Planning for the inaugural "Summit on the Impact of California's Medical Marijuana Laws," organizers worried no one would show up. But when the summit took place this spring, there were more than 400 attendees. The law enforcement-only event was sponsored by the California Department of Justice, the California Police Chiefs Association (CPCA), the California Peace Officers' Association and the California State Sheriffs' Association.
California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, continues to learn from its experiences. With a dozen other states following their lead and passing medical marijuana laws, and more states looking to do the same, eyes remain focused on The Golden State.
El Cerrito Chief Scott Kirkland, who helped organize the summit and found CPCA's Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force, says law enforcement must acknowledge that marijuana decriminalization is a growing issue nationwide. Kirkland says there are issues law enforcement must take a stand on, and one of them is marijuana, which, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center National Drug Threat Assessment 2009, is abused more than any other drug.
"California is a great example of what not to do," says Kirkland, a member of CPCA's board of directors and a veteran of El Cerrito law enforcement since 1979.
As a police chief, he accepts some of the blame. "We've done a poor job getting the word out about the dangers associated with marijuana use," he explains.
Politicians are suggesting decriminalization should be up for debate, but often they have little knowledge of the topic, says Kirkland. Today's politicians, along with others in positions of responsibility, may have smoked marijuana in the '60s and '70s and "never inhaled" — or inhaled, because "that was the point."
Either way, many of them think today's marijuana is the same relatively harmless drug they tried in high school or college, Kirkland says, but it's not. In May, the Office of National Drug Control Policy released analysis from the University of Mississippi, which revealed THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — reached the highest levels since the drug was first analyzed. According to the analysis, the average amount of THC in samples confiscated by law enforcement agencies in 2008 was 10.1 percent, compared to less than 4 percent in 1983. The highest concentration of THC in a single sample was 27.3 percent. The Potency Monitoring Project has analyzed seized samples since 1976 and is funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA).
According to NIDA, heavy marijuana use impairs a person's ability to form memories, recall events and shift attention. THC also disrupts coordination. Through its effects on the brain and body, marijuana intoxication can cause accidents. Studies have shown that about 6 to 11 percent of fatal accident victims test positive for THC. In many of these cases, alcohol also is detected.
And, since June 19, marijuana smoke is listed under Proposition 65 as known to cause cancer.
Advocates of decriminalizing marijuana have portrayed people in wheelchairs needing marijuana to relieve chronic pain from cancer, glaucoma and AIDS.
"I don't believe there's a police chief anywhere who wouldn't be sympathetic to people who have pain because of a disease," Kirkland says, but he adds research from the task force shows that patients with cancer, glaucoma and AIDS make up only about 2 percent of the people getting prescriptions filled at local marijuana dispensaries.
More likely, task force data presented at the summit show patients are going to the dispensaries because they have a prescription to help them with muscle spasms, insomnia, back pain, post-surgical pain or headaches.
While some sales are legal, some are not. An Internet post describes, "I got my prescription about a week ago, and it was the easiest thing I've ever done."