Neighbors of some operations suspect that not all the buyers have a real medical need.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Last year, the California Police Chiefs Association released a report on marijuana dispensaries in the state. The report listed problems that have been found outside some of these businesses. They include street robberies, drug sales to children and increased vehicle traffic.

DOUG JOHNSON: Mark Gustely is the owner of the Starbuds Cannabis Club in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco. His store was robbed shortly after opening this year and he was hit on the head. Mr. Gustely says he has a better security system now.

He also says that before he opened his store, he did a lot of research into how other medical marijuana businesses operate.

MARK GUSTELY: "What I found is that the bulk of the growers do not keep any records, they refuse to allow anyone to see how they’re doing things. And we’ve structured our own store where each vendor, which out of nine hundred I've only got currently about ten approved, that are willing to allow their material to be inspected, allow their growth facility to be inspected and be verified organic or natural growing techniques. We also work with the customer to identify the strain that is most effective with the medical condition."

FAITH LAPIDUS: Last month, thirty-eight workers at a medical marijuana company in California joined the Teamsters -- one of America's oldest labor unions.

The workers are employed by a management company in Oakland for marijuana growing cooperatives. The workers approved a two-year contract that will provide retirement pay, higher wages and paid holidays. The company, Marjyn Investments, also agreed to pay for the workers' health care costs.

Lou Marchetti, local business agent for the Teamsters, says he never thought he would organize medical marijuana providers. "Never in my wildest dreams," he says. But he calls marijuana "an expanding industry in California."

DOUG JOHNSON: Dispensary owners are divided on Proposition 19 -- the ballot measure that would legalize marijuana in California.

Mark Gustely is against it. He says if marijuana is legalized, a state sales tax on top of a local tax would make medical marijuana too costly in dispensaries.

MARK GUSTELY: "Now, because it's been legalized, you are going to have a kid on the corner selling the same product for a lot less. And they’ll go buy it from some kid on the corner. Now, not everybody, but a number of people will, and this will generate this huge amount of disturbances in the community. There’ll be an outcry of 'Wow, this was a mistake, let's turn it over to a major corporation like the tobacco industry.'"

FAITH LAPIDUS: Critics of Proposition 19 also include former directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy as well as the current director, Gil Kerlikowske.

They say there are some people who do not use marijuana simply for one reason -- because it is illegal. They predict that marijuana use will increase if voters in California take that reason away.


DOUG JOHNSON: President Obama chose Gil Kerlikowske to serve as the nation's so-called drug czar. The Senate confirmed him in May. Formerly, he was the police chief in Seattle, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest.

He supports drug policies aimed more at prevention and treatment than punishment. He says it makes no sense to keep talking about a "war on drugs."

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: "Nationally, overdose deaths have surpassed gunshot wounds as the number two cause of injury deaths. In sixteen states, drug-induced deaths have surpassed car crashes to become the leading cause of injury death."

Mr. Kerlikowske says filling jails with repeat drug offenders is not the answer. But he argues that legalizing drugs is not the solution either.

Others are not so sure. Bill Piper is the national affairs director of an organization called the Drug Policy Alliance.

BILL PIPER: "As long as drug use is a crime, people are going to be afraid to seek treatment. It's just not going to work."

FAITH LAPIDUS: The government is trying new ways to control drugs. An estimated seven million Americans abused prescription drugs last year.

The Drug Enforcement Administration just completed its first-ever "Prescription Drug Take-Back" campaign. The DEA set up more than four thousand places across the country on October second for people to leave medicines they no longer needed. The agency collected two hundred twenty thousand metric tons of prescription drugs. More take-back days are being planned for the future.


DOUG JOHNSON:Our program was written and produced by Caty Weaver. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­I’m Doug Johnson.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus. You can comment on our programs at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.