To register or not to register medical cannabis users

The other day I was watching this video from VICE about marijuana in Uruguay.  Reporter Krishna Andavolu (who in the same piece also smokes pot while hanging out with the Uruguay’s former president Jose Mujica) seeks out cannabis advocate, farmer and long time consumidora Alicia Castilla at her home.  Here, they talk about Uuguay’s new law, which was to require all marijuana consumers to register themselves:

Observo que los únicos que irán a registrarse son los jóvenes.  Porque no han vivido con una dictadora.  Todos los que sabemos lo que el estado puede hacer con los individuos, no queremos (registrarnos.)

It seems to me that the only people who will go register with the government are young people.  this is because they have never lived under a dictatorship.  Those of us who know know what the state can do to individual people, we don’t want to register.

Following a coup in 1973, the people of Uruguay — in a similar way to their neighbors in Argentina —  lived under a series of dictators until 1985, when democracy was restored.  You can hear the mistrust of official registries in the voices of people like Castilla who lived through that period.

I myself am very far from being a conspiracy theorist.  I have a general level of trust as well as skepticism when it comes to the governments which guarantee the basic frameworks of my civic life.  Without strong governments, the idea that I have rights and freedoms would be pure fiction — I’m grateful that they exist.  On the other hand, who doesn’t worry about over-reach.  See, for example, the massive over-collection of data by the NSA and other arms of the US Federal Government among many other example of what can go wrong when power concentrates itself in the shadows.

The time as come for my own state of Washington to decide how to regulate our own medical cannabis market, in which I am a participant.  I suppose I’ll never know why this wasn’t done before now.  After all, we’ve only had medical cannabis for about twenty years.   Nor will I really understand why our recreational legalization law was not designed (like Colorado’s was) to responsibly harmonize the medical and recreational markets.  Personally, I’ve never been too bullish on the ability of our state legislatures to attract to its polished wooden chambers something resembling a competent cross-section of the population of this state.  General gripes aside, though, the Washington is now deciding how treat the large number of medical patients who rely on cannabis for health.  One aspect of this decision is whether or not to maintain a “list”.

Ann Rivers, Steve Litzow, Mark Schoesler
These Republicans want the state to register medical marijuana patients. Photo Credit: The Columbian

A couple of days ago, the Washington State Senate passed Senate Bill 5052.  On first inspection, this seems to me to be an incredibly dunderheaded law in many ways (no collective gardens, no home grows for non-patients, etc. etc.)  It also includes a registry of all Washington State medical patients.

Clearly this would not be unprecedented.  Other states — most notably California and Colorado — maintain such lists.  There’s also something slightly precious about those who oppose such lists, particularly if they’re one of los jovenes who as President Jose Mujica ends up pointing out in the VICE interview can’t seem to restrain from chronicling their every meal and fart on Twitter and Facebook, to then say that the fact that they’re doing something legal can’t possibly be recorded by the government for fear of … ?

In the end however, I think that in the US at least there is some rational basis for worry about central registries.  For me, it’s simply the fact that Federal Government still heavily criminalizes cannabis.  Do I have absolute faith that if my name appears on a state list, that this list will never fall into the hands of a federal authority that uses it to impinge on my rights, say by harassing me at the border or otherwise getting all up in my business?  The answer to that question is simply no. I have a modicum of faith about that sort of thing not coming to pass, but it’s only a modicum.

Change often comes from below.  The optimal way for legalization to happen would probably be for the feds to decriminalize cannabis nationwide, no longer enforce possession laws, and leave it to the states to regulate their own local markets.  So it was (pretty much) with the end of alcohol prohibition.  But this is not going to happen.  Instead, we’re left to work all of this out on a state-by-state basis, and this means that for now, at least, states must provide protection for their citizens against federal over-reach.   I think that states who maintain patient databases are failing to do this, and for that reason I hope that Washington State decides to not register patients, at least for now.

Back in Uruguay, the anthropologist Daniel Vidart, sitting next to Castilla reflecting on the propensity of governments to use and abuse the powers they are given:

La ley es como un cuchillo — hay que probarla para ver si corta.

The law is like a knife — you have to try it to see if it cuts.

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