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The racial divide of buying marijuana on your phone

A container of blackberry kush (a strain of marijuana)

Is it still drug dealing when white people do it?

Imagine using a Yelp-like program to source and rate drug dealers. While Yelp actually already allows you to find your closest local dispensary, specialty services like Weedmaps, Leafly, and StickyGuide are specifically aimed at the medical marijuana crowd. Studies show this group to be majority white (and male).

These two things are not a coincidence. As it turns out, using digital technologies to find and rate your drug dealer should be added to the list of stuff white people like.

Medical marijuana is a controversial subject across the U.S., including in the states where it has been ostensibly legalized—though, in fact, such legalizations defy federal law, which means that patients, growers, dispensaries, and others involved in the trade risk raids and federal prosecution. Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Advocates have been working to change this, and rather than simply pushing for decriminalization or full legalization, they’ve chosen to take the tack of positioning the drug as one with medical benefits. Their argument: Some patients demonstrate clear improvement with marijuana for pain, glaucoma, poor appetite, and certain other conditions. Therefore, the drug should be legalized—but only under tight control—for medical uses.

It’s a striking commentary on the state of drug policy in the U.S., as well as attitudes about drugs. Full legalization of marijuana and other drugs, with controls for purity, the collection of tax revenues, and related matters, would make much more sense within the larger schedule of ending the costly and destructive drug war. Yet people are more comfortable with the idea of marijuana as a medicine, instead of simply acknowledging that it’s a drug, one that could also be a medicine.

Medical marijuana laws slide right into this liminal space, ostensibly legalizing marijuana, but only for those who can demonstrate a clear clinical need. However, friendly physicians will write a prescription for only a nominal fee after a cursory examination, in the latest iteration of the pill mill. Then it’s up to the patient to grow marijuana personally, or take advantage of a dispensary, which sources marijuana from a variety of locales. Some even offer services like delivery.

Dispensaries are in effect drug dealers, in the eyes of the feds, yet they’re not treated as such by the medical marijuana community, which advocates for their protection. Yet, the same community doesn’t view street dealers with nearly as much compassion—and, notably, many street dealers are young men of color, and some are dealing the exact same drugs the dispensaries are dealing.

The divide is that one is operating with nominal sanctions indoors, and the other is on the street corner, a distinction that is in some ways reminiscent of debates about sex work, where “street walkers” are viewed as unpalatable and repulsive by advocates who want to come halfway and decriminalize, but not fully legalize, sex work.

The digital intersection is perhaps the most fascinating emerging thread of medical marijuana culture, even as it was also one of the most predictable. California has been one of the most trend-setting and forward-thinking states in the nation when it comes to medical marijuana. Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, was a big hit with voters, and individual counties like Mendocino have even more liberalized marijuana laws.

The state is also home to the tech industry, and it seems almost inevitable that these two things should meet, especially since Northern California houses a huge number of dispensaries, the tech industry, and the world-famous Emerald Triangle—though the “green rush” is dissipating in part because of legalization.

Creating websites (and apps) to help people find the best strains, locate the best dealers, and exchange advice and other information with other medical marijuana “patients” legitimizes medical marijuana, setting it aside from other uses of the drug. It creates a tiered structure, in which those who have a prescription—whether or not it’s actually merited—are using the drug perfectly legally. They’re the “good guys.”

Likewise, the growers and dispensaries working within this framework also get a dispensation. They may be growing, moving, and distributing drugs, but they’re doing it for the benefit of sick people, as they constantly remind the general public. Their work may seem suspicious or questionable to some, but defenders argue they’re working towards the common good.

By contrast, drug dealers selling marijuana to anyone who asks are simply contributing to social problems, utilizing marijuana in a way that is not approved, and all for straight profit, instead of compassion. Notably, the medical marijuana industry pocketed an estimated $1.7 billion in 2013, making it far from a charitable endeavor. The medical marijuana community has almost been forced into an adversarial position with other dealers in order to promote their position, and consequently, it’s created a deep dichotomy between compassionate and recreational uses, and those who sell to users in these groups.

In shortened terms, this equates to: Dispensary = good, drug dealer = bad.

Technology has made this truncated approach to drug policy even more clear. You cannot find reviews for drug dealers in general on websites (unless you go digging deep into the Internet); drug dealers by nature need to operate under the radar to avoid attracting attention from law enforcement. Dispensaries, meanwhile, operate under tolerance until the feds order another raid and, thus, feel free to advertise their presence, underscoring the divide.

It doesn’t escape researchers, members of the public, and those selling drugs in less rarefied settings that many dispensaries are owned and operated by white people, and that their customers are also heavily white. Medical marijuana in general tends to be granted to white people more readily, and white people are more assertive about seeking it; in a tragic and frustrating twist, pain is one of the most common referral reasons for medical marijuana, and white men are the most likely to receive treatment for pain, making medical marijuana yet another treatment avenue they can pursue that’s closed to others whose use is more stigmatized.

The disparities in racial demographics when it comes to medical marijuana speak to a striking social stigma about drugs and race. Drugs, as we are taught, are bad—and so are the people who deal them; thanks to the drug war, the perceived profile of a dealer is of a young black man shuffling dime bags on the corner. A well-lit, clean, discreet dispensary, on the other hand, is just an alternative pharmacy, with no connection to the world of drugs.

That divide has been reinforced by the transition of medical marijuana into a product that can be openly rated, discussed, and commented on through the use of user reviews on websites, phone apps, and more. At the same time that it legitimizes access to marijuana, the practice also increases tensions between quasi-legal uses of the drug and illegal ones, and it dodges the larger and key issue of decriminalization versus legalization, and whether the U.S. should allow people to use Schedule I drugs recreationally if they want to.

There’s a nanny state aspect to drug scheduling, an issue not just for Schedule I drugs but also for medications like narcotic painkillers, which have been the subject of a considerable number of exposés, concerned op-eds, and panicked commentaries by a public convinced that patients with chronic pain are all pill popping addicts. The United States has long tried to outlaw vices—it tried unsuccessfully with alcohol—and perhaps it’s time for that to change.

Medical marijuana apps aren’t the solution though. A full fight for legalization that sets aside why people use marijuana and focuses on how would be much more productive for those who want to use the drug. Whichever drugs people choose to use in the privacy of their own homes or in designated spaces should be their business, as should the reasons for that use.

Photo via Dank Depot/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.