Tradable prescriptions and flexible production in medical marijuana
June 22, 2008
There was a NYTimes article a while back on the medical marijuana trade in California. According to Proposition 215 marijuana use is permitted for any ailment so long as it is prescribed by a medical doctor. Patients with a prescription have the legal right to purchase the drug from 450 specialized, taxed, cannabis dispensaries in the state. They may also cultivate an amount for themselves. This particular article centers around a town of 70,000 called Arcata, which is now home to 1,000 grow houses (residential homes converted into makeshift greenhouses), exempt from any type of prosecution so long as they maintain less than 99 plants.
There is a part of the story missing from this piece that is tremendously interesting from the point of view of the anthropology of markets and finance. It has to do with the way that regulations perform a market that controls users but leaves open a lot of uncertainty on the amount of supply in circulation. A couple of summers ago when I was in Berkeley I lived in house of many roommates among whom were several people ‘working in the industry’. They were by all means entrepreneurial types, supporting other artistic activities with the revenues created by producing supplies of medical cannabis. Gallon sized ziplock bags of legal marijuana harvested in Arcata were a frequent sight around the house, to be divided up into quantities for personal consumption, surplus to be sold to the dispensaries, and prescribed allotments for friends.
As it was explained to me, the way the trade works is that a patent is supposed to have two options. They can either take their prescription to a dispensary or they can grow it themselves. As I discovered much of the economic interest in marijuana involves a third option that has opened up based on the transfer of production rights: the right to grow has become a tradable good. Patients who do not have the time or the talent to grow cannabis can turn over their prescriptions to ‘growers’ who do the agricultural labor (or arrange for it to be done) and earn the surplus produce in exchange. So while a patient may have the right to x number of plants for y ailment, when grown attentively the actual harvest can substantially exceed their expected need.
If a patient accesses the drug through a dispensary there is no expansion in supply beyond that which was expected for their personal use. But, if they do exercise their right to grow, then production becomes incalculable and flexible. This uncertainty means that there is plenty of room to make profit (the person featured in the NYT has 30 plants which produce 30lbs a year creating a surplus worth 70,000 dollars). A system based on distributed production with no central controls on actual yield also leaves open gaping holes for produce to fall out of the legal circuit, into illegal and even more profitable ones. Under the existing rules, then, although the number of legal users can be known, it is impossible to trace just how much medically sanctioned marijuana is actually being produced.
My guess is that much of the side effects of these laws probably stem from this incalculable aspect of legalized production. It is perhaps worth pointing out that since access to medical care is a commodity in the U.S. so is access to marijuana prescriptions. This might therefore be considered an state sanctioned form of market inequality in that the system actually reserves a lucrative form of value production by ordaining the bodies of already priviledged groups.