Is California Pioneering Legalization of All Drugs?

Ross Lee: In a number of months, and I believe it was maybe six or seven months, the number of arrests that had gone up for marijuana-related arrests while driving in a vehicle had gone up somewhere close to 70 percent.

Narration: In upscale areas, marijuana use among middle school and high school kids is rampant.

Christy Brown: He told me that older kids had given it to him when he was in middle school. And they got it from medical marijuana dispensaries.

Shao Yang: Not only that, also [some of them] sell marijuana. Many of the students get expelled because of the sales of marijuana on campus.

Hillary Ronen: I think by expanding the limits around schools and daycare centers, what we’re saying is that there is something inherently dangerous or bad about these shops. I just really disagree with that premise.

Ellen Lee Zhou: That kills people’s voice because 85 percent of the people live nearby, within the 600 block, they say “No thank you. Stay away from our kids. Stay away from our residential area.” But yet, they passed the regulation. They allowed them to have a cannabis store right next to daycare.

Title: Is California Pioneering Legalization of All Drugs?

Simone Gao: Welcome to Zooming In. I am Simone Gao. Since the beginning of the 20th century, most countries, including America, have enacted laws against the cultivation, possession or transfer of cannabis, a formal name for marijuana. But towards the end of the 20th century, decriminalization of the herb began. However, when California pioneered legalization of medical marijuana in 1996, few people thought it would lead to the legalization of recreational marijuana 20 years later. Now the legalization of recreational marijuana is old news, and “Safe Injection Centers” are showing up, that allow people to legally inject illicit drugs under supervision. So, what’s next? Is the U.S. entering a trap to legalizing all drugs, and is California leading the way? Let’s find out in this series of Zooming In.

Part 1: The Effect of Marijuana Legalization

Soundbite: It was a devastating scene on Interstate 880 in Fremont. Five mangled cars, three people dead, one driver under arrest. 21-year-old Dang Tran is in jail, suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana.

Narration: This is not the only major traffic accident induced by marijuana a year into its legalization in California.

Narration: On the morning of Dec. 2, 2017, a truck crashed into the San Francisco Bay Bridge toll station, killing the toll collector. The California Highway Patrol said they smelled marijuana and alcohol on the driver.

Narration: On Christmas Eve the same year, California Highway Patrol officer Andrew Camilleri died when a car rear-ended him going over 100 miles per hour on I-880. The driver later admitted being under the influence of marijuana.

Ross Lee: I believe the number was, at least in the Bay area, not statewide, but the number of arrests that were made in a number of months, and I believe it was maybe six or seven months, the number of arrests that had gone up for marijuana-related arrests while driving in a vehicle had gone up somewhere close to 70 percent, which is substantial, it’s a significant number.

Narration: It’s a common conception that marijuana makes a driver calm and relaxed. But what it actually does to the human body remains uncertain. According to the FDA, although chemicals in marijuana have led to two FDA-approved medications in pill form, the marijuana plant is not an FDA-approved medicine. Researchers haven’t conducted even large-scale clinical trials to show that benefits of the marijuana plant outweigh its risks to patients.

Narration: Dr. Christy Brown, a retired  Mission College professor in Santa Clara, has experienced the risks first-hand. Her 26-year-old son started using the substance when he was 14.

Christy Brown: I found out that it wasn’t just that he was using it once in a while, he was using it every day. He was using it before he went to school, and I didn’t know that. He would appear to be like okay, but then when I would go pick him up at school—this is before he got his driver’s license—I would say, “What did you do in your class?” He couldn’t remember. And I found out later, it was a couple of years later, he told me he had been using it before he was in class, and he wasn’t really paying attention in class. And then he would have to call his friends to find out what his assignment was for homework. So I am a teacher, and I basically tried to help him with his assignments when he had problems, but I noticed he wouldn’t have any focus on his assignment. He couldn’t keep his attention.

Narration: The symptoms Dr. Brown describes can be explained scientifically. Dr. Evelyn Li, a cardiologist at the Asian Medical Clinic, showed us the difference between a normal brain and a substance-impaired brain.

Dr. Evelyn Li: This is a normal brain, shooting from the top, and this is from the bottom to the top. As if looking from the bottom of a human being to the top.  As you can see, if you drink alcohol, you start having holes in the brain. Holes in the brain means that those cells are dead. Dead, no longer alive. So you see holes in the brain. Like, this is normal, you see no holes here. You see a lot of holes here for people [who] use just three years of cocaine. You see a lot of holes here. And this is methamphetamine. Okay, you got holes here. And this is marijuana. You see a lot of holes. A lot of holes with marijuana. This is for two years, age of 16. There are a lot of cells that are dead. Yeah, they are dead.

Dr. Evelyn Li: What it does is that it affects the frontal lobe and hippocampus. The frontal lobe is where people use it for creativities, for social interactions. The hippocampus is for memory. And so people who use this drug will be affected by how they react.

Narration: As of April 2018, four months since California began issuing temporary state licenses to cannabis operators, there are nearly 6,000 licensed cannabis businesses in the state. California is the first state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana use.

Narration: Coming up, all licensed retailers and individuals are only permitted to sell cannabis to adults 21 and older, but rampant marijuana use is present on middle school and high school campuses. Stay tuned to find out how this happened.

Part 2: Rampant Marijuana Use on Middle School and High School Campuses

Narration: Dr. Brown has two sons. The older one grew up in Texas. He graduated high school with honors and got a law degree from the Rice University. He now enjoys a successful career as a diplomat. She never expected that her younger son, born and raised in California, would take a drastically different path.

Christy Brown: He told me that older kids had given it to him when he was in middle school. And they got it from medical marijuana dispensaries.

Narration: Medical marijuana had long been legalized in California by the time Dr. Brown’s son started using it. But adults from 18-21 can only get medical marijuana through their primary caregiver—theoretically.

Christy Brown: They went to a doctor and they would say, I can’t sleep or I have some pain and the doctor can’t really test for that. And it’s not their regular doctor, it was what they call a pot doctor, so basically, everybody knew this is a kind of scam.

Narration: It is a scam that doesn’t seem to bother most people. After all, marijuana is generally perceived as a non-harmful herb that makes you feel good.

Soundbite: Medical Marijuana is non-addictive and non-habit-forming. Medical relief can be administered instantaneously. Side effects can include euphoria, a sense of well-being, love, and extreme happiness…

Narration: According to the “Monitoring the Future” study, among all grades, perceptions of harm and disapproval of marijuana use has continued to decrease over the past 20 years.

Christy Brown: Because all of the other kids were doing it, he thought he didn’t have a problem. So this whole culture of you know, it’s okay, marijuana is not harmful, you know, you can do these things, it’s going to be legal soon anyway, that’s another thing that he would say. It is not harmful, I can’t die, I can’t overdose. Those kind of things, he used to give me this kind of reasons why it was okay for him to do it.

Narration: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana use can lead to problems, which takes the form of addiction in severe cases. Thirty percent of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder. People who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four and seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults. Dr. Brown’s son falls into this category. He got increasingly addicted to marijuana in his high school years when he used it multiple times a day. He progressed to running away from home to avoid treatment and getting arrested for bringing marijuana to school. By the time he was approaching 18, Dr. Brown had to face a bigger challenge.

Christy Brown: We told him, when you get to be 18 in California, you can get a medical marijuana card, and you can use medical marijuana. This was true before legalization. And a lot of friends of his were talking about getting these cards so they could use marijuana recreationally.

Narration: When Dr. Brown’s son turned 18, she realized that reality was worse than what she originally feared.

Christy Brown: I found out that he was actually hanging around these marijuana dispensaries, and he started working for someone who grew marijuana. And he started making money actually by making hash oil. It’s a very dangerous thing because you have to use butane. And there’s a lot of hash oil explosions, I’ve read about them that they’ve had explosions where houses have burned down, people have been killed. And it actually become illegal in California.

Narration: On Nov. 8, 2016, recreational marijuana was legalized in California. Marijuana dispensaries sprawled in metropolitan areas in Southern and Northern California. Schools quickly felt their presence.

Narration: The Fremont Unified School District is one of Northern California’s star districts. It is made up of 42 schools serving nearly 35,000 students in grades K-12. It had 14 National Merit Scholars and 11 California Gold Ribbon Schools in 2016. Since late 2016, the District Councilor, Yang Shao, saw a distinct change.

Shao Yang: After the adult recreational marijuana was legalized two years ago, the school district has been collecting data on how rampant the marijuana abuse is on our campuses. And data shows that there’s been at least a 12 percent increase on average for the last three years, which indicates that more and more students are using marijuana on campus. Not only that, they also sell marijuana. Many of the students get expelled because of the sales of marijuana on campus.

Narration: According to Marijuana Business Daily, as of July 2018, an estimated 70 percent of cities and counties in California had actually prohibited cannabis companies of any type from setting up shop in their jurisdictions. But major metropolitan areas are exceptions. On Nov. 28, 2017, at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting, Katy Tang tried three times to impose a buffer zone for marijuana dispensaries, drug dispensaries, and daycares. They were all turned down.

Katy Tang: So the first one is the thousand-foot buffer zone, and including daycare center as defined by the California health and safety code.

London Breed: No other questions about this amendment, madam clerk, on this item. Please call the roll.
Clerk: Supervisor Breed: no; Supervisor Cohen: no; supervisor Farrell: no; supervisor Fewer: No; Supervisor Kim: aye, Supervisor Peskin: no; supervisor Ronen: no; supervisor Safai: aye; supervisor Shihi: no; supervisor Tang: aye; supervisor Yee: aye. There are 4 ayes and 7 nos, with supervisors Breed, Cohen, Farrell, Fewer, Peskin, Ronen, and Shihi in the dissent. The amendment fails.
Katy Tang: Given that that previous motion failed, I just wanted to put it back to 1000-foot radius without daycare centers, which is what we have right now.

Clerk: There are 5 ayes and 6 nos … The motion fails.

Katy Tang: Okay, thank you. I promise this will be the last one on the buffer zone. Okay, so my next motion then would be 600-feet buffer zone.

Clerk: There are 5 ayes and 6 nos … The amendment fails.

Narration: Supervisor Tang’s motions were not only turned down. Her colleagues passionately disagreed with them.

Hillary Ronen: I think by expanding the limits around schools and daycare centers, what we’re saying is that there’s something inherently dangerous or bad about these shops, I just really disagree with that premise. I actually think that the war on drugs has been what has been dangerous for our society. There is documented evidence, plenty of it showing that where you make drugs legal and regulate them, and prevent kids from getting access to them, and allow people who are already addicted to substances, not penalize those individuals, that they use less drugs and get better, and that neighborhoods get safer. In Portugal, where all drugs are legal, they’ve seen the society transformed and crime go down.

Narration: At that meeting, supervisor Ronen’s motion to remove any restrictions on the distance between cannabis dispensaries was passed. However, Ellen Lee Zhou, social worker and 2018 candidate for San Francisco special mayoral election, said Ronen does not represent the community’s real voice.

Ellen Lee Zhou: I was in many of the public hearings. I remember very clearly in my head. We said it to them, we do not want a cannabis store next to 3015 San Bruno because there’s a preschool and a daycare right next to that proposed location. You know what they say? They said it is necessity to have a cannabis store. That kills people’s voice because 85 percent of the people live nearby, within the 600 block, they say “No thank you. Stay away from our kids. Stay away from our residential area.” But yet, they passed the regulation. They allowed them to have a cannabis store right next to daycare.

Narration: Before the mayoral election, according to political contributions reported to the San Francisco Ethics Commission, San Francisco supervisor Mark Farrell and Board of Supervisors president London Breed, who last elected mayor of the city, had received more than $50,000 each in reported political contributions from the local cannabis industry. In total, the members of the current Board of Supervisors received at least $153,000 from owners, employees, lobbyists, and firms associated with the cannabis industry in San Francisco.

Narration: Coming up, what will legalization of recreational marijuana lead to?

Part 3: Step After Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

Narration: Dr. Brown’s son eventually moved on to more serious drugs when he was a freshman in college. His family tried their best to help him control the addiction. He could control it for a while, but he always relapsed. At the end of each cycle he would be in an even worse situation.

Christy Brown: So when he had to withdraw from school, that was a big shock for him, because that was his status in life and he was going to college and all his other friends are still in college. And he just kind of went crazy. We found out he was also using opioid pills. And then we found out he was starting to use heroin, and he was starting to inject heroin. So it was very, very quick from going to college, going into these other drugs, and then becoming a full-blown heroin addict.

Narration: He ended up also developing drug-induced psychosis and was sent to mental health institutions for a while. After being arrested for driving under the influence, his mother discovered a surprising fact about him.

Christy Brown: I was really worried, I hired a lawyer to find out what was gonna go on. The lawyer went to see him and I told him: He’s mentally ill and he’s psychotic. And the lawyer went and he said to me, there’s nothing wrong with your son, he’s okay. And I said, really? We went to see him and he actually had been taking this medical marijuana for 4 months and exhibiting these signs of psychosis. We went to the jail and he was fine after 24 hours of not using marijuana. He was himself, basically.

Christy Brown: So when they tell you that this is a disease, and it should not be law enforcement that deal with people, and it should just be the health providers that deal with addicted people, it’s really not going to work because the psychiatrist couldn’t deal with him. He was too out of control. There are some cases where the only people that are gonna be able to deal with a person who is in an out of control, addicted situation is law enforcement, unfortunately.

Narration: Between law enforcement and the persistent efforts of his family, Dr. Brown’s son was able to finally stop using drugs and graduate from college. Dr. Brown, however, is aware that the battle is not over. Anytime he’s exposed to a drug accessible environment, he’s in danger of relapsing.

Narration: On Aug.21, 2018, the California State Senate passed a measure that would authorize San Francisco to open a facility for injecting illegal drugs—the first of its kind in the nation. Eight days later, a mock injection center was open. One of the critiques of the injection center was that law enforcement would potentially no longer be able to arrest people who possess drugs because they could simply say they are on their way to the “safe injection center.” For the Brown family, it means they will have one more thing to watch out for.

Simone Gao: Dr. Brown is a lifelong Democrat, and she still is. She voted for legalizing medical marijuana, believing the herb is a necessary treatment for a small group of terminal disease patients. When her students told her high schoolers was selling marijuana to younger kids, she didn’t believe it until her own son became a victim. To her, drug policy is not a partisan issue, but a common-sense issue. She told me, if she knew all the facts that were hidden about marijuana, she would never have voted for legalizing medical marijuana. Now, California is likely to see a boom of injection centers in the near future. Will the debate over it be about two contrasting government philosophies, or does it really come down to basic common sense? Let’s find out in part two of this series: Is California Pioneering Legalizing of All Drugs? Thanks for watching Zooming In. I’m Simone Gao. See you next week.