November 16, 2009 – California is in serious financial trouble, fueling the most recent push to legalize and tax marijuana to help balance the state budget. But alberto-torrico-cali-assemblyman1what’s left out of these calculations is the health and safety of the patients who rely on medical marijuana.

While I am a supporter of medical marijuana, a decision to legalize a powerful drug in order to balance our budget would be a critical mistake and would jeopardize public safety. Even in the midst of this fiscal crisis, we need to focus on providing safe medicine, not just grasping for any available revenue source.

There is strong scientific evidence that marijuana helps ease the symptoms of a number of serious illnesses, from AIDS to cancer, and it should be available under a doctor’s prescription. Californians are united in their desire to see this safe and effective medicine delivered to those who need it.

But turning this powerful medicine into a revenue source is wrong.

The proponents of legalization point out that marijuana is already widely used. But just because a powerful medicine has been adopted for recreational purposes, partially through flaws in our medical marijuana delivery system, does not mean recreational use should be legalized. It means that the system should be reformed and better regulated.

Right now, there are no meaningful statewide regulations on medical marijuana production, delivery or use. Overseeing the exploding number of marijuana dispensaries and collectives rests with county authorities. This has left a patchwork system that is clearly being abused, as seen in the mounting evidence that criminal cartels are starting to supply, or even control, some of the dispensaries.

The time has come for strong statewide oversight of the medical marijuana system.

First and foremost, we need to protect access to safe medicine for those who need it. That means implementing consistent regulations guarding against cannabis tainted with pesticides and other dangerous substances. The practice of providing medicine that contains dangerous and cancer-causing impurities can be ended only through a system of state testing and rigorous control.

There is also no state oversight of doctor recommendations written for marijuana or consistent regulation of its use. If a doctor started writing hundreds of prescriptions for one drug such, as OxyContin, federal regulators would investigate. But doctors can write thousands, or even tens of thousands, of “recommendations” for medical marijuana with no oversight at all.

Even when there are legitimate doctor recommendations, there are no consistent regulations for how much cannabis can be purchased, at what price and at what potency. Imagine going to a pharmacy to buy a medication and having to “test” to learn the potency of that drug. But that’s what medical marijuana patients must do — find the proper dose through a system of trial and error.

There are no meaningful statewide regulations for security in cannabis collectives. No oversight as to where they can be located or how many one community should be required to host. No statewide standards over how much cannabis can be purchased for medical use at one time. No meaningful control over who is operating these clubs or their qualifications to do so. And until recently, no meaningful efforts to close the numerous “dispensaries” that have sprung up in violation of even the weak existing regulations.

In short, we are tolerating a dangerous system that threatens the health of patients and the public safety for all Californians.

We’re not going to solve this problem by “normalizing” an illegal drug. We need tough regulations that make safe cannabis available to those who need it and unavailable to those who are seeking to abuse it.

ALBERTO TORRICO, D-Fremont, is majority leader of the California State Assembly. He wrote this article for the Mercury News. By Alberto Torrico.

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