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Rhode Island Latest State to Restrict Home Growing of Marijuana

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By "Radical" Russ Belville

Paul Armentano has posted the latest bill being heard in Rhode Island, HB 7275, which would repeal the current right of Rhode Island patients to grow their own medical marijuana and to freely exchange medical marijuana and plants between registered patients.

I’ve long argued that one of the dangers of putting cannabis in the “medical” frame is that once our opponents realize that they can’t fight the 75%-80% public support for medical use, they will embrace medical marijuana with “of course we support desperately sick people using marijuana!” language while making every effort to restrict that medical use as much as possible.  We continue to demand the sick be treated as “patients, not criminals”, so they will acquiesce, but make sure there are as few patients as possible.  They’ll work to see that those patients’ medicine be treated like other prescription pharmaceuticals: locked up in pharmacies, requiring strict doctor supervision and government oversight, severe limits on amount possessed, and bans on creating it yourself or buying, selling, or using it without prescription.

Since we’ve been demanding that the public see it as a medicine that helps the sickest of the sick (and no doubt it does), we create a cognitive dissonance when we ask the public to let us grow our own.  Nobody gets to grow their own Oxycontin!  We also support the outrageous price of cannabis that’s borne of prohibition by putting it in the same frame where other pharmaceuticals also cost way too much.  The beauty of medical marijuana is that it is a house plant you can cultivate for your own treatment at relatively low cost.  Why would we want it to be just another overpriced drug you can only get with a doctor’s permission through a pharmacy?

This Rhode Island bill is just the fifth attempt I’ve reported on that fits a pattern:

1) New Jersey (law) = Dispensaries and no home grow. (And the Wall St. Journal article’s headline, “New Jersey on Medical Marijuana: We’re Not California” sums up the political rationale succinctly.)
2) Arizona MPP Initiative (pending) = Dispensaries and no home grow if you’re within 25 miles of one.  (So the dispensaries can be viable, you see, because it’s so hard for someone to stay in business selling marijuana. Listen for yourself.)
3) Minnesota HF292 (vetoed) = Dispensaries and no home grow, limited to only terminal patients. (Seriously, this medical law wouldn’t have allowed chemotherapy-using cancer patients to use cannabis!)
4) New Hampshire HB0648 (vetoed) = Dispensaries and no home grow.
5) Rhode Island HB7275 (heard yesterday) = Restrict all growing to the existing dispensaries, don’t even allow patients to exchange for no consideration.

Here in Oregon there is an effort to establish medical marijuana dispensaries in the state.  It’s a very contentious issue within our reform community.  NORML has always supported positive reforms in marijuana law, but we’ve also always stood for the importance of the right for individuals to be able to grow their own marijuana (emphasis mine):

The cultivation of cannabis for personal use is the single most important element of the NORML legalization proposal. Allowing for the legal, personal cultivation of cannabis provides consumers with the option to grow their own product should commercially available sources offer cannabis that fails to meet the consumers’ needs because it is excessively expensive, too heavily taxed, or of inferior quality. The mere threat of consumers exercising this option should be sufficient to assure that the legal market for cannabis will be responsive to the needs of consumers, and will not be exploitive.

So when any organization or any state or federal legislator proposes legalizing cannabis, either for medical use or for personal pleasure, but forbids the consumer from growing their own cannabis, those of us who lobby on this issue must insist on amendments to permit personal cultivation.

Otherwise we, cannabis law reformers, trade away our only leverage to keep the big corporations and the government honest and responsive to cannabis consumers.

(I’ve been in California, Northern and Southern, three times at different medical marijuana events last month.  The standard “special” I saw advertised from every dispensary attending was “$45 / 4 gram eighth”.  You tell me, is charging $11.25 per gram of medicine excessively expensive and exploitive?  Is $300 per ounce?)

Now it’s important to point out that the dispensary initiative proposed in Oregon maintains the current allowances for home growing or even growing by a certified grower outside the home.  But reformers better be ready to fight the legislative proposals to repeal the right to home grow should the dispensary initiative pass.  Taking away home grow would be politically impossible without the viable alternative method for acquiring medical marijuana that dispensaries would provide… and our opponents are already considering that political opportunity:

Mark McDonnell, senior deputy DA in Multnomah County (Portland) Oregon, one of the state’s most marijuana-friendly areas: “If you have dispensaries, there’s no reason to allow (individual) growers.”

Klamath County (Oregon) Sheriff Tim Evinger said the proposed expansion would be a step in the right direction.  “If, in fact, it is a needed drug, and it is providing a benefit to somebody who is ill, I frankly think it should be purchased by prescription at a pharmacy and produced by a commercial operation that is monitored, that is secured, and the quality, content and safety issues are addressed, just like any controlled substance that is prescribed,” he said.

None of this analysis should be interpreted as me saying dispensaries would be a bad thing, so long as Oregonians maintain the right to home grow.  I personally think $11.25 a gram is exploitive, but better a patient is exploited by a legal regulated fee-paying tax-paying dispensary than a black market source.  Dispensaries would provide the current growers an avenue for making a living legitimately and would provide patients (with income) a way to access medicine.  There would be fewer prosecutions of growers growing too much or accepting money (above expense reimbursement) for cannabis.  There’d be new jobs and new tax revenue, especially needed in the state with the second-highest unemployment and no sales tax.

Plus, support for outright legalization does seem to be greatest in states that have dispensaries, though that’s probably more correlation than a causal relationship (as in, supportive states have dispensaries, not that dispensaries make states more supportive.)  I’d hope that the money dispensaries generate would be plowed back into the movement to pass legalization (even for healthy people!)… though I’d note there are over 1,000 dispensaries between California and Colorado and it seems only a few are putting money into legalization efforts… and others are putting money into defeating California’s current legalization effort.

But I would be remiss not to point out the effects I anticipate and the reactions from the opposition that are sure to materialize.  Patient registration numbers would explode as they did in Montana and Colorado once dispensaries came along and opponents will add that to their growing cries of “abuse” of medical marijuana.  Some dispensary in an unfriendly county will eventually be raided and opponents will parade stacks of money and guns and cannabis all over the news.  And as I’ve mentioned, we’ll see a big push by opponents to eliminate home growing since the dispensaries can take care of all the patients.

So go forth, reformers, but carefully consider whether continuing to tinker with medical marijuana laws (in states that have them) is helping or distracting from passing legalization for the 95% of us who are still “criminals, not patients”.  In my opinion, the more “medical” marijuana becomes, the less “recreational” it becomes.  The 21st century calls for bolder reforms.  After fourteen years of letting patients in the front of the line, some of us are getting a little weary of standing and waiting back here.


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