CALIFORNIA: Anyone can be a medical cannabis patient in California. This rhetoric has plagued the inaugural medical cannabis state since 1996. Given the absence of a codified list of approved condition from the legislature and willingness of many California doctors to embrace cannabis as a viable treatment and substitute for prescription drugs their patients don’t want or can’t tolerate, the assumption is that EVERYONE in California is a medical cannabis patient, or has had patient status at one time. Furthermore, because the state has no mandatory registry, it is very difficult to quantify just who is a patient in California. Without hard data, the assumptions flew about wildly, mostly based on observational data, such as who was hanging out at a dispensary, or who was shown on TV obtaining their recommendation on the 5 o’clock news. For years, opponents of medical marijuana have claimed that California’s medical marijuana law is a giant con job. But now the data are in, and they suggest that medical marijuana is used by a wide variety of people in California with an almost unheard of success rate.
A recent study published in Drug and Alcohol Review analyzed data from the 2012 California Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which is a state wide survey of behavioral health practices. Included in this survey is a question about whether the respondent had ever used marijuana for therapeutic reasons and whether the marijuana was successful at treating their condition. The results were both expected and surprising. Overall, about 5 percent of Californians have ever used marijuana for medical purposes. This is fairly low given the rhetoric by the anti-legalization camp, who claims that everyone in California is using medical marijuana because it is easy to do so. Medical marijuana patients are also diverse, spanning all ages, geographic regions of the state and ethnicities. However, medical marijuana patients are more likely to be white, male and in the 18-24 age group. These results are not surprising. Sanctions on medical marijuana use by female caregivers, such as the removal of children from the home and the increased risk of marijuana arrest among people of color, predict that white males would be the most likely group to engage in a formal medical marijuana program where they are visible as consumers. Furthermore, stigma around marijuana use in certain age groups biases the behavior towards younger individuals. However, another aspect of the data speaks to something more important than demographics.