The question of whether marijuana should be legalized, especially for people who benefit from it medically, has been answered in Seattle and Washington.
Voters believe marijuana should be decriminalized and easily available to those who need it. But there is still a stigma attached to marijuana, especially in the Asian community where generational issues affect awareness of the potential benefits of medical marijuana.
Even though voters have deprioritized enforcement (Referendum 75 in Seattle)
and supported access for patients who need medical marijuana (Initiative 692 in
Washington state) the state and federal government have maintained policies that, in effect, are business as usual, locally.
Nevertheless, two Asian-owned and operated businesses are braving an uncertain environment, working on how to meet the need both from the clinic and dispensary side. One of the managers of Northwest Green Medical Group says that they see themselves as “pioneers” of a new health business. He says that businesses like his are trying to meet patient needs.
The Vietnamese American manager, who requested to remain unnamed, pointed out that many patients hover in the gray area of legality.
“We have professionals who worry they might lose their licensure if they get caught with marijuana,” he says. His clinic is trying to destigmatize getting medical marijuana, making it more like a regular trip to the doctor’s office.
Another advocate thinks that marijuana should be legalized, regulated, and taxed just like alcohol. David Tran says his dispensary, Conscious Care Cooperative, is not about recreational use but providing “qualified patients with high quality medicine in a safe environment.” The co-operative is organized as a non-profit organization but Tran still looks at it like a business.
He believes that “until there is education to let the Asian community know about the medicinal values of this natural herb,” demand for medical marijuana in the Asian community will lag. Age also matters suggests Tran. “Our generation today is more saavy than ever, because they can keep up with the news, and they can see clearly that the State of Washington overwhelmingly supports medical marijuana, but their parents often times don’t share the same opinion. “
Tran’s suggestions are borne from studies of the use of medical marijuana in California, a vanguard in medical marijuana legislation. While a 2007 study of medical marijuana users in California indicates that medical marijuana is a largely white phenomenon, the study also reveals that younger Asians are more likely to pursue the medical marijuana option than older people. White’s made up more than two-thirds (68.8 percent) of applicants for medical marijuana cards, while African Americans constituted only 16.2 percent. Even smaller, at 5.1 percent, were applicants of Asian ancestry, less than the 8.1 percent from the Hispanic population.
It’s hard to say what accounts for the differences, although the study “reveals more Asians and Hispanics among the younger applicants, reflecting the two groups that have been immigrating to California in the greatest numbers in recent years.” And although many older immigrants are comfortable with alternative forms of herbal medicine, marijuana still carries the stigma of an illegal drug, even when cities or states loosen their regulations.
Dominic Holden who writes on the issue of marijuana pointed out last fall that “If you thought pot legalization in Seattle had already arrived—think again. Despite voters making pot possession the lowest law-enforcement priority in 2003, Seattle police are arresting more people on low-level marijuana charges this year than any year in the last decade.”
Asians in Seattle will have to weigh the hassle and humiliation of arrest against
the pain they might be experiencing from the symptoms of their disease when considering medical marijuana. Add that to challenges the community already faces accessing affordable health care and Governor Gregoire’s recent veto.
Holden explains, the “arrest protection for patients (who can currently be arrested and only raise a defense in court), cultivation licenses, and dispensaries were all scratched by the governor.” Those state protections created more than a decade ago say that “Qualifying patients with terminal or debilitating illnesses who, in the judgment of their health care professionals, may benefit from the medical use of marijuana, shall not be found guilty of a crime under state law for their possession and limited use of marijuana.”
This creates the uncertainty that suppresses demand for medical marijuana while not doing anything about the underlying health needs of the Asian community. The fact is that people are using marijuana with benefit to their conditions already. The question remains whether government will make that easier or make it a more difficult, or criminal.
If, as Holden suggests, “marijuana will probably be decriminalized in Washington State within the next decade,” who is going to meet the demand for medical marijuana? That will be up to people like David Tran.
“There are always risks involved in any business,” says Tran and “this no different.”
What makes the venture risky is “obscure legislation that leaves room for [differing] interpretation and leave it open to prosecution. “
Asian business owners, providers, and users of medical marijuana share uncertainty about the law. Governor Gregoire’s veto takes the issue a step backward at a time when government, business, law enforcement, and sick people are beginning to shift the social norms around marijuana.
Mayor McGinn’s statement on the Governor’s veto perhaps says it best. The
governor’s actions “leave us with the same problems that we currently face: too many patients have to take unnecessary risks to obtain their medicine, confusion for law enforcement, a proliferation of dispensaries across Seattle, and an inability to regulate dispensaries properly.”
But Tran thinks Asians understand herbal medicine. “There are shops all over the International District selling combinations of herbs to heal ailments,” he says. “The potential to overcome the stigma is there.”
This article was written in partnership with Crosscut.com.