Although feigning glaucoma in order to gain a medical marijuana license may have entered the arena of popular culture several years ago when Turtle and Johnny Drama conspired to do something similar on one episode of Entourage (although they ended up using Drama’s anxiety disorder instead), I was still under the general impression that unless you lived in Entourage-Hollywood, where life is grand, and/or else in the far reaches of America, i.e., California, obtaining marijuana legally was not quite yet an option for the average citizen.

However, times change. And quickly.

There are currently thirteen states that have legalized medical marijuana in some capacity. And although Colorado has had a medical marijuana law on its books since 2000, in the past year, gaining a medical marijuana license has gone from a fringe activity for those with serious medical conditions to–well, you be the judge: Colorado issued roughly 2,000 medical marijuana licenses between 2000 and 2008, also known as “the Bush years;” and, in 2009 alone, the number had risen, truly exponentially, to 60,000, coinciding with an equally large growth in medical marijuana dispensaries in Denver, Boulder, and other Colorado cities, an impact coined the “Green Rush.”

Because marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act, and, thus, is illegal under federal law, sources have cited the Obama administration’s “lenient stance” on the prosecution of individuals for possession of medical marijuana, as well as a Colorado state health board ruling that rejected limitations on the number of patients one particular caregiver could serve, as reasons for the dynamic change. At the same time, as with so many other shifts in policy in this day and age, the economy is also considered a major factor: legal dispensaries pay taxes, hire employees, and even now advertise regularly in the newspaper, an industry that could certainly use the advertising dollars. Thus, at the very least, the growth in medical marijuana distribution does represent some sort of wellspring in a struggling economy.

Obviously, this change in circumstances has not been uniformly applauded and Colorado lawmakers are currently at work on drafting a medical marijuana regulation bill to, perhaps, “clamp down” on the new booming industry and clarify the original 2000 statute, which is generally regarded as vague. However, for anyone who has spent any time in and around Boulder, Colorado, knows that popular opinion, at least in some parts of the state, might be tough to rein in, especially when the “economic benefit” argument will be so readily available. Thus, as of right now, an individual in search of medical marijuana need only have a physician check a box indicating that the individual suffers from one of a handful of conditions, including “severe pain,” and then send the application with a $90 registration fee to the Colorado Department of Health. A license will be issued within thirty-five days and that person will then be able to stroll down to the neighborhood store, i.e., the “primary caregiver,” who, under statute, need not have specific medical training or background and need only be eighteen years old, and pick up legal reefer.

This particular issue has certainly been in the public consciousness for at least a decade or more; however, it is fascinating to see how a change in administration can have immediate real-world effects on the ground. It’s also, needless to say, a somewhat odd position for a state government to openly inform its citizens that the medical marijuana license being issued by the state will provide no defense if they happen to be prosecuted for breaking a federal law, which the license enables them to do legally in the state. At the same time, it’s important to emphasize that although California and Colorado could certainly be classified as unique states with, sometimes, unique views, the lure of the economic impact has enticed Michigan, which legalized medical marijuana in 2008 and which now is dealing with its own controversies related to the issue, including whether city governments can override state law legalizing medical marijuana by prohibiting dispensaries through the issuance of zoning ordinances.

Regardless, with the federal law on the books, one might think the prosecution of medical marijuana dispensaries would turn into an administration-by-administration policy decision; however, if the practice had been allowed, with few strings attached, for eight full years under a possible two-term Obama administration, then it would be difficult to imagine the complete curtailment in 2012. At the same time, if the legitimacy of physician statements regarding the “patient’s” medical condition continues to be, uhh, questioned–but, then again, who am I to say that there has not been a rash of glaucoma spreading across the Rocky Mountains?–then perhaps something more restrictive will happen soon. Either way, the fact that marijuana is, arguably, completely legal in Colorado in 2010, is amazing.

Stuart Burkhalter

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One Response to Marijuana Isn't Legal in the States…Is It?

  1. Michael Canon says:

    Economic benefit? Boulder as the driver of policy? What does Charlie Whitebread at the UVA Law School say about this issue? The economic benefit of cannibus sales is marginal at best and probably completely insignificant. In a State of 4 million people why would “10 square miles surrounded by reality” be a driver of economic policy? I don’t see much coming out of Boulder except poor sports teams and some pretty cool students.