09/12/17

Trouble in Plumas County

© Natallia Yeumenenka | 123rf.com; “Plumas” is Spanish for feathers.

Situated in the Sierra Nevada region of California, Plumas County is an attractive recreational destination for a wide variety of activities, including boating, camping, fishing, hiking, skiing, hunting and others. The Explore Plumas County webpage says it is “a Wilderness of Wonders,” where the wilderness is untouched. “Natural beauty is etched in the snow-capped peaks and towering pines.” It is said to be a four-season travel destination with fresh mountain air and pristine, blue waters. You are encouraged to explore the mountain ranges and wilderness, where there is “something new to discover with each experience”—including illegal marijuana growers.

I’m not a resident of Plumas County. But as I was completing another article (“Pot Market Getting a ‘Black’ Eye”) on the problems with how the expanding recreational marijuana has helped the black market for marijuana to flourish instead of weakening it, I ran across the current debate over marijuana in Plumas County. Looking closer at the issues in this small, rural county helps to illustrate some of the problems that come with the political and cultural pressures to legalize marijuana.

The photos on the Explore Plumas County webpage are seductively beautiful. I want to go visit; maybe for a very long time. The county is in the northern end of the Sierra Nevada range. The entire county population is only 20,007, as of the 2010 census. But Plumas County is in the midst of a political and culture war over whether or not there should be a greater presence of marijuana in the county. Cannabusiness Law noted currently there is a ban on the retail sales of marijuana as well as manufacturing. Current zoning codes do not permit commercial marijuana growing, but the codes are under review. The webpage also provides you with information to contact local officials and let them know you oppose the bans … or approve them, I’d add.

On November 8, 2016, California voters approved Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA). Beginning in 2018, it allows “the sale of marijuana for adult use in licensed stores under regulations to be established by the state Dept. of Marijuana Control (DMC) in conjunction with local governments.” The possession and use of up to one ounce of marijuana (or 8 grams of concentrates) and personal use cultivation of up to six plants is also legal. It also reduces fines for most illegal cultivation, sale, transport and possession for sale offenses from felonies to misdemeanors—with possible exceptions for violent or repeat offenders. See the California NORML website for the following quote and more information on Proposition 64 and other California marijuana laws.

Commercial sale, cultivation, and production of marijuana are allowed only by licensed providers. Illegal sale, transport, manufacture, cultivation, or possession with intent to sell are generally punishable as misdemeanors, with felony enhancement allowed for special circumstances and three-time offenders. Minors under 18 are in no case subject to imprisonment, but may be punished by drug education and community service.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996 with Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act. And it is because of the fallout from that change that many of the current problems in Plumas County have occurred. The Los Angeles Times reported that four weeks before the 1996 general election where Proposition 215 was approved, Senator Diane Feinstein said “you’ll be able to drive a truckload of marijuana through the holes in it.” The devil is in the details, and she said this particular bill lacked details. Nevertheless, the assessment of the author of the LA Times article was it had been an incredible success, despite its vague wording and instances of abuse. Read on before you accept that statement.

After the approval of Proposition 215, the cultivation of marijuana took off in the so-called Emerald Triangle, consisting of the counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity, along the northern coast of California. Plumas County is on the opposite, eastern side of the state, at the same latitude as the Emerald Triangle counties. The Emerald Triangle has been estimated to produce 60% of America’s marijuana. As was noted above, Plumas County previously banned the retail sales and manufacturing of marijuana, and had zoning restrictions for the cultivation of marijuana. Nevertheless there have been serious problems with illegal activities involving marijuana within the county.

In July of 2015, Plumas County authorities reported that along with Forest Service law enforcement, they recovered about 23,000 marijuana plants at two separate locations. The estimated value of the plants was in excess of $10 million. Officers from Plumas County SWAT, the Forest Service and California Fish and Wildlife took part in the eradication raids. Two suspects were encountered near one site, but they avoided capture in the brushy steep terrain. Residents were encouraged to contact authorities if they saw any signs of marijuana gardens, such as drip lines, gardening tools, bags of fertilizer or pesticides, trash piles or remote campsites.

In August of 2016, John Bartell reported for KXTV how the Plumas National Forest was plagued with illegal grows. Reportedly, teams were finding illegal grows on a weekly basis. One local cattle rancher said he lived next to an illegal marijuana grow. “They had pit bulls running free and they attacked 2 cows and bit their ears off.” A Plumas County detective said they regularly encounter a number of individuals who are not residents of the United States cultivating the gardens. Often they turn out to be Mexican nationals. “Some are out here for 3 or 4 months and are promised $10,000 or $20,000 to grow.” There have been instances of hunters wandering into fields where they were killed. Safety in the Plumas National Forest is now a serious concern.

This is not simply an isolated problem for Plumas County. In Yosemite National Park, park rangers are regularly discovering and destroying large marijuana growing operations, attributed to the same Mexican cartels. Here is a video report on this problem from the Travel Channel. A park ranger is quoted as saying the park has had several marijuana growing plantations located within its borders. Some of these growing plantations have been worth as much as $14 million. “These are not simply a few people that want to have a garden and grow something for their use.”

There is a “Plumas People Opposed to Commercial Cannabis” Facebook page with multiple articles describing issues from the illegal marijuana grows. Banned pesticides are showing up in California water. A Reuters article, appearing on US News & World Report, noted toxic chemicals from illegal marijuana farms are found in California’s rivers and streams feeding the state’s water supply. The chemicals have turned thousands of acres into toxic waste dumps. Law enforcement officers who have inadvertently touched plants and equipment have been hospitalized. ”Scores of animals have died.”

A New York Times article noted that despite the promise of a legal market, many growers are not signing up. Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association, estimated only about 11% of growers in the Emerald Triangle have applied for grow permits. The paperwork to obtain a permit, the fees and the taxes are given as reasons for not doing so. Lori Ajax, the chief of California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control said there are folks who have been operating for a long time with minimal local oversight or no oversight at all. She thought it was going to take some strong enforcement to bring people into the regulated market.

California, which by one estimate produces seven times more marijuana than it consumes, will probably continue to be a major exporter — illegally — to other states. In part, that is because of the huge incentive to stay in the black market: marijuana on the East Coast sells for several times more than in California.

The drastically reduced legal consequences in Proposition 64 for most of the illegal offenses related to the cultivation, sale, transport and possession of illegal marijuana from felonies to misdemeanors, at least for the first couple of offenses, means there is very little motivation for illegal growers to enter the legal market. The Mendocino County district attorney said people living in the urban centers of California, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego don’t realize the crime rate in the rural areas where marijuana is being grown.

Among the cases he is handling are a robbery and slashing death of a grower; the murder of a man at a marijuana farm by a co-worker wielding a baseball bat; an armed heist in a remote area by men who posed as law enforcement officers; and a robbery by two men and a juvenile who were invited to a barbecue and then drew guns on their hosts and fled with nine pounds of marijuana.

There was a meeting of the Plumas County Cannabis Working Group on the afternoon of Thursday, September 7th, 2017. The Facebook page for the Plumas People Opposed to Commercial Cannabis Facebook page related some of the concerns expressed by residents. One concerned resident noted how the drafted ordinance document was written by a pro commercial growing committee, “whose members stand to make large amount of money.” She also raised the issue of the potential environmental impact of water, pesticides and drainage into their creeks and rivers. Another person during the meeting raised a concern that approving commercial grow operations would lead to less county and/or state support to address the anticipated increase in local crime. A pro grower responded by saying high fences, guard dogs and private security forces would keep criminals in check. The concerned individual responded: “Yes, that’s JUST what we want here.”

In an open letter to the Plumas County Supervisors, another Plumas county resident noted how some individuals said the best way to improve Plumas County was to bring in the anticipated influx of cash from approving commercial growing. “They urge us to look for the money, trust them for a higher standard of character and compliance than has been reported elsewhere, and trust the free market.” But that isn’t happening in other areas. See “Pot Market Getting a ‘Black’ Eye.”

Another resident also voiced her concerns that every member of the Cannabis Work Group was someone in favor of commercial cultivation. The Work Group was “not a balanced representation.” She noted where the issue of odor was minimized. See the above linked New York Times article for a report that a police reconnaissance helicopter could smell pungent marijuana plants from 800 feet above an illegal grow. Concerns over an increase in crime, homelessness and changes in the community culture have been largely unanswered, she said.

credit: Sierra REC Magazine

People move to or visit Plumas County for the natural beauty, rural lifestyle, recreational opportunities, the mountain air, the open vistas, to raise families, to escape the culture and crime of the city. All of these would be changed in some degree by widespread cannabis cultivation. High fences would predominate, along with heavily secured tall hoophouses. The oft-referenced Mexican Cartels are unlikely to simply pack their suitcases and go home; what will they do here instead? Who will buy up properties and small farms and lease acreage for this lucrative crop? What large commercial interests may impact land use, local politics, ecological concerns, the small town culture? How does greed divorced from responsible citizenship change a community?

The decision on commercial marijuana growing in Plumas County isn’t finalized yet. The next scheduled meeting of the Cannabis Working Group is Thursday September 14th, starting at 10 AM PDT. There are a number of issues it seems; these are only a few. Will the façade of an unbalanced work group be addressed? What about the impact on local crime and the environment? If this is supposed to bring money into the county, how will that work when already California produces multiple times the amount of cannabis that can be consumed in the state? And it will be illegal to send any cannabis grown in Plumas County out-of-state. Doesn’t that set the county residents up for an explosive increase in illegal grows if commercial marijuana growth is approved? That is what happened in Colorado, which was better prepared enforcement-wise for recreational marijuana than California seems to be.

I live in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, in a township whose population in the 2010 census was over 8,000 more than the entire population of Plumas County. My home state approved the Pennsylvania Marijuana Act (for medical marijuana) on April of 2016. There aren’t any dispensaries open yet; the state has just begun to register practitioners. In June of 2017 twelve companies were awarded growing licenses, including one in western PA fronted by Jack Ham, a former linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Growing will only be done in warehouses.

The only types of medical cannabis allowed initially are pills, oils, gels, creams, ointments, tinctures, liquid, and non-whole plant forms for administration through vaporization. Given the issues noted above in Plumas County and other counties in California, I hope residents of my home state will work together, as the residents of Plumas County are currently doing, to prevent similar concerns from developing in Pennsylvania. Residents of other states that have started down the road to legalization, be forewarned and learn from the current trouble in Plumas County.

If you sympathize with those Plumas County residents opposed to commercial marijuana growth in their county, give them some encouragement on the “Plumas People Opposed to Commercial Cannabis” Facebook page.

09/8/17

Pot Market Getting a “Black” Eye

© tlorna | 123rf.com

On April 3, 2017 the governors of four states with legalized recreational marijuana—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington—sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They asked that the Trump administration “engage” with them before making any changes to the existing federal regulatory and enforcement systems. Their particular concern was potential revision to the “Cole Memo,” an Obama-era policy that attempted to strike a balance between federal interests and state sovereignty in the growing legalization of marijuana. The governors said the Cole Memo provided guidance to the foundation of state regulatory systems and was “vital to maintaining control over marijuana in our states.” They warned that overhauling it could produce unintended consequences such as diverting “existing marijuana product into the black market and increase dangerous activity in both our states and our neighboring states.”

On July 24, 2017, Attorney General Sessions replied individually to the governors who signed the April 3rd letter. You can review copies of the letters sent to Governor Brown of Oregon and Governor Inslee of Washington. Each letter pointed to documents from the respective states that raised serious questions about the efficacy of marijuana “regulatory structures” in that state. He then directed their attention to the concluding paragraph of the memo that said it “does not alter in any way the Department’s authority to enforce federal law, including federal laws relating to marijuana, regardless of stat law.”

Among the specific concerns for Oregon Sessions highlighted was that only 30% of the marijuana market in Oregon was compliant with state marijuana laws. There was a “pervasive illicit cannabis cultivation in the state,” which was trafficked out-of-state. Law enforcement was said to be unable to keep pace with out-of-state diversion. “The reality of legalization is that it has provided an effective means to launder cannabis products and proceeds.” Individuals were said to be exploiting legal mechanisms to obscure their products’ origin and their true profits.

Among the concerns he highlighted for Washington was the lack of regulation and oversight of the medical marijuana market has “unintentionally” led to a growth of the black market. “Since legalization in 2012, Washington State marijuana has been found to have been destined for 43 different states.” The recreational marijuana market is incompletely regulated. One of the leading regulatory violations has been the failure to use and/or maintain the traceability of marijuana products.

Writing for The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham said the Sessions’ letter indicated he remained deeply skeptical of efforts to legalize recreational marijuana. But for now, Justice Department actions will be dictated by the Cole Memo. Federal non-interference seems to hinge on whether there is evidence of a public health or safety threat. John Hudak, a drug policy expert with the Brookings Institution, said the Sessions letter is an important indicator that Sessions is serious about enforcing marijuana law under the Cole Memo. He also expressed concerns with the accuracy of the data Sessions cited. He said reports compiled by law enforcement authorities were “notorious for cherry-picking data and failing to put data into context.” He suggested the Attorney General was drawing conclusions on incomplete data or data taken out of context.

Reporting for the Associated Press, Andrew Selsky said Governor Brown responded to Attorney General Sessions, noting the document he cited to her on Oregon marijuana problems was invalid and had incorrect data and conclusions. She went on to say new laws, including the tracking of all marijuana grown for legal sale, will help cut down on diversion into the black market. She added that she had recently signed legislation making it easier to prosecute the unlawful import and export of marijuana products. A Washington state official similarly said Sessions made claims about the situation in the state of Washington that were “outdated, incorrect, or based on incomplete information.”

Pause for a moment here. There isn’t denial that diversion occurs, just that the data the reports were based on was incorrect, outdated, incomplete. The thinking seems to be that more legalization will lessen the black market problem. Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer said: “”The more that we go down the path of legalization, regulation and taxation, diversion becomes less and less of a problem.” But is this just wishful thinking, rhetoric expressed to encourage the ongoing march towards nationwide legalization?

In a different article, Selsky noted the movement in several states, including Oregon, Colorado and California to implement tracking systems for marijuana and marijuana products. “The tracking system is the most important tool a state has,” according to Michael Crabtree. But as the systems rely on user honesty, they aren’t fool-proof. ““We have seen numerous examples of people ‘forgetting’ to tag plants.”

In California, recreational pot sales become legal in January of 2018. The Emerald Triangle area of northern California is the largest cannabis-producing region in the U.S. It is estimated to produce 60% of America’s marijuana. Although growers have been cultivating marijuana in the area since the 1960s during San Francisco’s Summer of Love, the industry really took off when Proposition 215 legalized medical marijuana in 1996.

Senator Mike McGuire, who represents the Emerald Triangle region, thought California’s tracking program would help limit the cannabis black market. But implementing a fully operational legal market in California could take years. “In the first 24 months, we’re going to have a good idea who is in the regulated market and who is in the black market.”

Anthony Taylor is a licensed marijuana processor and lobbyist. But as far back as the 1970s, he was growing cannabis illegally in an area east of Portland. He said it is easier to grow marijuana illegally these days because authorities don’t have the resources to uncover every operation. Growers who risk selling outside the state can earn thousands of dollars per pound, according to Taylor.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Grower’s Association, warned that California growers are in for a “painful downsizing curve” when new laws go into effect in January of 2018. “We are producing too much.” He estimated the state cannabis growers produce eight times the amount of marijuana the citizen’s of the state can consume. He expects that some growers will stay in the black market and continue to illegally send marijuana to other states. Some growers may stop growing cannabis, but he expects others simply just won’t apply for state permits.

Lori Ajax, chief of California’s Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation said: “For right now, our goal is to get folks into the regulated market, as many as possible.” But, “There are some people who will never come into the regulated market.”

A Denver Grand Jury indicted 62 people and 12 businesses for operating the largest illegal marijuana uncovered in Colorado since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. The drug bust, known as Operation Toker Poker, executed almost 150 search warrants at 33 homes and 18 warehouses and storage units in Denver. Seizures included 2,600 illegally cultivated marijuana plants and 4,000 pounds of marijuana. The ring operated from 2012 to 2016 and brought in an estimated $200,000 a month. The operation produced more than 100 pounds of cannabis monthly and shipped it to Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and other states.

Read original articles on Operation Toker Poker here at: The Denver Post, U.S. News, and the Daily Mail.

The DEA and State Patrols for Kansas and Nebraska participated in the investigation. Barbara Roach, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Denver field office, said since 2014 there has been an influx of organized criminal groups coming to Colorado in order to produce marijuana to sell in other states. “The marijuana black market has increased exponentially since state legalization.” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said: “The black market for marijuana has not gone away since recreational marijuana was legalized in our state, and in fact continues to flourish.”

Andrew Freedman, a cannabis regulation consultant, said he is hopeful that state legislation passed in 2017 will make it more difficult for criminal to grow quantities of marijuana for the so-called “gray market,” while using a legal interest in the business as a cover. “

 I do think the experiment is under the microscope, . . . Anything negative that happens will be a national story. This was a weakness in our system, and I’m hopeful the legislation shores up that weakness, but it is something the story will be judged on.

So it seems the expectation that ongoing legalization of recreational marijuana will make diversion less of a problem is wishful thinking. It may even be rhetoric to calm the fears of individuals who are unsure about where they stand on the issue. What does seem clear from the information above is that legalizing recreational marijuana in Colorado hasn’t made diversion go away; and officials seem to think it has been “flourishing.” At least one California official expects state regulation will not be followed by all the instate cannabis growers when the new laws go into effect. Even cannabis supporters acknowledge there will be a time lag of perhaps years before the regulatory machinery can get a handle on illegal cannabis growers.

08/19/16

Head-in-the-Sand

© andreykuzim | 123rf.com

© andreykuzim | 123rf.com

Within the U.S. the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana has rapidly increased over the past few years, but not without some disturbing trends. One of these is the rise in THC potency within cannabis. The 2016 World Drug Report (2016 WDR) indicated that cannabis THC potency in the U.S. has been increasing over the past thirty years. It went from less than 3.4% in 1993 to 8.8% in 2008. Bloomberg reported that more recent data suggests that THC potency in cannabis increased to 12.6% in marijuana seized by authorities in 2013. In states where recreational marijuana is legal, such as Colorado and Washington, some samples have reached as high as 30%, with the average around 17%, according to the 2016 WDR.

Mehmedic et al. published an article in the September 2010 edition of the Journal of Forensic Sciences that also concluded the increasing potency of THC in cannabis. While there was the above noted increase of THC in cannabis seized by authorities, the CBD concentration increased only slightly, from .3% to .4%. The cannabinoid with the greatest known medical potential in marijuana is CBD, not THC. The researchers concluded not only was cannabis more potent, the market share for higher-potency products was increasing. “The question now becomes: What are the effects of the availability of high-potency products on cannabis users?”

A partial explanation for the increased potency in legal commercial markets like Colorado is the popularity of edible cannabis products made with cannabis extract-based concentrates such as oil, “wax,” or “shatter.” The THC potency of these extracts can be up to 80-90 percent. In 2014, edible products accounted for an estimated 35% of retail sales of recreational marijuana in Colorado. This makes it difficult to determine the dose or amount of THC ingested in an edible, leading to potential over-intoxication. “With edible products, the slower onset and longer duration of intoxication could increase the risk of over-intoxication, especially for new or inexperienced users.”

One way of regulating this concern has been to implement stringent labeling and packaging requirements. Washington and Colorado require edibles to have a 10mg serving size of THC. Alaska and Oregon have drafted legislation to set the serving size at a maximum of 5 mg of THC. The increasing potency has not been the only concern within states where marijuana is now legal.

Since the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington, incidents of accidental ingestion of cannabis among young children have been increasing. The Washington Poison Control center reported the number of cannabis exposure calls for people under 20 doubled from 2010 to 2014. In Colorado, within one year of legalization there was a 29% increase in the number of marijuana-related ER visits and a 38% increase in the number of cannabis-related hospitalizations.

More people using marijuana recreationally means an increase in the number of individuals driving under the influence of marijuana. The 2016 WDR said studies suggested that although cannabis seemed to be less hazardous than alcohol with regard to driving impairment, it is much more dangerous when used in combination with alcohol. In both Colorado and Washington there have been increases in the percentages of crashes and fatal crashes of drivers who tested positive for marijuana from 2012 to 2015.

Not surprisingly, the number of arrests and court cases with cannabis-related offences dropped substantially in state that have legalized marijuana. But data on other marijuana-related offences such as citations or warnings for public consumption were not readily available. See the following chart taken from the 2016 WDR.

chartHowever, there has been a ripple effect of drug concerns in the states adjacent to states where recreational marijuana is legal. In December of 2014, Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado, requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court reverse Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana, as it had led to an increase in trafficking marijuana in these neighboring jurisdictions. Attorneys for Colorado and the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court not take up the lawsuit. But as it turned out, the Court was also reluctant to take on the dispute as well.

The Supreme Court justices spent more than a year pondering whether to take the case. The proposed lawsuit was scheduled and re-scheduled five times for a closed-door conference, where the justices would debate the merits of taking the case.

In March of 2016 the Supreme Court declined by a vote of 6-2 to hear their complaint against Colorado. But the vote did not rule out future challenges. The Colorado Attorney General said that while the state has had several legal victories in federal lawsuits surrounding Amendment 64 legalizing recreational marijuana, Nebraska and Oklahoma’s concerns will not disappear. Doug Peterson, the Nebraska Attorney General was quoted by the Denver Post as saying: “The Court’s decision does not bar additional challenges to Colorado’s scheme in federal district court.” The Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt said:

The fact remains — Colorado marijuana continues to flow into Oklahoma, in direct violation of federal and state law. Colorado should do the right thing and stop refusing to take reasonable steps to prevent the flow of marijuana outside of its border. And the Obama administration should do its job under the Constitution and enforce the Controlled Substances Act. Until they do, Oklahoma will continue to utilize every law enforcement tool available to it to ensure that the flow of illegal drugs into our state is stopped.

The federal government cannot continue to sit on the sidelines while recreational marijuana laws take hold state-by-state. The medical potential needs to be scientifically delineated and a step towards that is rescheduling marijuana as a Schedule II controlled Substance. The adverse effects of increased THC potency should be investigated, monitored and ultimately regulated. The collateral harm in neighboring states where marijuana is not legal should be dealt with cooperatively between states or result in federally mediated changes. Continuing a head-in-the-sand approach at the federal level is no longer a viable option.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) publishes a yearly report giving a global overview of the supply and demand of various drugs and their impact on health.  This is one of a series of articles discussing information from the 2016 World Drug Report.

04/20/15

Medical Reform or Medicinal Con?

© lightwise | 123RF.com

© lightwise | 123RF.com

In my home state of Pennsylvania, the legislature is considering the legalization of medical marijuana. At least one activist believes it will happen in 2015: “We have the votes for it. It’s going to happen this term.” Jon Delano of KDKA cited Jay Costa, the Democratic Senate leader, as saying the medical marijuana bill is likely to be approved this spring. Legislation has been introduced in the Senate and gone to committee. “And it is very likely over the course of the next couple of months it will pass through the Senate and make its way over to the House.”

The new governor, Tom Wolfe, has publically said he would support medical marijuana in PA: “I believe that doctors who can now prescribe some of the most potent drugs in the world should be able to prescribe medical marijuana.” The problem seems to be in the State House, which is currently holding hearings on its own legislation. Tony Romeo with CBS Philly reported that law enforcement stressed the need for strict regulatory control if medical marijuana was legalized. Republican Matt Baker, chair of the House Health Committee said:

I am very cynical and skeptical about moving forward with this. And I think there are a lot of unresolved issues, and when you talk with the medical groups and the scientific community, they’re very, very concerned about us putting on white coats and trying to play doctor here.

Polls indicate that most Americans support the legalization of medical marijuana. More than half of the US population now lives in a state where marijuana in some form (medical or recreational) is legal. But take some time to really review this compilation of surveys on marijuana legalization on PollingReport.com. Several polls by organizations like the Pew Research Center, Gallup, and CBS News show a changing trend of Americans over time to agreeing that marijuana should be legalized, when the question is put as: “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?” All three organizations reported results that were essentially the same as the October 2014 Gallup poll—51% said yes to legalization; 47% said no to legalization.

But now look further down at a nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center taken in February of 2014, when the question answers had more options. There the question was: “Which comes closer to your view about the use of marijuana by adults? It should be legal for personal use. It should be legal only for medicinal use. OR, It should not be legal.” The results were: 39% said marijuana should be legal for personal use; 44% said it should be legal for medicinal use; 16% said it should not be legal; 2% were unsure or refused to answer.

Then the Pew Research Center published their newest poll on legalizing marijuana on April 14, 2015. This survey reported that 53% of Americans favored legalization, while 44% opposed legalization. Millennials (18-34) had the strongest support for legalization, with 68% in favor and 29% opposed. Among those who said marijuana should be legal, 78% did not think the federal government should enforce federal laws in states that allow its use. Conversely, among those who think marijuana should be illegal, 59% said there should be federal enforcement.

The most frequently cited reasons for supporting legalization are its medicinal benefits (41%), the belief that it is no worse than other drugs (36%) and its potential for tax revenue (27%). The most frequently mentioned reasons why people oppose legalization were that it hurts society and is bad for individuals (43%), and it is a dangerous, addictive drug (30%). So it seems that the Pew Research polls suggest there is more support for the use of medicinal marijuana than recreational marijuana.

Returning now to the compilation of results on Pollingreport.com there are some further interesting results in two other polls. In a CNN/ORC Poll done in January of 2014 the legal, not legal dichotomy gets most Americans saying marijuana should be legalized. And there is support for decriminalization measures as well. However, there are two other interesting results. 88% percent of the people polled think that marijuana should be able to be legally prescribed for medical purposes by their doctor. When asked if Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana was a good idea, a bad idea, or if you want to wait and see what happens before deciding, 33% thought legalization was a good idea; 29% thought is was a bad idea; and 37% wanted to wait and see what happens before they decide!

A Fox News Poll taken in February of 2013 asked if you thought that most people who smoke medical marijuana truly need it for medical purposes or just want to smoke marijuana; 30% said they truly needed it; 47% thought they just wanted to smoke it; 12% said it depended upon the person; 11% were unsure. Although there aren’t many well-accepted medical uses for marijuana as this point in time, there are some.

A 2007 study in the journal Neurology showed that marijuana is effective in reducing neuropathic pain in HIV patients. Live Science also reported marijuana, when combined with opiates, led to dramatic levels of pain relief. It has been helpful in reducing stiffness and muscle spasms in MS (Multiple sclerosis). It appears useful for reducing nausea induced by chemotherapy. Medical marijuana has been touted as a treatment for glaucoma, but other drugs are more effective.

Legalizing medical marijuana now will not just legitimize its medicinal use for these generally accepted conditions, it would permit the medicinal use of marijuana whenever the individual has been given a prescription for it by a doctor. Without reliable, scientifically replicated studies of the claims for medical marijuana efficacy, we would be returning to the times of patent medicine, where medical marijuana is claimed to treat almost anything and everything. The CNN polled opinion that medical marijuana users didn’t really need it, but just wanted to smoke it would then come true.

Sensible use of medical marijuana should follow the established procedures for all medicinal substances—approval by the FDA. As the medical usefulness of marijuana for a condition is demonstrated through this process, it would then become a FDA approved medicine.  I realize that once marijuana reaches this bar of approval, it would then be available for off label use for other medical conditions. But it would also then be REGULATED like all other medical treatments. The current process of state-by-state legislative approval of marijuana for medical purposes circumvents this regulative process. It was established to protect American citizens from the fiascos of past medical treatments that turned out to be ineffective at best and harmful at worst.

Reform must start at the federal level. Given that marijuana has been a Schedule I controlled substance, its availability for the kind of medical research needed to gain FDA approval has to be increased. So a first step would be changing its status from a Schedule I controlled substance to that of Schedule II. The reclassification would make it easier to do the needed research on its legitimate medical uses. I’d suggest delaying the approval of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania and the other states where it is not yet legal until research demonstrating its medical usefulness has gone through the FDA clinical trial process. This would delay the approval of medical marijuana, but it would establish a more stable path forward for the legitimate medical use of marijuana. Debates for the off label medical use could occur alongside those now going on for other classes of FDA approved drugs such as antipsychotics and antidepressants.

Incidentally, there was a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II, the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act. While it is gaining support, key leaders in both parties have reservations. As the Motley Fool pointed out, the proposed loosening of federal restraints comes just as a new study of the effects of heavy marijuana use on long-term memory in adolescents was published. I hope that if ongoing research demonstrates the need for further restrictions on the medicinal use of marijuana, there would be public and legislative support for that as well.

I suspect this suggestion would not be acceptable for many medical marijuana activists because their final goal is not just the medicinal legitimization of marijuana. Acceptance of medical marijuana may be the first steppingstone towards the legalization of recreational marijuana. As the polls show, there seems to be wider support for the medical use of marijuana than for the recreational use of marijuana. So press for the medical use of marijuana now, and then recreational approval at a future date.