LOS ANGELES -- With little notice and even less controversy, marijuana is now available as a medical treatment in California to almost anyone who tells a willing physician he would feel better if he smoked.
Pot is now retailed over the counter in hundreds of storefronts across Los Angeles and is credited with reviving a section of downtown Oakland, where an entrepreneur sells out classes offering "quality training for the cannabis industry." The tabloid LA Journal of Education for Medical Marijuana is fat with ads for Magic Purple, Strawberry Cough and other offerings in more than 400 "dispensaries" operating in the city.
Los Angeles officials say applications for retail outlets surged after Feb. 26, when U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that the Drug Enforcement Administration will no longer raid such stores. Those pressing for change in drug laws regard the announcement as a watershed in a 40-year battle against marijuana's official listing as a dangerous drug -- a legal fight that, in California, is being waged on ground that has shifted dramatically toward acceptance.
All told, 13 states have legalized medical marijuana, a trend advocates credit in part to growing openness to alternative healing. As a "Schedule 1" drug under the 1970 federal narcotics act, marijuana officially has "no currently accepted medical use." But doctors have found it effective in reducing nausea, easing glaucoma, and improving appetite and sleep in AIDS patients.
Marijuana use is widespread -- government surveys show that 100 million Americans have smoked pot or its resin, hashish, in their lifetimes, and 25 million have done so in the past year. Yet polls show that the public is still wary of legalization. As President Obama recently said when asked about legalizing marijuana, "I don't think that's a good strategy to grow our economy."
But in California, pot is such a booming growth industry that lawmakers are being asked to consider its potential as a salve to the state's financial woes. Betty Yee, chairman of the California State Board of Equalization, endorsed a bill in February to regulate the estimated $14 billion marijuana market, citing the state's budget problems. California currently collects $18 million in sales taxes from marijuana dispensaries, and Yee said a regulated pot trade would bring in $1.3 billion.
"I think the tide is starting to turn in terms of marijuana being part of the mainstream," she said. "The pieces seem to be falling into place."
In Los Angeles, Councilman Dennis Zine warned that half the city's sales outlets might be forced to close, but only to control the growth of what the city now regards as an accepted business. "We're not getting complaints about people smoking marijuana," said the retired motorcycle policeman. "We're seeing complaints about the proliferation of facilities. They opened up right down the street from my district office, in the same complex as a liquor store. Got the big green leaf in front."
The new reality can be disorienting. In Mendocino County, the heart of Northern California's "Emerald Triangle," marijuana farming has been openly tolerated since the arrival of counterculture refugees in the late 1960s. But elected officials say they are being forced to crack down on growers who offended neighbors with aggressive farming after medical marijuana laws hastened pot's shift from the black market to a gray zone.
"Prop. 215 opened up a new world for people who had been underground," said Scott Zeramby, referencing the 1996 ballot proposition that legalized pot for medical users. By 2007, Zeramby's garden supply business in the town of Fort Bragg was doing $2.5 million in business amid a land rush by new growers eager to cash in.
"Things were getting a little crazy, even out of hand," Zeramby said. "What happened? A critical mass."
At the other end of the supply chain, some 200 dispensaries have opened using a legal loophole in an L.A. moratorium on such outlets, some making only the thinnest pretense of operating as "caregivers," the legal justification for providing cannabis directly.
"Medical marijuana, right here, right now," chants a barker on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, outside the doorway of the Medical Kush Beach Club. "Get legal, right now."
It really is that easy, the barker explains. Before being allowed to enter the upstairs dispensary and "smoking lounge," new customers are directed first to the physician's waiting room, presided over by two young women in low-cut tops. After proving state residence and minimum age (21), customers see a doctor in a white lab coat who for $150 produces a "physician's recommendation."
Valid for one year, it is all that California law requires to purchase and smoke eight ounces legally.
"I told him I had problems with my knee," said Joe Rizzo, 31, emerging from an examination recently with a knowing grin and a renewed card.
Outside the Blue Sky Coffee Shop in Oakland, Ritz Gayo clutched an eighth of Blue Dream ($44) and tried to remember the nature of his complaint.
"Um, my back," said Gayo, 20. He went on to recite a partial list of symptoms suggested in newspaper ads: "Chronic back pain and the rest, like everyone else," he said. "Non-sleeping. Can't eat very much.
"That, and I love pot."
Sean Manzanares, 41, a hardware store manager who had no previous experience with weed, parsed the advantages of sativa strains for night smoking and an indica for morning. "It got me off some really intense painkillers that were screwing with my liver and all kinds of stuff," he said.
Ben Core, 41, an HIV-positive commercial insurance agent, said, "The usage effects are overtaking the political and cultural effects that have suppressed it."
In the Venice branch of Farmacy, an upscale dispensary chain, clerks wear hemp lab coats and direct customers to an array of products, including herbal drops for teething pain. "We refer to it as a gateway herb," said JoAnna LaForce, a trained pharmacist.
Oakland allows anyone with a medical card to cultivate 72 plants -- 12 times the number the state legislature suggested in SB 420, which passed in 2003. (Even the title of the bill could be taken for a knowing wink, "420" being subculture code for enjoying marijuana). The bill generously interpreted the ballot initiative, which allowed pot to be dispensed for "any illness for which marijuana provides relief."
Entrepreneur Richard Lee said he took the hint, building a downtown Oakland empire that includes two "coffee shops," a glass-blowing school, a gift shop, a studio union and, last year, Oaksterdam University. Hundreds of graduates now have diplomas certifying passage of "credible examinations in politics, legal issues, horticulture, cooking and budtending."
The neighborhood is cheerfully busy, with foot traffic heaviest around the Blue Sky dispensary.
"They blend in quite well. It's not what you would expect," said Gertha Hays, who owns a boutique next door. "You might think it's going to be drug dealers, all this and that. It's not like that. And there's no particular stereotype of who's a cannabis smoker. It's all types."
Some customers walk over from the Alameda County Public Health Department. There, for $103 ($51.50 if on Medi-Cal), residents can upgrade from a simple physician's recommendation to an official medical marijuana identification card, widely regarded as stronger protection against prosecution.
"The one thing that's really caused it to go from medical to pretty much all-out legalization is the doctors," Lee said. "They have realized you can't overprescribe it. They've really taken the lead. Alcohol -- frat boys drop dead by the hundred every year. You really can't kill yourself with marijuana."
You can, however, disappear into yourself. In South Central L.A., two dispensaries stand on the block between the mayor's constituent services office and the Blessed Day Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center.
"They're stunting their growth. I'm not talking about height," said Andrew Brown, 60, a drug treatment counselor. "They're in a Rip van Winkle state. They don't even know it. . . .
"Legal? Okay, but they still going to come to us. Alcohol is legal."
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009; A03