California, former pot pioneer, has lost its high

California used to be a leader in medical marijuana. But now it’s lost its spark.

The Golden State blazed a trail in 1996, when it became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. But legislators never implemented statewide regulations, so the law is interpreted differently from one city to the next.

“It’s kind of a wild, wild west,” said Yami Bolanos, who runs a dispensary in Los Angeles. “You don’t know what’s right, what’s wrong.”

Colorado and Washington have also legalized marijuana, but with a broad system of statewide controls. California, meanwhile, is still in a haze.

On a federal level, the U.S. government still lists weed as an illegal substance, like heroin and LSD. But the Justice Department has said federal law enforcement officials will not interfere with states that have strong regulatory systems for marijuana use, such as Colorado and Washington. California, on the other hand, is still trying to catch up, which puts people like Bolanos in a tough spot with federal authorities, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

“I understand that since there is no statewide regulation the DEA can come in,” Bolanos said. “We are wide open for raids.”

And the raids aren’t pretty.

Chad McKeen, a dispensary owner whose wife uses marijuana to treat her cancer, said his house has been raided by police.

“They put me in handcuffs, they put my 16-year-old daughter in handcuffs, then they … began to go through everything in our house, every single little thing,” he said. “And some of the police officers were cordial, professional, and some were completely unprofessional.”

New federal legislation would ease many state-level headaches. In April, Attorney General Eric Holder said he would be open to re-examining the classification of marijuana, but the Justice Department would need a new law from Congress. That’s a tall order. But a recent New York Times editorial supporting national legalization identifies a steady shift in how the American public views the issue that even Congress might not be able to ignore forever.

Polls show more and more people support the medical use of marijuana. Twenty-three states have legalized marijuana in some form. Diane Goldstein, the head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) in California, agrees that it’s high time for a change.

“Marijuana is no longer an outlier position,” Goldstein said. “It’s a position where people are grounded, now we have a lot of politicians that are coming out and saying it.”

In the meantime, Bolanos is going to keep fighting — for her patients and herself, as a cancer survivor who uses medical marijuana.

“I’m still going to continue to do what I’m doing,” Bolanos said. “I think the federal government is looking at big money makers … I’m helping my patients, I’m helping myself, I’m here to educate people. I’m here to give back to their lives, and no, I’m not scared because I’m not doing anything wrong.”

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