Last week, the Santa Barbara Foundation and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History assembled a panel of four experts to hold a town hall-style discussion on possible outcomes of hypothetically legalizing marijuana.
For the purposes of the event, speakers and audience members were asked to pretend that the year was 2016 and marijuana was now a legal substance in the state of California, in order to speculate on the potential legal, social and health issues the decision might raise. The legality of marijuana has become a particularly hot-button issue recently as many California municipalities are attempting to shut down local medical marijuana suppliers, including Santa Barbara County and the Los Angeles City Council.
The panel featured Dr. Dave Bearman, a local physician who specializes in issues relating to medical marijuana; political advisor and drug policy consultant Alex Datig, a self-proclaimed former marijuana addict; Dale Gieringer, who has a doctoral degree from Stanford University on the topic of FDA drug regulation; and Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Von Nguyen.
Speakers drew from vast experience in their respective fields to support their opinions of whether citizens would be better off in such a scenario. Though the debate was not formally polarized, Datig and Nguyen presented various arguments against legalization while Bearman and Gieringer generally advocated in favor of it.
Bearman, who founded the Isla Vista Medical Clinic, said legalizing marijuana would have a similar effect to the repeal of prohibition back in 1933 in that it would not cause a significant increase in abuse.
“I think that we all know prohibition doesn’t work. We all saw the Ken Burns documentary on alcohol prohibition. In only took us 13 years to figure out that that was the wrong way to go. But we didn’t say, ‘Folks, let’s drown ourselves in booze;’ we said, ‘No, prohibition is probably not the right way to go.’”
Josh Braun, who operated the Hortipharm dispensary on State Street until it was raided and closed in 2010, said local dispensaries were responsible for a decreased crime rate before they were closed.
“There were 24 dispensaries here in 2007 and I don’t believe there was a spike in crime. We were also particularly pointed out as a model dispensary,” Braun said. “What we saw in 2007 was that the black market disappeared when the dispensaries were in business.”
However, Nguyen immediately countered Braun’s argument, claiming the statistics to be unsubstantiated.
The discourse also focused on how the sale and distribution of the drug would be regulated if it were made legal. According to Nguyen, marijuana regulation would have substantial, far-reaching effects and government agencies would have to be set up in order to control sales and quality.
“We need to make sure we know how we are going to go about regulating marijuana beforehand — are we going to be okay with everybody growing it anywhere they want? Are we going to be okay with having no quality control on the marijuana that’s being grown, the THC level?” Nguyen said. “The other thing that I think is very important is: what are we going to do to make sure our youth do not have access to marijuana?”
Gieringer pointed towards India as an example of a government with a successful system for regulating the sale and distribution of marijuana. According to Gieringer, marijuana was legal in India until the 1980s.
“[Currently,] we don’t really have a legalized and regulated production system,” Gieringer said. “In order to do that, we have to have a model for and the best model is that used by India.”
There are currently 17 states with laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana, despite a federal ban on any possession of the substance.