The Debate On California's Pot Shops

<b>Morley Safer</b> Reports On Proposition 215

This segment was originally broadcast on Sept. 23, 2007. It was updated on Dec. 30, 2007.

Eleven years ago, California became the first of a dozen states in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. True believers, including many doctors, say pot works to ease pain or counter the side effects of chemotherapy. And the National Academy of Sciences agrees, if the drug is carefully used. Critics see medical use as the gateway to legalizing all marijuana.

Well, how is the California state law working? As correspondent Morley Safer reports, the answer involves another statute: the law of unintended consequences.

For one thing, the federal government still views marijuana, medical or otherwise, as illegal and has been cracking down on dispensaries that sell it. For another, it's clear there are legions of people buying medical marijuana for the sole purpose of getting high. For both them and the truly ill in California, it's become an easy matter: just drop by your little pot shop around the corner.

It's just another day at a dispensary, as they call them, in San Francisco. There, with a note from a doctor, you can buy marijuana for anything you claim ails you, in just about any form, including cookies, pies and chocolate milk.

In many dispensaries up and down the state, there's a tasting corner, where you can sample the wares, and where you'll find any number of satisfied customers.

"I use medical marijuana for anxiety, neck pain and back pain. It seems to be the only thing that works that's not an opiate derivative," one man tells Safer.

Another man says he smokes marijuana because he has a torn ligament in his knee. "I use a pipe, a little bit of a time when needed," he explains.

There are hundreds of such stores in the state, and as many as 400 in southern California alone. The people who run them are members of the state's latest entrepreneurial class, calling themselves "caregivers." The feds call them something else. Case in point is a young man of many faces named Luke Scarmazzo.

He has been described as a businessman, a hip hop artist, and, by the government, as a drug dealer. Asked which of the descriptions apply to him, Scarmazzo says, "I'm a hip hop artist first. 'Cause that's what I've always been. And I'm a businessman second. But I'm not a drug dealer."

But he does acknowledge that he is in the drug business.

And like a growing number of people in the business of selling medical marijuana, Scarmazzo found himself and his dispensary on the receiving end of an unannounced, early morning raid by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

"They handcuffed me and put me on my kitchen table. And one of 'em walked up to me and held his badge up and said, 'You knew I'd be coming soon,'" Scarmazzo tells Safer.

But Scarmazzo says he didn't have a hint that the feds were on his case.

The DEA hits a handful of businesses like Scarmazzo's every few weeks. And in his case, business was good: in the town of Modesto, population 200,000, he sold $4.5 million worth of medical marijuana in two years.

And he was paid a good salary, too. "I took home $13,000 a month," he says. "I was working a lot of hours."

Scarmazzo's lawyer, Tony Capozzi, says the business was above-board, by the book, and perfectly legal in California.

"We think this is selective prosecution," Capozzi says.

Selected, Capozzi says because of a high profile video Scarmazzo had made. In some scenes, he's a well-tailored businessman, a caregiver. But in other shots, he's a different man, flaunting money, pot, babes, and attitude, in a manner more in tune with drug dealing than care-giving.

"Do you not think that it's easy to see that video as him…being a smart ass…and saying, you know, 'Come and catch me if you can'?" Safer asks.

"In hindsight, yes," Capozzi agrees.