The United States of Amerijuana

Don't call it pot; it's "medicine" now. Dealers are caregivers, and buyers are patients ...

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Jeff Riedel for TIME

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That's what worries Christian Thurstone, a psychiatrist for adolescents who runs a drug-treatment program in Denver. He cites the confluence of two trends among the city's young. "There's an increase in the availability of marijuana," he says, "at the same time that we're seeing a decrease in the perceived harmfulness of marijuana." His program has seen a marked increase in patient referrals for marijuana use at his clinic, where all patients are under 18.

"We've started hearing things we hadn't heard before," he says. "They're telling us that marijuana isn't a drug, that it's a medicine. They even call it medicine."

To register as a medical-marijuana patient, a minor must submit the notarized signatures of both parents to the Colorado board of health. Even so, Thurstone says, when he collected data on 55 juvenile marijuana patients, he found that 60% of them had gotten their pot from a patient with a medical-marijuana card. "This age is a crucial developmental window for these teenagers, particularly young males," he says. He cites studies that suggest marijuana use in adolescence doubles the risk of schizophrenia in later life. "The human costs are potentially huge." Meanwhile, a national survey on drug use and health reports that the percentage of kids under 17 using marijuana has been rising—from 6.7% in 2008 to 7.3% last year.

The Backlash Cometh
For all its success, there are signs that the advance of the medical-marijuana movement is not inevitable. The narrow losses for initiatives in South Dakota and, apparently, Arizona, despite lavish funding on their behalf, were discouraging to advocates, who are ordinarily quite cheerful—no surprise there—and upbeat about the prospects for their cause. The Los Angeles city council recently moved to reduce the number of local dispensaries from an estimated 1,000 to roughly 200. The New Jersey legislature passed a medical-dope law in January far more stringent than the one activists hoped for. Only terminally ill patients or those with cancer or ALS will be permitted to buy marijuana from a handful of state-sponsored clinics. New Mexico's law, passed in 2007, will prohibit the private cultivation of marijuana, which will be available only through the state government's own "cannabis-production facilities."

Meanwhile, at the federal level, it's still 1985. Marijuana retains its status as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the legal equivalent of heroin and LSD, with "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use." That designation sharply limits the medical research that can be done with marijuana, setting up a flawless bureaucratic catch-22: pot is listed as Schedule 1 because science hasn't found an accepted medical use for it, but science can't find a medical use for it because it's listed as Schedule 1. Either Congress or the Drug Enforcement Administration could change the designation, but the DEA shows no signs of budging, and when Representative Barney Frank introduced a bill two years ago to reclassify marijuana for medical research, he gathered all of four original co-sponsors.

The high hopes that advocates once had for the Obama Administration have faded too. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to de-emphasize federal prosecution of medical-marijuana violations, and Attorney General Eric Holder formalized the policy with a memo to U.S. Attorneys in September 2009.

But it was a short honeymoon. Last January, Obama stunned the movement by reappointing George W. Bush's DEA acting administrator, Michele Leonhardt, who has an uncompromising approach to marijuana. This year, the DEA has made a series of raids on medical-marijuana facilities in Nevada, Michigan and California, claiming the operations were simply fronts for conventional drug dealing. When a federal survey last month showed a surge in pot smoking among young people, Obama's drug czar, R. Gil Kerlikowske, was quick to finger medical-marijuana laws as the culprit. "I think all of the attention and the focus of calling marijuana medicine has sent the absolute wrong message to young people," Kerlikowske said. For the marijuana movement, the Obama era has been all hope and no change.

If nothing else, technology may make medical marijuana obsolete. Mark A.R. Kleiman, a specialist in drug policy at UCLA, says it's inevitable that some form of measurable, dosable medical marijuana will be made available in the next few years, a medicine that comes not in plant form but in a spray or an inhaler. "And that will do away with the argument for medical marijuana as we know it," he says. Already Canada and the U.K. have approved the use of Sativex, a cannibis-based spray for the nose and mouth that was developed by GW Pharmaceuticals, and it's in late-stage testing in the U.S. Sativex has been effective for pain from MS spasms and cancer treatment without causing the marijuana high. The moment Sativex goes on the market, the need for medical dispensaries, caregivers and growers—and all the confusions and prevarications that attend them—disappears.

There's a rough justice here: the disingenuousness of the push for medical marijuana—billed as a compassionate reform and used as a tactic toward full legalization—was always its Achilles' heel. Up to now, most states have approached medical marijuana with a series of evasions. Doctors rely on a patient's report of pain to recommend it, dispensaries rely on the word of doctors to sell it, regulators rely on legislators to determine who can provide it, and legislators fall back on public opinion, which is ill suited to making careful and informed decisions about pharmacology. And no one takes direct responsibility. None dare call it legalization.

There is another way to go about it.
"If we want to legalize marijuana," said Thurstone, "then let's legalize marijuana and call it a day. Let's not sneak it in the back door, dragging the medical system into it."

Here, at least, Thurstone finds an unexpected ally in Jenelise Robinson. Going through boxes of her new Puff Potion medicated soda ($6 a bottle wholesale), she reflects on the oddity of the culture that medical marijuana has created in her state. "It seems silly, doesn't it?" she says. "If there's someone who's been smoking for a long time, medicating, and this is what they like to do and this is what works for them, then why can't they just do it? Why make them go to the doctor and register? Why force them to lie about it?"

Ferguson is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His new book Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College will be published in March by Simon & Schuster

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