About 80 percent of Americans approve of medical marijuana laws, but some conservatives are incensed that state legislatures keep passing them. In a recent column, George F. Will, the Washington Post's bow-tied curmudgeon, decried the reefer madness he sees taking over California, sweeping across Colorado and perhaps even coming to a normal state near you.
The pundit seemed especially incensed that states like Colorado and California had effectively legalized the drug through a "back-door" process, writing that medical dispensaries "serve the fiction that most transactions in the store -- which is what it really is -- involve medicine." He lamented that "fifty-six percent of Californians support legalization," and concluded: "They essentially have this."
But Will is only half right. Pot in California is only legal for those of a certain class, or those who live in certain areas. It is effectively illegal in most communities of color. It's not legal for pot smokers in many conservative counties and municipalities. And it's effectively out of reach for California's poor.
It's not hard to imagine George F. Will overlooking the poor and disenfranchised from his lofty perch at the Washington Post, but they're right there, basking in the California sunshine. And every day they get busted for marijuana, and every day they enter the criminal justice system as a result.
It must be one of the great ironies of pot-politics. By using the "back-door" of medicinal use rather than legalizing marijuana sales outright -- treating it like alcohol or tobacco -- progressives in California have helped create a system of pot apartheid in the Golden State.
That's obviously not spelled out in the law. But marijuana is only legal for those who have $100-$300 to fork over for a medical marijuana card (you don't get any pot in return), who live in an area where there are medical marijuana dispensaries (generally liberal-minded, gentrified areas), who have proof of residence, and who don't fit the stereotypical image of a drug dealer.
If all that's the case, then it's true that you can go to a doctor and tell him or her that you have insomnia, headaches or bad menstrual cramps, and you're good to go. You can walk into a store like a civilized, non-criminal person, and choose from a variety of grades of marijuana.
But if you don't have a couple of hundred bucks to invest up front for what is essentially a (partial) get-out-of-jail-free card, or you don't have access to a willing physician and a dispensary, you're out of luck. There's still a healthy black market for marijuana, however. And police still arrest people who patronize it, and the courts still mete out punishments for doing so.
Just the $100-$300 barrier alone means that pot's still illegal for anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck. Add to that the fees cash-strapped California counties can charge to issue the card (in Sonoma it'll run you another $160 on top of the doctor's visit). If you earn a living wage, yes, you can use marijuana without fear of arrest. Work a minimum wage job, and pot's as illegal as it ever was.
Access to legal pot is limited geographically, according to both class and race, and the ideological orientation of local government.
Even if, for example, you really are a terminal cancer patient who smokes weed to curb the worst side-effects of chemotherapy, you're screwed if you live in one of California's right-leaning communities. As the Wikipedia entry for California's medical marijuana law notes, "Conservative areas such as San Bernardino and Riverside counties saw little change when local officials declared the law null and void due to conflicts with federal law, and continued to arrest, prosecute, and in some cases convict legal patients."
There is also something akin to "red-lining" in poorer neighborhoods. Consider this map of medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles. If you're unfamiliar with the city, they're all clustered in yuppified, high-rent areas -- Culver City, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Silver Lake, etc. There are no medical marijuana clubs in Inglewood, none in Compton, none in East L.A.
In the Bay Area, where medical marijuana dispensaries flourish in some communities, "Oaksterdam" has become the best-known destination for medical cannabis. But while people from elsewhere in the country may see Oakland as a poor, minority-dominated city, a map of Oaksterdam pot clubs shows they're clustered exclusively around the tony Lake Merritt area. There are none in the poorer parts of the city.
Geography and class aren't the only barriers to legal pot-smoking. If the 56 percent of California voters who favor outright legalization of marijuana had their way, anyone who appeared to be of age could buy marijuana legally, as with alcohol today. But California's medical cannabis law requires "a valid government-issued photo ID."
A number of studies looking at similar ID requirements for voting have shown that some are more likely to have those papers than others (PDF). In Georgia, blacks were 83 percent more likely than whites to be without a state-issued ID. In Indiana, the elderly and the poor, young adults and minorities were less likely than the population as a whole to have valid state-issued documents. And ID, like the medical marijuana card itself, costs money. The New York Times, citing the $20 cost of a state-issued ID (in California, it'll run you $21), called Georgia's voter-ID law, "a new poll tax," disproportionately affecting the "poor, black and elderly."
So it is with medical pot in California. Or perhaps a better analogy would be the papal dispensations that once allowed those who could afford to grease the Catholic church to buy forgiveness for their sins.
Of course, disparate punishments for getting high is nothing new in the U.S. The history of American drug laws is fairly consistent: with the exception of a brief and disastrous flirtation with alcohol prohibition, we have always come down harder on whatever the poor, foreigners or people of color use to get stupid. Opium became illegal when Chinese railroad workers used it to stave off the pain, but white ladies of the time could get their opiates easily enough from their favorite medicine-show huckster anytime they came down with a case of "the vapors."
The ultimate irony is that because of its "back-door" legalization, progressive California is continuing that tradition today. Conservatives may decry the state's supposedly freakish leftward tilt, but it's still the case that a San Francisco yuppie can hit the vaporizer without fear of jail, while a poor black youth smoking a blunt in downtown Oakland isn't so lucky.
Correction: Dale Gieringer, Director of the Cal NORML, informs us that there are medical marijuana clubs in Inglewood, East L.A., downtown Oakland and other "hardly 'tony' districts." We regret the error.
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.