The Debate On California's Pot Shops

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

Hindsight. One more image in the hall of mirrors that medical marijuana in California has become. The Supreme Court has upheld the DEA's right to go after dispensaries, no matter what state law might say. And even one of the key proponents of medical marijuana says things have gotten out of hand.

"It's just ridiculous the amount of money that's going through these cannabis clubs. It's absolutely ridiculous," says Scott Imler, a minister in the United Methodist Church who has long been active in promoting medical marijuana.

Eleven years ago, he was working to pass proposition 215, the ballot measure that legalized it. Today, Imler has second thoughts.

"The purpose of proposition 215 was not to create a new industry. It was to protect legitimate patients from criminal prosecution," Imler says.

The aim back then, reflected in television spots, was for a highly regulated system in which licensed pharmacies would dispense medical marijuana to the seriously ill. Proposition 215's backers had people with AIDS, cancer, and glaucoma in mind.

"What happened when we were writing it was, as you can imagine, every patient group in the state and they all have their lobbies. You know, the kidney patients and the heart patient. Every patient group wanted to be included in the list," Imler recalls. "And so we didn't wanna get in the position of deciding what it could be used for and what it couldn't be used for. We weren't doctors. We weren't scientists. We weren't researchers. We were just patients with a problem."

Imler says they were forced to make the proposition vague.

So the law voters passed mentioned not only cancer and AIDS but "...any other illness for which marijuana provides relief." A decade later, if you've got a note from a doctor, you can buy medical pot for just about any imaginable condition.

"Let me just ask you plain and simple. Is there this proliferation because people are simply using, quote, unquote, medical marijuana, to get high?" Safer asks.

"I think there's a lot of that. And I think you know, a lot of what we have now is basically pot dealers in storefronts," Imler says.

Many businesses calling themselves dispensaries or cannabis clubs advertise in alternative papers, as do doctors around the state who will give you a quick once-over and, for a price, a permit to buy.

Television station KCBS went to a Los Angeles clinic, where the waiting room was full of young people, joking about what they'd tell the doctor their ailment was.

The doctor, James Eisenberg, saw four healthy people sent by KCBS. He rejected a 17-year-old for being underage. But after getting a brief consultation and paying $175, the other three got their papers. One complained of dry skin, another of hair loss, and the third said high heels hurt her feet.

"Do you think someone who complains of foot pain because of high heeled shoes is a legitimate candidate for medical marijuana?" TV reporter David Goldstein asked Dr. Eisenberg.

"You know, all I can do is take my patients' statements as factual," the doctor replied.

And in doing so, he is not breaking any state laws.

Don Duncan is something of an elder statesman in the world of medical marijuana, running three California dispensaries, including one in Hollywood. He concedes that compliant doctors are a problem.

"You're not naive about this, I'm sure but obviously someone claiming to have a mild back pain, and has a friendly doctor," Safer remarks. "Virtually anyone, theoretically, can come in here and buy it legally."

"Absolutely," Duncan agrees.

"And I'm sure that happens, correct?" Safer asks.

"There's bound to be abuse in the system. You know, our pharmacies are abused by people who want to abuse prescription drugs. And so it's reasonable to assume that our medical cannabis facilities are abused as well. What we really need right now are regulations that address those issues," Duncan says.