As I recall, coming of age in the 1960s meant, among other things, social roles being more clearly defined then than now. For example, if you wanted weed, you met someone at an L stop named Bobby. For the reasonable price of $5 you felt a grass-filled baggie slide into your pocket and by the time you’d muttered “Thanks, man…” Bobby had vanished.
On the other hand, were you a victim of one of the two epidemics of that hectic decade– crabs (pubic lice) or the clap (gonorrhea)–you didn’t return to the L stop for a follow-up with Bobby. You went to a doctor. This meant entering a fly-stained street level door, climbing a flight of sticky stairs, sitting in a miniscule waiting room strewn with decades-old issues of Time Magazine, and after being quickly checked by some old geezer (approximately my current age, I’d guess) you were jabbed with the business end of a railroad spike-sized hypodermic. This, too, cost about $5.
Imagine we’re back in 1968 or so and you could make a prediction about the future to a friend. “I’ll bet,” you might say, “that in the future, there’ll be no more Bobby and that someday we’ll all be going to a geezer doc for our penicillin shot and our nickel bags.” Picture your friend staring at you for a full minute, attempting to bring your face into focus. Then slowly, and with a vocal intonation unique to the times, whispering, “Wow! Grass from your doc. That is…so groovy.”
To put the very idea of “medical” marijuana into perspective, watch the latest Ken Burns series Prohibition on public television. When the federal government banned the sale of alcohol in 1920, Americans, especially those living in big cities, continued drinking alcohol, but the supply sources changed radically. Most alcohol came from bootleggers. Everyone remembers the Prohibition Era for its violent gang wars, thousands shot or jailed for the “manufacture and distribution of intoxicating beverages.”
Al Capone and his ilk aside, a completely legal source of alcohol was the medical profession. “Patients” filled doctors’ waiting rooms requesting prescriptions for “medicinal spirits.” My father, an apprentice pharmacist during Prohibition, remembered that at least half the prescriptions he filled were for pure grain alcohol, neatly labeled For Medicinal Use Only!
Now 90 years later we seemed to have learned nothing from all this. Marijuana is probably no more or less dangerous than alcohol, but just like the old Prohibition days we have drug dealers killing each other (and innocent bystanders) and thousands of young people wasting years of their lives in jail paying the price for their agricultural and/or distribution skills. Like Prohibition, enforcing restrictive laws costs us a fortune. Interestingly, we’re also facing the same federal-state conflict as we did during Prohibition. Marijuana growing and possession are federal crimes, but most state and local governments would rather not bother enforcing them.
Prescription for Pinot noir?
As a result of this, an increasing number of states are legalizing marijuana. This would be just fine with me except for one very important component. The new liberal state laws are classifying marijuana as a drug, requiring a doctor’s prescription.
Whoa! Wait! Exclude me, please. Classify marijuana where it belongs: along with alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and aspirin. The medical profession does not need to be involved with marijuana. Yes, there are a few medical benefits from smoking a joint, but you don’t require a prescription from me for Pinot noir to gain its antioxidant effect or caffeine because it clears your thinking in the morning.
In states that have legalized or are likely to legalize marijuana (Illinois is one) things are moving quickly. For example, you can now buy a franchise in a marijuana chain called weGrow if you’re over 21 and have $25,000. Your franchised store will sell a variety of marijuana blends and a full array of equipment for your customers to grow it themselves.
But in order to buy your marijuana customers require a doctor’s prescription, a marijuana card. For that you’ll need to hire a doctor and pay him several hundred dollars a day to sit in a cubicle, listen to your customer report how his back, neck, or hair hurts and then rubber stamp prescriptions. Just like the old Prohibition days, your customers will line up, and as the doctor signs the prescriptions you’ll fill them in your new career as a marijuana pharmacist. Don’t know anything about marijuana? Take a few courses at Oaksterdam University (Oakland and Amsterdam being major HQs of legal grass) for “quality training in the cannabis industry.”
Being a marijuana doc does not strike me as one of your high-prestige physician jobs. You do have to wonder what sort of a doctor would work at one of these places, especially considering all those years spent in pre-med, medical school, and residency training. My guess is that these are mainly ex-solo practitioners who finally couldn’t handle the combination of 80-hour work weeks and declining incomes and simply closed up shop. They’re too old to start another practice, and the short hours and regular paycheck writing pot prescriptions looks solid, based on ads like this one.
What finally ended Prohibition was money. Yes there was an inherent stupidity in the whole idea of Prohibition, but with the Depression of the 1930s both the state and federal governments were nearly broke. Legalizing alcohol would put hundreds of thousands of people back to work at legitimate jobs, and by taxing alcohol at astronomically high rates millions of dollars got funneled into half-starved treasuries.
Europeans have commented that we Americans suffer collective historical amnesia. They have a point. We’re not seeing the obvious comparison between Prohibition then and the squabbling over marijuana legalization now. With one fell swoop, legalizing marijuana on a national level would save approximately $20 billion every year. That’s what we spend on the marijuana component of our “war on drugs.”
We’d also stop financially supporting a couple hundred thousand prisoners jailed on minor dug charges. With the judicious application of excise taxes (similar to alcohol and tobacco), legalizing grass would generate another $23 billion a year in state and federal revenue. We could put thousands of people back to work, all paying income tax, in a new industry that itself would pay corporate tax.
It makes utter financial sense to legalize marijuana on a national level. But please, please, please don’t apply the phony patina of “medical” to legal marijuana. Just let me and my profession stick with what it knows best: treating crabs and the clap.
David Edelberg, MD