A Talk With Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project


Before we get to my talk with Mr. Mirken, let's touch on the history of marijuana criminalization in the United States.

1915-1937: Twenty-seven states pass laws prohibiting the use of marijuana. Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana lead the way.

1937: The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. At Congressional hearings, Harry Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, stated, "Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death."  Contrasting testimony came from Dr. William C. Woodward. Dr. Woodward was both a doctor and a lawyer, and served as Chief Counsel to the American Medical Association. He said, "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug."

1951: The Boggs Act increases penalties for every drug offense by a factor of four, and for the first time, lumps marijuana with other drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

1956: The Daniel Act again increases the penalties for drug offenses in every category.

1956-1969: Virginia passes a series of laws making possession of marijuana more heavily penalized than violent crimes. First-degree murder calls for a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, while rape involves a mandatory minimum of 10 years. Possession of marijuana leads to a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, with no eligibility for parole or probation, and no possibility of a suspended sentence. Other states enact similar laws.

1970: The Controlled Substances Act. The law categorizes known drugs by schedule (while omitting alcohol and nicotine). Marijuana is included with Schedule One drugs: It is judged to have little or no medical use, and a high potential for abuse. Even then, including marijuana as a Schedule One drug was controversial. In 1972, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, commissioned by President Richard Nixon, recommended the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, and even went so far as to suggest that marijuana prohibition was unconstitutional.


bruce-mirkenBruce Mirken is the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest cannabis policy reform organization in the United States.

HJ: When the Justice Department told federal prosecutors not to prosecute medical marijuana distributors as long as they followed state law, you called it "the most significant change in federal policy on medical marijuana in at least three decades." Now that the dust has settled a bit, does the reality of what's happening in California match your expectations?

Mirken: Well, yes, as far as we can tell. Of course, not a lot of time has gone by since that announcement. That said, we haven't seen any new raids on medical marijuana distributers initiated by federal agents since the announcement. We're crossing our fingers and hoping that the Justice Department's stance continues.

HJ: Here in Shasta County and in neighboring Tehama County, communities have issued moratoriums on medical marijuana establishments. Are such actions by municipalities becoming common in California?

Mirken: Well, those sorts of things have been going on for a while. A fair number of those local actions have been happening, so I guess we'd have to say that yes, they are common. We think they're unfortunate, and we think it makes much more sense to establish a reasonable set of regulations, rather than ban medical marijuana dispensaries outright. That's been done successfully in places such as San Francisco and Oakland.

HJ: Do you think the answer would be for the state to step in and more actively regulate dispensaries?

Mirken: That might be the answer. I know that there is some disagreement within the medical cannabis movement about more state involvement. Some people don't trust the state, and I understand their feelings. But what we have right now is a fairly dysfunctional local patchwork of policy and regulation. Some communities have been very hostile about allowing any effective patient access at all. Los Angeles is an example, where we're looking at the possibility of a severe crackdown on medical cannabis facilities. In that light, I think it's time to at least give consideration to statewide regulation and licensing.

HJ: According to a recent Gallop poll, 44% of Americans now favor outright legalization of marijuana, while in 2000, only 31% were in favor. Why do you think the tide of public opinion is moving toward a greater acceptance of legalizing marijuana?

Mirken: I certainly can't claim to have a definitive answer to your question, but I think a number of things have happened. One is simply demographics. The percentage of our population who've had hands-on experience with marijuana, either themselves or by knowing people who've used it--the people who grew up in the '60s and '70s and later--has grown. The older generations, those people who tended to harbor the most stereotypical and ill-informed views on the issue, have been dying off, to put it bluntly. So yes, I lot of the shift is simply due to demographics.  If you look at the polling, it's historically been the voters over 60 who've been the most hostile to reform. I think other things have happened to influence the shift in attitudes.  It's grown clearer that lots of successful, prominent people--ranging from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps to our last three presidents of the United States--have used marijuana and gone on to lead very successful lives. That's helping to educate people that the demonization of the drug is really unwarranted. Another thing I think has happened has been the realization that by keeping marijuana in an unregulated criminal underground, we're essentially funneling profits to criminals and gangs--including those dreadful Mexican drug cartels. I think all of these aspects are coming together to cause people to rethink the issue, and that's a healthy thing.

HJ: Guidelines for quantity limits set forth by California's Health and Safety Code state that those limits are based on the "dried mature processed flowers" of female plants, not on leaves, stems, or seeds. Are people often getting arrested in error for exceeding quantity limits?

Mirken: I think that varies a lot from locality to locality. Some police departments are more educated about the code, and some are more sympathetic to medical marijuana than others. Those limits are not rigid limits in the first place; they're really sort of a "safe harbor." If you're under those limits, you're presumed to be operating legally as a medical marijuana patient. Possessing quantities over the limits doesn't mean that you're necessarily in violation of the law, but it does mean that you may have to prove that you have a medical need for that amount. Frankly, there are places in the state--I won't say a lot of places, but they exist--where law enforcement officers will find any excuse they can to arrest people. We've heard stories of people who've had encounters with their local police and have been told, basically, "We don't recognize that medical marijuana crap here." Now, that's not what they're supposed to do, but you will find some folks in law enforcement who act as if they're a law unto themselves.

HJ: In May of last year, the California 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that quantity limits set forth by legislators were unconstitutional. The case is under review. Are you aware whether any deliberations are under way on the case?

Mirken: They actually just went through a round of oral arguments on the case. What was interesting was that lawyers on both sides were in relative agreement that the law should not be tossed out entirely, but should be clarified as to how it's supposed to work, and that it should be reiterated that the quantity limits are not rigid. It will be interesting to see what the court does. My guess is that the results will be something reasonable, and will provide useful clarity for all concerned. I hope so.

HJ: If we were to see marijuana legalized in California during the President Obama's tenure, how would you expect the federal government to respond? Would the 10th Amendment prevail?

Mirken: That's a really interesting question. Frankly, how the federal government responds might be different if it happens in Obama's second term rather than his first. Politics sometimes makes people do ugly things. But, I think it's a question of what California or any other state does. It's one thing to remove penalties for possession; it's quite another to set up a legal, regulated system of sales such as what we now have with alcohol. I really don't know what the feds will do, but I do know that these types of reforms are going to start at the state level; the feds are not going to move first. There may be a period of friction, but sooner or later, common sense is going to prevail. It may take a few years, but it will prevail.



Hal Johnson escaped from southern California 16 years ago and lives in Shasta County with his wife and son. He's an offshore helicopter pilot who often finds writing more frightening than flying.

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12 Responses

  1. TYC says:

    Thanks for the informative article. Keep up the good work!

  2. JL HAYNES says:

    Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in Shasta Co.

    Am I the only one who sees complete irony in all the pot stores sprouting up in Shasta County? I don’t know all of the wording of proposition 215 that allows for the establishment of these businesses, but it is my understanding that they are to be Non Profit. Of course anyone can run circles around that designation. Is rent a profit? Are wages profit and at what level? Can I charge $50 a gram and call it wages when the product was produced at cost? Any other recognized non profit must go through the state process of applying for and receiving a 501-3c non profit status. At the rate that these businesses are opening, I find it hard to believe that they are going through this difficult, time consuming process. If marijuana is indeed now classified as a medicine, should it not be required that anyone who is authorized to dispense such a medical product be certified and licensed by some medical authority, at least by the County Health department if not some department at the state level. How do we really know what is being sold and consumed and by whom? Is there a medical board that is overseeing the Doctors who are handing these permits out like candy?

    If by law we can not stop this nonsense, then at least the folks that are wrestling with these issues at our local level need to quit shirking from difficult choices and start making some hard decisions and tackle this issue proactively. As some have said, Think outside of the Box! We have here the Shasta County Dept of Health, run by the county and staffed with various health professionals. Who better to regulate and dispense these products? With the department financed by the county, there will be no need for a non profit status and there will be in place the needed medical oversight that does not exist in the current situation. If the “tongue in cheek” Non Profit cash flow ceases due to lack of demand and strict zoning regulations the dispensaries will go out of business. Of even greater benefit to the county at large, consider: If there are 1000 people in Shasta County (conservative estimate) frequenting these establishments and each one of them is spending $300 per ounce per month. Then the cash flow amounts to something like $300,000 per month or Three Million, Six Hundred Thousand per Year.

    Law enforcement is already harvesting the “medicine” in our own woods from illegal grows. Process and distribute this product through a legitimate medical establishment and at the same time plug a huge hole in our government debt, while removing a scourge from our community. Is there anyone out there in our governing body with the courage to stand against the resistance and attempt to push this foreword?

    Jeff L Haynes

    Millville Ca.

    • Elle Bough says:

      I agree with you, Mr. Haynes, that the medicine needs to be better regulated as to quality because it affects effectiveness. Maybe we can use churches as an example of how to run a non-profit. They have been skirting taxes and regulations for years and years and years.

  3. reeses says:

    i was wondering if weed would be open to the poblic or just medical reasons.Why that question , because of all the pills these doctors give out makes no since some times. but weed helps people calm down . some of the pills they proscribe are to make people diet but they are a base on speed , to help lose weight , the point i am getting at is we have no room in our jails why for poistion of marijuana for less than an oz . that is what hurts tax payers why dont you legatize it and tax that more money we can pay china pack the money we owe them and help schools But put only in privacy of your home. i have listened to all that is going on that is what i have come up with I HAVE LISTEN TO THE PUBLIC THAT IS WHERE US AS PEOPLE STAND

  4. TIP says:

    We the people for the people. And we, frankly, are gettiing sick of incompetent goverment of ALL levels. As long as I am of age, who is anyone to tell me what I can and cant put in my body. Like the goverment ever knew what was best for the masses, Please! Legalize it, Tax it and get on with important issues. It is not a moral issue….Show me the money, issue…


  5. Concerned Parent says:

    Licensing, taxing, and regulating marijuana will put the criminal drug dealers out of business and _protect_our_children_. Regulate the marijuana business, medical or otherwise. While we’re at it, let’s implement a personal cultivation permit. Limit the number of plants, and put a fee on it to cover administrative costs, something like a fishing license, with maybe a little extra for education or fixing the roads.

    How about $100 per year for a permit to cultivate a dozen plants? It's a win-win

  6. Michael Allison says:

    I'm no prude. But I was just down in SoCal, (Venice and Santa Monica,) and all the marijuana dispensaries running down the street — its just weird. I'd rather not see this happen up here.

    I dont really like seeing marijuana sold at all. It grows out of the ground for heaven's sake! NO MONEY should be made by ANYONE selling marijuana. People who need it (or just want to use it,) should grow enough for themselves, and give it to a few friends that live in apartments and have no back yards.

    Yes, give it. Does EVERYTHING have to be a commercial enterprise? Give it away like your extra tomatoes and zuccini! And keep it off the streets. Its not good for kids.

    • Brinna Nanda says:

      Thanks, Hal, for an informative and well written piece. I particularly enjoyed the timeline you provided at the beginning.

      Michael Allison said: "Does EVERYTHING have to be a commercial enterprise?"

      I totally agree with you, Michael. Cannabis should be legalized but not commercialized. I wrote a blog about just that subject here, which you may enjoy reading: http://open.salon.com/blog/brinna_nanda/2009/04/0

      I don't know if we can ever get back to the time when cannabis was just hemp: a medicinal herb, and an industrial source of fiber and oil . . . but I hope we do.

  7. Budd Hodges says:

    Way to go Hal and Bruce for getting people to talk about this important subject because only through meaningfull sinsible conversation can we cut through th B—l

    S—t that's holding up progress in settling a simple process.

    As a case in point, This nation's health care, universal medical care for all U.S. citizens, is undergoing the same scrunity and will probably never be the kind of treatment we all need or want.

    Try to be kinder to those around you and remember, we only pass this way but once.

  8. gamerjohn says:

    The pot stores that I know about have all filed the proper paperwork with the State for incorporating as non-profits. I think that there are too many to be sustained financially. Personally I don't use it, but if my health needed it, I would ask my doctor about it. Remembering the friend who died of breast cancer and the co-worker with AIDS, they got a lot of relief. The filthy back history of how it became illegal is very interesting.

  9. kitkat says:

    yes legalize it! the only reason its illegal is because the government wouldnt make money off it if it were!

  1. November 23, 2009

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