You won’t hear the word “marijuana” at the Harborside Health Center, despite the thousands of pounds of marijuana that move in and out through its welcoming doors every year. You won’t hear “dope,” “pot,” “grass,” “weed,” “chronic,” “herb” or anything that smells of the street or illicit trade. You won’t hear much pot humor (even from me, even though I thought of a good joke while there*.) You will hear, over and over, the word “medicine.” And, if we need to specify the medicine we’re discussing, we shall call it “cannabis.” (It’s Latin, it was explained to me. Sounds more serious. Medical.)
I have always admired true believers, whatever their specific belief: those people who are so convinced of the rightness of their cause, or the value of their passion, that they devote all to it and risk all for it, their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor,” to borrow a phrase. And Steve DeAngelo has done all that; he says – with some pride – that’s he sold enough cannabis to be eligible for the death penalty under Federal Law. (I checked; he’s right.) He says he has been involved in “the cannabis movement” since the age of fifteen, and before you start making wisecracks like, “Yeah, and I was an activist in the cheap beer movement starting about the same time,” read his bio. He has been deeply involved in political crusades since adolescence; whatever the rightness of his cause, there’s no denying that for him it is, in fact, a cause.
Simply put: DeAngelo believes that cannabis is an almost universally useful medicine, and that people should have the same level of access to it that they have to say, Oxycontin. He has created at the Harborside Health Centerin Oakland as a deliberate model of a modern, safe, regulated, legal (under California law) medical cannabis dispensary. It is the Whole Foods Market of cannabis, down to the helpful clerks wearing polo shirts with the HHC logo, the gift shop, the glass display cases. It is a clean, well lighted place to buy cannabis in all its forms.
You need a doctor’s recommendation to purchase medical cannabis (not a “prescription,” due to a quirk in the law that Steve understands and I don’t.) If you bring in a recommendation, they will sit you down in a pleasant waiting room while they check that your doctor is licensed by the State of California, and then call that doctor to make sure your recommendation is legit. Once you’re approved, you stand in line, approach a display case, and a helpful associate will listen to your complaints and suggest the correct medicine – edible, smokable, sativa or indica, plant or unguent. If you don’t have the resources to pay, they’ll help you out. If you have an addiction problem, they will help you out. If you want a yoga class or a genuine hemp fiber handbag, they will help you out. They are a helpful group of folks.
This is all kind of funny until it is not, and that moment came for me when the film crew and I decided to interview one of the patients, a woman in her forties with a lined face but who offered a smile when I asked if we could talk to her. “What’s your medical complaint?” I asked. “Cancer,” she said, and smiled again, thanked us, took her brown paper bag of medicine and left.
We were talking to Steve and his staff and patients for the “ConstitutionLand” series for PBS because Steve claims that under the 10th Amendment, the Federal Government has no power to overrule the State of California’s own legislative and popular will when it comes to medical marijuana. His arguments are very similar to that of Gary Marbut’s, although Steve feels that unlike cannabis, gun violence is a scourge and should absolutely be regulated. (Constitutional law makes strange bedfellows.) There’s a lot of sense to what he’s saying: if states are able to regulate alcohol as they like, why not cannabis? And, for that matter, how come the United States needed a Constitutional amendment (the 18th) to ban alcohol but can ban cannabis as a matter of administrative law? And – as Steve knows, which is why he invited our crew into the Health Center – it’s a hard and cold thing to cite the Supremacy Clause as a reason to take a plant away from a cancer patient who uses it to feel better.
So Steve has claimed his constitutional rights, as he sees them, which are to abide by the law of the state in which he lives despite contravening Federal law, because, he says, the Constitution gives the US Government no right to regulate the growth, transport, and use of marijuana within state lines for personal use. But just as we finished the interview, I asked Steve this question:
“Suppose you win your argument, and you convince everyone of the value of medical cannabis, and the President and Congress impose a national regime of legalization and regulation, so that there are places like Harborside all over the country: clean, safe, legal places to buy cannabis. But then suppose that one state – say, Utah– disagrees with that policy. And under its laws, cannabis remains illegal. Would you still be in favor of their rights under the 10th amendment?”
And Steve paused, and Steve thought, and then he shook his head and said, “I’m pretty much a one-issue guy. I just want to do everything I can to get this medicine into the hands of people who need it.”
This is what I’ve learned about the Constitution, after three weeks of travel and filming and interviews: The Constitution is, to whoever looks at it, whatever it most needs to be, for them, at that time. And the endless argument over whether it says anything objectively – other than, say, the minimum age to be President – may be itself the whole point of the document. The Constitution doesn’t settle debates, at least not most of them. It creates the arena for them.
* The joke: ”You ever look at the Constitution? I mean, really look at it?”