High time - Page 2

DRUGS ISSUE: California could legalize pot this fall -- so why are medical marijuana providers grumbling?

Indeed, the tax revenue — estimated to be around $2 billion for the state annually, according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office — has been the main selling point for the Yes on 19 campaign (whose website is www.taxcannabis.org) and Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, who authored bills to legalize marijuana and has current legislation to set up a state regulatory framework if Prop. 19 passes.

"It makes it more seductive," Ammiano said of revenue potential from legalized marijuana. "I've been working with Betty Yee [who chairs the California Board of Equalization, the state's main taxing authority] on a template and structure for taxing it."

Reed and others say they fear taxes at the state and local levels will drive up the price of marijuana, as governments have done with tobacco and alcohol, and hinder access by low-income patients. But Ammiano scoffed at that concern: "Even with the tax structure on booze, there was no diminishing of access to booze."

Pearson said he believes Prop. 19 will actually help the medical marijuana industry. "Anything that takes the next step toward legalizing recreational use only helps medical cannabis," he said. Pearson moved to California to grow medical marijuana more than 10 years ago, at a time when the federal government was aggressively trying to crush the nascent industry.

"When you're packing up and running from the DEA all the time, you're not thinking about the quality of the medicine. You're trying to stay out of jail," Pearson said. "Now, we can be transparent, which is huge."

Like most dispensaries, SPARC is run as a nonprofit cooperative where most of the growing is done by member-patients. Speaking from his office, with its clear glass walls in SPARC's back room, Pearson said the Obama election ushered in a new openness in the industry.

"Everything is on the books now, whereas before nothing was on the books because it would be evidence if we got busted ... We are allowed to have banks accounts; we're allowed to use accountants; I can write checks; we can talk to government officials," Pearson said. "It helps with the public and governments, where they see the transparency, to normalize things."

He also said Prop. 19 will only further that normalizing of the industry, which ultimately helps patients and growers of medical marijuana. SPARC, for example, gives free marijuana to 40 low-income patients and offers cheap specials for others (opening day, it was an eighth of Big Buddha Cheese for $28) because others are willing to pay $55 for a stinky eighth of OG Kush.

"Our objective here is to bring the cost of cannabis down. We can subsidize the medicine for people who can't afford it with sales to people who can," Pearson said, noting that dynamic will get extended further if the legal marketplace is expanded by Prop. 19.

While Pearson strongly supports the measure, he does have some minor concerns about it. "The biggest concern is if local governments muddy the line between medical and nonmedical," Pearson said, noting that he plans to remain exclusively in medical marijuana and develop better strains, including those with greater CBD content, which doesn't get users high but helps with neuromuscular diseases and other disorders.

Reed also said he's concerned that patients who now grow their own and sell their excess to the clubs to support themselves will be hurt if big commercial interests enter the industry. Yet for all his concerns, Reed said he plans to reluctantly vote for Prop. 19 (which he doesn't believe will pass).

"They'll get my vote because not having enough yes votes will send the wrong message to law enforcement and politicians [that Californians don't support legalizing marijuana]," Reed said, noting that would rather see marijuana uniformly legalized nationwide, or at least statewide.

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