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Do Marijuana Laws Work?

health_thereWillBeBud_articlemain.jpgAbout a year after I moved to Los Angeles, a friend, who I think had gotten tired of me calling him at work to ask if he had any weed, gave me a tip. “You should go see my doctor,” he said, “and get a prescription.”

“But I can’t get a prescription,” I said. “I’m not sick.”

“Sure you are,” he said. “Everyone’s sick.”

“What do I tell him?”

“Dude. Tell him anything. He doesn’t care.”

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could be a medical marijuana patient. Medical marijuana was for people with AIDS or glaucoma, for those dying in hospices, for old ladies with mouth-foaming dementia. Sure, I had high triglycerides and my jaw muscles sometimes cramped when I yawned too wide, but those just weren’t on the same level.

Nevertheless, the next day I found myself driving to a tony office building in Beverly Hills for my appointment with a medical mari­juana doctor. Once I’d grasped the concept of limitless weed, available in stores, I’d made my appointment pretty quickly.

The office’s reception area lacked a receptionist. It was just an empty desk and a rubber plant. The doctor emerged from the other room, six feet tall, laid-back, and superfit. He had sandy blond hair parted in the middle, breath-strip-white teeth, and the tan of a man who doesn’t work long hours.
We went into his office, which was two chairs, an empty bookshelf, and a few framed degrees on the wall.

“A friend of mine referred me,” I said, and then I gave the friend’s name.
The doctor scratched his chin thoughtfully. “I think I might remember him,” he said. “I have so many patients.”

“Right,” I said. “So what did you do before you started doing…this?”

“Mostly surf.”

There was a brief, uncomfortable silence.

“So tell me why you’re here,” he said.

I took a breath.

“I’ve been on antidepressants for several years, and they’re not working anymore. Marijuana is the only thing that makes me feel better. You know, it’s not like I…”

“I believe you,” he said.

Well, that was easy! Within five minutes I’d written the doctor a $150 check. He’d signed my medical marijuana permission and stamped it with his green cross-shaped seal. It was good for 12 months. “Recommend vaporizer & edible,” he wrote.

“Cool,” I said.

“You should send me your medical records eventually,” he said. “But there’s no rush.”

Legalizing It
Marijuana has been the subject of endless legal battles since 1937, when the federal government
passed the Marihuana [sic] Tax Act. Despite a bizarre attempt during the Nixon administration to legalize it, weed has been particularly demonized during the “modern period,” even as it gains new popularity. So even though 12 states now have some form of medical marijuana legislation, there’s no way it will be federally legal in George W. Bush’s America. Federal law trumps state law, so technically the weed-soaked world in which I find myself is entirely illegal, but these laws are tacitly ignored by most local law enforcement.

Of all the states with laws on the books, California has arguably advanced the furthest. On November 5, 1996, the state passed Prop. 215, “to ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician.” Medical marijuana dispensaries—like candy shops that sell grass instead of Snickers—really took off in 2004, when the state legislature passed a bill that allowed for the legal procurement of pot.

It’s hard to tell exactly how many dispensaries there are in California; they’re opening and closing all the time, but the L.A. City Council placed a moratorium on new facilities last year, saying there were almost 200 in the county alone. It’s also impossible to know how many people are taking advantage of the law. The number’s assumed to be around 300,000, but there’s no centralized database, and patient information is, by law, confidential.

It’s not a perfect system. Many cops don’t respect the patient cards and will still slap you with a misdemeanor possession charge, even if they know it’ll get thrown out in court. But for a dedicated stoner like me, this alternative universe is paradise. I didn’t really smoke pot in high school or college, waiting until my mid-20s before developing a taste for the stuff. Therefore, I’m not as burned out as I could be, and I still have at least a few strong years left.

On my way home from the doctor’s that first day, I stopped at a dispensary in West Hollywood. Unlike many similar establishments, which operate in near-secrecy behind blackout-papered doors in mini-malls, this one occupied a double storefront on Santa Monica Boulevard, proudly displaying a marijuana leaf on its sign. This was West Hollywood, one of L.A.’s medical marijuana epicenters, full of real patients who actually needed the stuff. I went in, nose held high and legs aflutter, like Bugs Bunny drifting after a large, tempting carrot.

A good-looking chick took my ID and my certificate, made photocopies, and called my doctor to confirm my existence. In a snap, I was staring at a glass counter full of jars of sweet, high-octane chiba. Off to the side was a refrigerator containing brownies and cookies, tubs of weed butter, candies, and pot soda. Above the counter was a coffee-bar-type menu, with varietals color-coded by price.

“Oh, sweet Lord,” I said.

“Next customer!” I heard a voice say.

I looked up from my reverie to find myself facing a horribly deformed man. He had a hunchback. His arms were half the normal length, and his head was tiny, hovering almost disembodied under his concave chest. Whatever, I thought. Maybe he’s the world’s leading expert on marijuana.

“First-time patient,” I said.

He looked at me coldly.

“I’d like something up,” I said. “Nothing real stony or heavy. You know, a good sativa.”

There are two major strains of mar­ijuana. Sativa tends to produce clearer, cerebral “head” highs, whereas indica produces the more stereotypical effects: drowsiness, loss of motor coordination, and the munchies. It’s good for people in chronic pain. Sativa is the strain of choice for “functional” stoners like me.

“How about this one?” he said, pulling out a jar that clearly said indica on the label. “There’s really no such thing as pure sativa anymore,” he said. “They’re all hybrids. This one has some sativa in it.”
“But…” I said.

“This is what you want,” he said.

Well, he was the expert, so I bought an eighth, took it home, and, after putting my son to bed, went downstairs and loaded up my vaporizer.

health_thereWillBeBud_articlemain.jpgSoon after, I didn’t feel like writing, or laughing, or watching TV. I went to bed and lay awake, grinding my teeth, thinking about all the mistakes I’ve made in my life. It was like I’d taken a hit of crack laced with espresso.

The next day I hauled all the way back to West Hollywood, my little paper bag of Purple Dragon in tow. I breezed through the antechamber. My hunchbacked nemesis was the only guy behind the counter.

“I bought this yesterday, and it didn’t work,” I said. “It totally fucked me up. You said it was sativa, and it’s not. Indica makes me crazy.”

“There’s no such thing as pure sa­tiva,” he said.

“Just give me a refund,” I said.

“I can only give you partial store credit,” he said.

“That’s fine,” I said. “What else do you have?”

He pulled out another varietal.

“This one’s pretty good,” he said.

I went home and tried the new stuff. It made me even crazier than the first batch. After seeing me on the couch clawing at my eyes, my wife said, “You’ve got to get some better weed.”

“I know,” I responded. “This stuff is killing me.”

Two days later I went to a Dodgers game with my friend the Rabbi, who also has a prescription. He had a little tub of something called Orange Willy. I showed him my loony weed.

“Ooh,” he said. “Purple Something or Other! I’ve been looking for that.”

So we swapped. I took one toke of Orange Willy, and my mind felt focused and relaxed. This was the medical marijuana for which I’d been searching.

Altitude Check
I got memberships at 10 different dispensaries, and I had no idea who was in charge of any of them. Activists run some, others are the provenance of entrepreneurs, while others have been accused of ties to organized crime. No matter who’s in charge, the profit margin is enormous. I chose dispensaries in various neighborhoods, in case the need for weed struck me while I was out on errands. Now that I had as much weed as I wanted, whenever I wanted it, I was happily stoned all the time, unless I had to drive somewhere. I was high at movies and weddings, baseball games and dinner parties.

My son’s preschool had a fund-raiser, a silent auction with a sort of Ocean’s Eleven jet-setting theme. There were no children allowed. All the men wore suits or tuxes, and the women broke out their finest. I brought along a couple of pot-laced chocolate-and-peppermint candies for my enjoyment, a great wafting stink coming from under my dinner jacket. By 9 p.m. the tent smelled like Willie Nelson’s barn.

“Someone’s been toking the marijuana in here,” said the event’s emcee.

When he got off the stage, I gave him a quarter of one of the patties.

At the Rabbi’s recommendation, I started going to a place called the Earth Collective, on Sunset Boulevard. To get in I rang a buzzer at a door. Then I walked through a Japanese rock garden with soothing fountains, up a path to a bungalow. Now, this was a dispen­sary that I could get behind. They had an ex­cellent selection, decent prices, and a frequent-buyer’s card.

One day late last summer, I went to the Earth Collective and rang the buzzer. There was no answer. A peer over the fence indicated there was no life inside. On July 6 the DEA had sent letters to the landlords of about 150 collectives, reminding them that they were an accessory to a federal crime and that the government could confiscate their land. Some landlords stood their ground, but the Earth Collective’s doesn’t appear to be one of them.

I needed some weed, and fast, so I drove east down Sunset and stopped at the first dealership I could find. It was a little storefront with brightly painted walls and a chubby, friendly dude at the reception desk. After a brief chat, I went into the back, where another chubby guy awaited. It was like I’d stumbled into a Seth Rogen fan club. I had a long flight to New York coming up, I said, and I needed something I could take before I got on the plane. I was looking for something in a spray, or maybe a breath strip.

And then I saw them: Sativa full melt hash capsules—as portable as drugs get. It was $30 for a packet of five.

“Only take one at first,” the guy said. “That’ll definitely be a nice, mild high. If you take more, you might start to get really strong effects.”

Please, I thought. Don’t insult my stoner-ability.

At the Burbank airport a few days later, before getting on my plane, I gulped down two of the capsules. The most delightful trip in history ensued. Hey, I thought, my seat actually feels pretty roomy! United Airlines serves good food now, too! Surf’s Up is hilarious!

As I flew in more ways than one, I thought about my life as a medical marijuana patient. I couldn’t see the downside. Pot dealers weren’t gunning one another down in the streets, at least not at any greater rate than before. Los Angeles hadn’t seen a massive increase in stoned-driving fatalities. Yes, I’d probably given money to some shady characters, but I’d also given money to some nonshady characters who were dedicated to helping people in need. That’s what this law had initially been about. Right now I’m the definition of a recreational user, but odds are high that I’ll get sick someday. I don’t want to live in a world where, if I’m a patient, I can’t get marijuana if I need it. That wouldn’t be right.

In the meantime, air travel is going to be a lot more fun.
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