Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Protecting Patients by Legalizing Marijuana

By Taylor KeatingPublished April 15, 2016

California's medical marijuana law has become an easy way for recreational marijuana users to get legal weed. As lawmakers seek to regulate these users, they are imposing high taxes and regulations on those that the law seeks to benefit: patients.

    Venice, California is home to the world-famous Venice Beach and quite a few palm trees. It is also home to a large number of "weed doctors;," shops right off the boardwalk that boast cheap and fast medical marijuana prescriptions. With employees walking around in green scrubs and signs that instruct customers on qualifying ailments, these shops are a comical but accurate representation of the availability of legal marijuana in California. While California has not legalized recreational marijuana, it is one of 23 states that have legalized the drug for medical purposes. What separates California from these other states is the way in which residents and businesses have interpreted the law. As these shops in Venice demonstrate, a medical marijuana card is available to anyone with the wherewithal to obtain one. A customer can be in and out of one of these shops within 20 minutes, prescription in hand. The entire process, from customers selecting their ailments off a list to the cheap and quick "medical examination," is a wink at the medical aspect of California's law. As more and more Californians are obtaining these cards for recreational marijuana use, it seems that the next logical step in California's marijuana legislation is complete legalization of the drug. With several propositions for legalizing marijuana proposed for the November ballot, will Californians elect to legalize marijuana or continue visiting the weed doctors of Venice?

    While the availability of medical marijuana may be a convenient loophole for those looking to use the drug recreationally, California's relaxed legislation creates a system in which all reforms surrounding the medical marijuana laws equally impact patients and recreational users. As a result, California's legislation may not be benefitting patients as much as it could be. California Senator Mike McGuire recently introduced legislation that would add a 15 percent tax on sales of medical marijuana. It seems reasonable to impose this kind of tax on recreational users, but a 15 percent tax for those who use the drug for medicinal purposes seems ridiculous, especially since prescription drugs that are federally regulated are not taxed at all. A simple fix would be to differentiate between the two groups of users, but this is impossible without a change in California's marijuana laws. Senator McGuire's proposed tax makes it clear that California lawmakers have acknowledged and seek to address the large number of recreational marijuana users holding medical marijuana cards, either through taxations or other substantial reforms.

    Medical marijuana users already face higher costs than recreational users in obtaining medical cards. The shops in Venice are designed to be quick and cheap, with prescriptions costing around $40. A patient considering using medical marijuana, especially for the first time, would need to seek out more extensive medical help to determine whether marijuana is a possible solution to their health problems and the best way to take it. While the prescriptions in Venice are inexpensive, recommendation clinics with more extensive consultations and medical examinations can cost two or three times that amount. Adding a high tax rate on top of these costs may make medical marijuana inaccessible to some patients. By failing to legalize the drug, lawmakers are putting patients at risk of not being able to afford the drug that was legalized for their use.

    Medical marijuana cards have become an easy way to get legal marijuana, and as a result, California is no longer facing the traditional debate surrounding the legalization. Unless California lawmakers pass extensive regulations on medical marijuana, the best way to protect patients using medical marijuana is through a separate law legalizing marijuana for recreational use in California. The leading legalization measure that California's voters will likely see on the November ballot also proposes a 15 percent tax on sales of marijuana, but only for recreational purchases. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act allows recreational use for adults over 21, and is similar to legislation passed in Washington and Colorado. The most recent attempt to legalize marijuana in California failed in 2010, with 53.5 percent of voters electing against Proposition 19. However, the increasing availability of medical marijuana has changed the political climate surrounding the drug, and it is likely that California will join Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana this November.