Many patients may be scammers and a raft of dispensaries may operate illegally, but it's a murky area. Once you've said it's legal for people in pain, how do you decide whose pain is real?
All right, so I'm a few days late with this update on my medical marijuana adventures. In answer to readers, no, I was not too stoned to write about it earlier.
Nor was I under the influence when I proposed on Sunday to Jamie McCourt, who hopes to get $487,000 a month in support from Dodgers owner and estranged husband Frank. I simply had to pour out my heart, and I'm still hoping to hear from Ms. McCourt.
In the meantime, let's get back to that doctor in Glendale. You may remember that he was the one who told me that, as a gynecologist, he didn't know a thing about bad backs. But within 10 minutes, he had written me a recommendation for an herbal remedy to ease my pain.
That meant I could go to any dispensary for my medicine, simple as that. But in Los Angeles, you can get light-headed trying to decide where to go.
There's the Unique Vapor Lounge in Tujunga, Green Easy in Mid-City, Westside Medical on Wilshire, and on and on. Some places have free delivery. Some are open all night. The buds go by names like Trainwreck, Purple Voodoo, Mango Og and Purple LA Confidential.
Don't like to smoke? No problem. You can get your medicine in brownies, crackers and even tortilla chips.
Nobody knows how many dispensaries there are in L.A., but estimates run as high as 1,000. Fourteen states allow medical marijuana, but no other place in the nation has lost control the way we have here in the City of Angels, where hundreds of outlets were allowed to open during a ban while City Council members fiddled.
Now the city attorney promises a crackdown, arguing that there has to be a whole lot of recreational use under the guise of medical need. So, I figured, I better shop fast.
I'm actually not a user. Yeah, my back aches, but so far I haven't turned to herbal remedies. I know, though, that there are lots of people with far more serious medical problems, and if marijuana gives them the best relief, good for them.
So why did I bother to get a prescription -- excuse me, I mean a recommendation? As we get closer to a showdown, I wanted to know what it's like out there.
First stop: Hollyweed. The name got me.
On my way into a small, two-story building, I noticed a separate dispensary on the ground floor, with Hollyweed upstairs. Yes. Two outlets at the same address.
I knocked on the locked door of Hollyweed and a no-nonsense voice instructed me to slide my driver's license and marijuana recommendation through the mail slot. It was kind of creepy. Would I ever see my license again? Was a DEA agent inside making a copy? I was getting paranoid and I hadn't even had a puff.
A few minutes later, a guard opened sesame. Inside, a 20-year-old, dreadlocked gent named Charlie greeted me. He wore a T-shirt that said "Marijuana Cures Racism," and he had me sign forms spelling out the terms of my acceptance into a nonprofit collective run by members for the benefit of patients. Membership does have its rewards.
Then he unlocked another door and took me into a small room with jars of buds on display, just like in a candy shop. Charlie recommended a strain called Indica, which he called a good muscle relaxant for back pain. I opted for something called Chunky Munky and found myself craving the ice cream without even lighting up. He weighed a gram and put it into a prescription bottle, like it was Vicodin, and I handed him a $20 "donation."
Was this really happening?
It'd make more sense, I told Charlie, to completely legalize, regulate and tax marijuana rather than have this crazy charade we've got now in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, billions have been spent on a drug war that has transferred wealth to drug cartels and domestic gangs, filling up the morgues in the process.
"The emperor has no clothes," Charlie agreed.
Councilman Ed Reyes told me he believes that despite some legitimate need, the majority of "patients" are scammers. But it's a murky area. Once you've said it's legal for people in pain, how do you determine whose pain is real?
Reyes also says that at least 70% of the dispensaries are operating illegally. He suspects that gangs or other groups are selling to collectives, which are supposed to obtain their product only from members who grow it for strictly medical purposes.
"Look at the volume," Reyes said, insisting there's no reason to delay tougher enforcement. "How can you have such large volumes flowing without an organized effort?"
Some of the dispensaries out there do look a little shady. But Cornerstone Research Collective in Eagle Rock was chic and professional looking, and a guy in a sport coat answered the door.
Michael Backes, a Cornerstone board member, agreed that lots of players are gaming the system. Dispensaries ought to be required to show where they're getting their supply and have it tested for impurities, he said. He'd tax growers too to clear out the riffraff, and he'd like for the California Medical Board to clamp down on doctors who write recommendations with their eyes closed.
Speaking of recommendations, I was told that L.A. Organic Pharmacy on Melrose is a popular herb dispensary, so I decided to check it out. While waiting for service, I was tempted by Purple Diesel, White Widow and Afgani Kush, but I finally settled on a gram of Skywalker, which was recommended for back pain.
But wait a minute. Was it the marijuana dust in the air, or were all the employees speaking Russian?
Sasha Churprovsky took me into a back room and said in a heavy accent that he was in heating and air conditioning until a few years ago, when someone suggested a career change. Now he's worried about the threat of a crackdown by L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who reminds Churprovsky of another iron-fisted ruler.
"He's like Joseph Stalin!"
I noticed as we spoke that his imposing security guard was moving pillowcase-sized bags of weed out of a locked storage room, so I asked where all that product comes from.
Someone grows it for medicinal use, Churprovsky said, and ends up with some extra. So it gets donated to his collective, and for hundreds of members, the pain just melts away.
Beautiful. With a system like that, who needs healthcare reform?
By Steve Lopez
November 4, 2009
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A bit player in L.A.'s medical marijuana theater