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A 21st century approach to drug control

A note to readers and listeners: An earlier version of this transcript incorrectly identified the quotation above from Professor Rob MacCoun as being stated by Beau Kilmer, Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Institute's Drug Policy Research Center. The text has been edited to correct this error, but the audio has not been updated.

2013 marks one hundred years since California outlawed marijuana – and with the state supreme court poised to decide the fate of medical marijuana next month, the relationship between California and the drug could change yet again.

KALW's Holly Kernan checked with our marijuana correspondent Steven Short for an update on the latest cannabis news.

STEVEN SHORT: Well there's always something new going on in this field, it seems. To me, the most interesting underreported item from last week was that Gil Kerlikowske was in town. Did you know that?

HOLLY KERNAN: I had no idea and I don’t know who he is.

SHORT: I’m going to tell you. Gil Kerlikowske is the director of President Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he was in San Francisco of all places, talking to law enforcement officers about the Obama Administration’s 21st century approach to drug use.

KERNAN: So what is that 21st century approach? It’s a new one, right?

SHORT: Yes, and we had the chief of police from San Francisco and Berkeley, Ed Lee was there, but it seems that this new approach would be that drug users need treatment and education, instead of being sent to prison.

KERNAN: And are we talking about marijuana when we talk about drug use?

SHORT: Well, I would think on a federal level that they’re probably talking about all kinds of things. But because marijuana is a felony, and from the national point of view it’s the same level as cocaine or heroin, so I would think all drugs.

KERNAN: So what else is new with this 21st century approach to drug control?

SHORT: Well I found this statement very interesting: he said that there is no War on Drugs. Now, I know President Obama is trying to get us out of Afghanistan a little faster than he thought, so that war’s over, but maybe he’s getting them confused, I don’t know. But he also said that calling cannabis medicine “sends a terrible message” to young people, so he doesn’t think that’s a good idea. Oh, and he was quoted as saying that the Obama Administration strongly believes that legalization is a false choice.

KERNAN: Although, so many states now are beginning to look at it very differently.

SHORT: Well, that’s right. But now we’re getting into state’s rights versus the federal. But, speaking of that situation, I don’t think that there’s going to be any possibility of Congress or the State Assembly passing anything in the coming year. As a matter of fact, UC-Berkeley Professor Rob MacCoun was saying that even though these bills are coming up and being defeated, it’s still an improvement. Here’s a little of what he had to say, on City Visions, the other night:

MACCOUN:  The mere fact that these bills are appearing the House of Representatives is politically, I think, significant, because bills like this just did not appear in the House of Representatives a decade ago.

KERNAN: That’s UC-Berkeley Professor Rob MacCoun talking about the evolution of pot laws and pot legislation, so even if bills are failing, he’s saying that still progress in terms of cannabis evolution. Is that right, Steven?

SHORT: Yeah, it seems to be right. Because it just wouldn’t have even been considered.

KERNAN: So here on a local level, over in Oakland, Harborside continues to be operating. What’s going on?

SHORT: Yes, that’s been considered quite the victory for Harborside and the dispensaries. As you’ll recall, I think the last time we were together on the air, Harborside Health Center’s landlords both in San Jose and in Oakland, had been receiving threatening letters form the U.S. Attorney’s office informing them that there were illegal activities going on on their properties. And if they didn’t do something about that, they could have their properties confiscated. Well, of course no landlord wants to have their property confiscated, so they tried to start eviction proceedings with Harborside. And Harborside said, now, we haven’t been doing anything illegal, other than from the federal level, but from the city of Oakland, and I suppose San Jose as well, they were within the regulations and in the state regulations they were doing everything they were supposed to do. So they took it to court. A state court considered it, and said, well, this is a federal issue, so we’re going to kick it up to the federal level, and then last month, a federal judge did say that if the federal government wants Harborside to stop selling cannabis, because it’s illegal under federal law, that they should go after that directly.

KERNAN: Go after Harborside, not the landlords.

SHORT: Yeah, don’t try to make the landlords do your job for you.

KERNAN: Well, so speaking of court cases, the California Supreme Court is going to hear a couple of pot cases in February. What’s on the docket?

SHORT: Well, one of these court cases in February concerns the city of Riverside, and they currently have a total ban on dispensaries. It is legal to have dispensaries in the state, but then each city has to issue permits in order to go through, and Riverside says they’re not going to issue any permits, that’s all there is to it. Well this decision was upheld in the appeals court last year, but of course the opposite side says well, under state law you can’t do this, because it is legal.

KERNAN: So essentially someone’s trying to open a dispensary in Riverside and the city’s saying no, we don’t issue permits.

SHORT: Yes, or at least trying to correct that. Right now, the city says you can’t do it. And the other groups that are at least interested in opening one, or just seeing that could be done, are saying that this is a state law, you can’t just do this on a local level. Now, in a related case, also in Southern California, the city of Upland is arguing that no city can totally ban dispensaries (which is what Riverside is trying to do too) because they are allowed under state law. Los Angeles tried this a while ago, and they had to back down. So everybody’s hoping the court will detail how the cities can control dispensaries. But we shall see what we shall see!

To read more cannabis news updates from Steven Short, click here

Crosscurrents Cannabis