July 25, 2010
There is something surreal about the push to make Richmond a wide open city for marijuana dispensaries. As I have watched this play out over the last several months, it occurs to me that there has been no real debate about the pros and cons of the issue, just emotional pleas from a few patients and a plethora of drug dealers, one of whom was even reduced to tears last week by his overwhelming level of compassion.
The primary source of information offered at public hearings has basically been from drug dealers and their surrogates who are operating in violation of federal, state and Richmond law. This also seems to be the primary source of information on which my City Council colleagues depend while citing their pleasant and uneventful visits to the various dispensaries operating illegally in Richmond.
I got an invitation from Rebecca Vasquez for a tour of her facility and lunch on Monday, July 26. How nice of her! She is affiliated with Holistic Healing Collective, 221 Tewksbury Avenue, a dispensary in Point Richmond. Should I drop by for a healthy salad and maybe brownies for dessert? Or should I worry about a Brown Act violation because I might run into more than two of my colleagues? It’s tough being a City Council member and having to make decisions like this.
The Ganja Gang of Four, McLaughlin, Ritterman, Bates and Rogers, continue to insist that marijuana is harmless while providing valuable health benefits. It’s not their advocacy that bothers me; it’s the way they play fast and loose with reality. They cite medical literature and abundant anecdotal information supporting the therapeutic benefits while ignoring equally compelling facts about the downside of marijuana use and wide open marijuana sales.
We are simply not getting the whole picture here.
For example, these same councilmembers who passed the most restrictive tobacco smoking laws in California and (some) have railed incessantly against industrial air pollution seem untroubled by scientific evidence that marijuana has more carcinogens than tobacco, and its use can result in many serious adverse health impacts. The fact is that smoking anything is simply not good for you. Dr. Ritterman counters this by citing a study showing that people who smoke both tobacco and marijuana die from lung cancer at a lower rate that people who only smoke tobacco. I’m not sure what comfort that provides or what it proves other than if you are a tobacco smoker, you might prolong your life by toking up on marijuana too.
Another study, however, shows that people who smoke marijuana frequently but do not smoke tobacco have more health problems and miss more days of work than nonsmokers do. Many of the extra sick days used by the marijuana smokers in the study were for respiratory illnesses (Polen, M.R; Sidney, S.; Tekawa, I.S.; Sadler. M.; and Friedman, G.D. Health care use by frequent marijuana smokers who do not smoke tobacco. West J Med 158:596-601, 1993).
Marijuana has the potential to promote cancer of the lungs and other parts of the respiratory tract because it contains irritants and carcinogens.(Sridhar, K.S.; Raub, W.A.; Weatherby, N.L., Jr.; Metsch, L.R.; Surratt, H.L.; Inciardi, J.A.; Duncan, R.C.; Anwyl, R.S.; and McCoy, C.B. Possible role of marijuana smoking as a carcinogen in the development of lung cancer at a young age. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 26(3):285-288, 1994).
In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50 percent to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke.(Hoffman, D.; Brunnemann, K.D.; Gori, G.B.; and Wynder, E.E.L. On the carcinogenicity of marijuana smoke. In: V.C. Runeckles, ed., Recent Advances in Phytochemistry. New York: Plenum, 1975). It also produces high levels of an enzyme that converts certain hydrocarbons into their carcinogenic form, levels that may accelerate the changes that ultimately produce malignant cells (Cohen, S. Adverse effects of marijuana: Selected issues. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 362:119-124, 1981). Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which increases the lungs' exposure to carcinogenic smoke. These facts suggest that, puff for puff, smoking marijuana may increase the risk of cancer more than smoking tobacco does.
If you are terminally ill or feel like it, the relief marijuana provides is probably welcome, and few dispute that. On the other hand, there is evidence that 98% of marijuana users are not suffering from maladies for which marijuana is the best treatment.
According to the Institute of Medicine, there is no future in smoked marijuana as medicine. However, the prescription drug Marinol—a legal and safe version of medical marijuana which isolates the active ingredient of THC—has been studied and approved by the Food & Drug Administration as safe medicine. The difference is that you have to get a prescription for Marinol from a licensed physician. You can’t buy it from your local dispensary, and you don’t smoke it.
Why should we be concerned about the adverse health impacts of marijuana smoking? Because we all ultimately pay for it.
I could go on and discuss the pros and cons of endless topics that include crime, driving while intoxicated, marijuana versus alcohol, effects on teenagers, tax revenue potential, and so on. I don’t have enough memory in my computer to try and recite all the arguments pro and con allowing marijuana dispensaries in Richmond. But I would like to see a real discussion that includes expert testimony, not just drug dealers looking to make a fast million bucks.
The vast majority of California cities and counties do not allow dispensaries at all, so there must be some compelling reason to allow an unlimited number in Richmond. It must be Richmond’s uniqueness. We are periodically the homicide capital of California, and maybe cannabis can cure that. One thing for sure is that there is a yawning gulf between even credible believers and detractors. For just a snapshot, see http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000141.
For anyone who wants to get educated, there is endless information on the Internet. On the pro side, check out the following:
On the con side, see:
Come on down on Tuesday, July 27, and enjoy the show. There is some evidence that at least some of the Ganga Gang of Four are having buyer’s remorse and may back off on the unlimited dispensary permits.
Thank you for the e-mail and for your voicemail message. I appreciate your ongoing willingness to work together on this and many other issues. I also respect your civility and consideration during Council meetings, even when the issues are complex and controversial.
We do have some fundamental disagreements about the regulatory process associated with medical marijuana dispensaries. I should make it clear, I am not opposed to medical marijuana or medical marijuana dispensaries. My primary concerns related to these establishments include the following:
You and many members of the audience at last Tuesday night’s City Council meeting clearly opposed having the Police Department play a primary role in regulating and doing regulatory enforcement associated with Richmond’s marijuana dispensaries. Although I am not enthusiastic about taking on any additional responsibilities, given the many services we already provide to the community, I do question what other City department has the staff, the expertise, and the authority to conduct meaningful monitoring and regulatory enforcement besides the Police Department.
I’m disappointed there is an assumption held by some individuals that the Department would seek to “criminalize”, harass, or ostracize dispensary patients, or that we would be anything less than fair and professional in our dealings with dispensary staff. We routinely visit liquor stores, bars, and smoke shops where I believe we have a very good reputation for being consistent, fair, and helpful in conducting our regulatory and educational roles.
Finally, I believe that as a general governing principle, it is better to start with more stringent regulations of a new business model that has the potential to be problematic--and then determine over time if those regulations should be relaxed or otherwise modified. It is almost impossible to strengthen lax ordinances and laws or reform already established business practices after problems are identified. We’ve seen this time and time again, both in our city and statewide.
In the case of marijuana dispensaries, the stakes are high. I hear reports from my peers throughout the state about the many problems their cities and police departments have encountered based on poor regulation of these establishments and complaints from residents or business owners.
To simply suggest that limiting the placement of these dispensaries to commercial areas will minimize any detrimental effect such businesses might have on neighborhoods is nonsensical. Richmond’s commercial C-1 and C-2 areas are directly adjacent to highly populated neighborhoods, schools, churches, and community centers.
In my neighborhood (North and East), for example, my house is only a few short blocks away from San Pablo Ave.—a commercial corridor that already struggles with multiple liquor stores, massage parlors, tattoo shops, prostitution, drug activity, graffiti and other blight, loitering, and various types of crime. It seems very unrealistic to believe the presence of one or more marijuana dispensaries along San Pablo Ave. will not have an impact on an already fragile area. While none of us can say for certain whether this impact will be good or bad, I believe the stakes are high for everyone, including the existing business owners and surrounding residents.
I sincerely hope the ordinance that was narrowly approved this past Tuesday can be modified at a future Council Meeting. I also believe it would be advisable to have input from multiple interests into this ordinance. I heard several Council members describe how the dispensaries and their advocates should have greater input. That’s fine, but what about other Richmond residents? Isn’t this why ordinances like this one typically go before the Public Safety Committee, the Planning Commission, and groups such as the RNCC, the West County Alcohol Advisory Committee, or various neighborhood organizations? Even City agencies, such as the Planning Department and the Police Department had very limited opportunity for meaningful feedback or input over the less than one week time period during which this ordinance was put together. That simply does not seem like good governing to me.
Please be assured we will work with you and others to implement whatever the final ordinance looks like and to assure we create the safest environment for medical marijuana dispensaries in our community. Thank you for considering my concerns related to this issue.
Chief Chris Magnus
It seems this would be a good opportunity for the City Council to heed Benjamin Franklin’s advice and practice a little moderation.