DENVER -- Inside the green neon sign, which is shaped like a marijuana leaf, is a red cross. The cross serves the fiction that most transactions in the store -- which is what it really is -- involve medicine.
The U.S. Justice Department recently announced that federal laws against marijuana would not be enforced for possession of marijuana that conforms to states' laws. In 2000, Colorado legalized medical marijuana. Since Justice's decision, the average age of the 400 persons a day seeking "prescriptions" at Colorado's multiplying medical marijuana dispensaries has fallen precipitously. Many new customers are college students.
Customers -- this, not patients, is what most really are -- tell doctors at the dispensaries that they suffer from insomnia, anxiety, headaches, premenstrual syndrome, "chronic pain," whatever, and pay nominal fees for "prescriptions." Most really just want to smoke pot.
So says Colorado's attorney general, John Suthers, an honest and thoughtful man trying to save his state from institutionalizing such hypocrisy. His dilemma is becoming commonplace: 13 states have, and 15 more are considering, laws permitting medical use of marijuana.
Realizing they could not pass legalization of marijuana, some people who favor that campaigned to amend Colorado's Constitution to legalize sales for medicinal purposes. Marijuana has medical uses -- e.g., to control nausea caused by chemotherapy -- but the helpful ingredients can be conveyed with other medicines. Medical marijuana was legalized but, Suthers says, no serious regime was then developed to regulate who could buy -- or grow -- it. (Caregivers? For how many patients? And in what quantities, and for what "medical uses.")
Today, Colorado communities can use zoning to restrict dispensaries, or can ban them because, even if federal policy regarding medical marijuana is passivity, selling marijuana remains against federal law. But Colorado's probable future has unfolded in California, which in 1996 legalized sales of marijuana to persons with doctors' "prescriptions."
Fifty-six percent of Californians support legalization, and Roger Parloff reports ("How Marijuana Became Legal" in the Sept. 28 Fortune) that they essentially have this. He notes that many California "patients" arrive at dispensaries "on bicycles, roller skates or skateboards." A Los Angeles city councilman estimates that there are about 600 dispensaries in the city. If so, they outnumber the Starbucks stores there period.