One man's struggle to find medical marijuana in a county hell-bent on prohibition
June 02, 2005
Jeff Hornaday, New Times, San Luis Obispo
My dad isn't your typical pot smoker. And while he harbors a healthy skepticism toward the Bush administration, he's not exactly a political activist. But he is plagued by disease, which his doctors like to call Parkinson's.
What my dad's got is more a syndrome than a disease, because his doctors don't have a clear set of criteria by which to define the affliction. It's more like a general set of symptoms, some of which are shared by those labeled with the disease. But the real way the doctors diagnose Parkinson's is through medication.
A patient like my dad exhibits some neuromuscular irregularities, so doctors prescribe him a few pills - like Comtan and Sinimet - which are considered to be Parkinson's medications. If he reacts favorably to the medication, he's most likely got the disease and must take the drugs for the rest of his life.
But these medications don't provide the cure. Far from it. The muscle spasms continue, and the pain persists. Dad tried about every combination of prescription and over-the-counter drugs we could get away with, including Vicodin, Oxycontin, Dilaudid, and a host of other dangerous narcotics.
But then Dad got real cloudy in the head. I can't say whether the drugs did anything to alleviate his pain, because it was so hard to get a straight answer out of him, even when he was awake - which was seldom.
Pretty soon Dad's side effects got even worse. He developed severe constipation, which led to an incarcerated umbilical hernia, several trips to ER, and, well, you get the idea. So over the course of about two weeks we took him off of all the painkillers, and soon enough the side effects went away. I guess the pharmaceutical companies weren't too happy about it, but we were saving some money. Dilaudid's not cheap.
Surprisingly enough, cutting off all the narcotics didn't lead to the withdrawal symptoms that his doctors warned us about. The pain didn't get any worse, but it didn't go away either. So we kept looking for answers; Dad was desperate.
He decided he wanted to experiment with some of this medical marijuana everybody's been talking about. Now, unlike my college days, when I claim to have 'experimented' with drugs, this truly was a matter of trials and research.
I picked up a vaporizer from the HempShak, and we sampled some smokeless skunk bud. (A vaporizer heats the marijuana enough to burn the resin and release the active constituents in a vapor, without actually burning the grass and making smoke - far easier on the lungs than reefers and bong hits.)
My dad got kind of lightheaded. I think he threw some Kingston Trio in the CD player and proceeded to pass out in his overstuffed recliner. Not exactly the desired effect, but not an entirely unpredictable one either. And when he woke up, he ate about half a gallon of Rocky Road ice cream.
That's when it hit me: magic brownies. A few days later we whipped up a delicious batch of Alice B. Toklas brownies (my 64-year-old dad prefers that term to the derogatory 'pot brownies'), and he ate them with gusto. It was the best night's sleep he'd had in weeks, and now no evening meal is complete without his chocolate brownie.
Nobody claims that we've found the panacea to eliminate my dad's spasms, tremors, and chronic pain - we're still searching for alternatives - but with the cannabis cookies, he already sleeps better and consumes far fewer pharmaceuticals. And the only side effect: euphoria.
Since the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, legalizing the use, possession, and cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes in California, most cities and counties have passed laws and ordinances regulating the enforcement of Prop 215 in their localities. Humboldt County, for example, at the more relaxed end of the spectrum, allows up to 99 plants in a 100-square-foot garden. The city of San Diego, now in the process of establishing a patient ID program, permits possession of up to one pound of dried marijuana, and up to 24 plants in an indoor grow room no larger than 64 square feet.
Amid these waves of progress and compassion, the county of San Luis Obispo sits like an island of intolerance. Rather than setting guidelines to regulate the legal production and distribution of cannabis, cities throughout this county - San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Grover Beach, Paso Robles, and Atascadero - are passing ordinances against medical marijuana dispensaries.
These cities all contend that medical MJ is a violation of federal law and that they are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the case of Raich v. Ashcroft (see Infobox) to resolve the outcome of this conflict between state and federal law. Pot proponents meanwhile maintain that these cities are flouting state law by prohibiting patients' access to a democratically approved medicine.
Among those proponents is local attorney Lou Koory, who has repeatedly described the law enforcement in this county as being openly hostile toward the merits and availability of medical marijuana. Koory recently won an acquittal for Morro Bay resident Robert Marshall, who was acting a caregiver (i.e., growing grass) for two medically approved patients. Marshall even had his plants and growing equipment returned to him by the Morro Bay Police. But days later, the city council passed an ordinance temporarily banning medical MJ dispensaries with the city.
What our local officials seem to be saying is that it's okay for patients and caregivers to grow, possess, distribute, and consume marijuana, as long as they keep it out of the public eye, or spend several months and several thousand defending themselves before a court of law. And that's not a whole lot different from all-out prohibition.
So bona fide patients are left with few choices. They can get in the car for two hours and drive to a more progressive community, like Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, or Bakersfield; but that may not be easy for a terminally ill patient or someone recovering from a surgery. Or they can turn to the black market, which could be difficult, dangerous, or next to impossible for a bed-ridden senior citizen.
The road to safe access
The first step to gaining legal access to medical marijuana in the state of California is to obtain a written recommendation from a physician. (A lot of people refer to this as a prescription, but it's not really, because you can't just take it to your pharmacist for a refill.)
Dr. Hany Assad of Norcal Healthcare Systems in Oakland is perhaps the most progressive and well-known physician in California in terms of recommending marijuana for medicinal use. He now has offices in Bakersfield and Santa Barbara as well, and for about $150, he'll provide a doctor's note for anyone with a valid medical diagnosis.
Assad is also no stranger to San Luis Obispo; he flew down earlier this year to testify in the Marshall case. Koory said that the doctor sees about 100 patients a day, and 100 percent of them come for marijuana recommendations.
In this area, however, most doctors are afraid to write these recommendations for fear of persecution from the federal government - not an entirely unwarranted concern under this county's Draconian rule. SLO County residents, therefore, are being denied equal access. Not only is there no place to legally obtain the medicine, but it's quite difficult to find a doctor who will provide the legally protective paperwork.
Outside this county, there are a few options. In fact, more than 100 medical dispensaries and compassionate co-ops are now operating throughout California, beyond this paradise we call the Central Coast. The rest of the state has recognized and addressed this need, while the people of SLO County are left dry, but not high.
For my dad, there are few things more dreadful than the thought of a four-hour roundtrip drive to Bakersfield. Not that he has anything against this charming inland metropolis, but he's only semi-ambulatory and very recently underwent a series of abdominal operations. So trying to sit in one position with a seatbelt for two hours at a time would only exacerbate the pain and discomfort he already endures in his automated recliner chair.
A drive up Highway One via Big Sur to one of Santa Cruz's several co-ops or dispensaries might be more therapeutic for me, but an even longer and more arduous journey for Pops. So our best option would be a trip down to State Street in Santa Barbara - closer than Santa Cruz, more scenic than Bakersfield, but a still a good couple hours from SLO.
And then we met Mark. Mark (who declined to use his last name) has been running his home-based co-op in the Five Cities area for about a year and half. He currently services 41 patients in the area, and luckily for my dad, Mark lives just five minutes from our house.
Not surprisingly, a few outspoken renegades - call them humanitarians, activists, maybe even opportunists - have ventured to open their own clubs in SLO County. City ordinances against dispensaries won't allow cannabis providers to operate publicly like they do in the rest of the California, but matters of medical necessity and economic demand are forcing the issue.
For Mark, opening a dispensary isn't really a question of city law, it's simply a matter of money. Unlike illicit drug dealers drawn to the lure of high profits in the black market, Mark, who still works a part-time job, runs his co-op for the patients. He keeps his prices low - as much as 50 percent below market - and is exceedingly generous in giving away leafy byproducts for baking purposes. He even supplies free medicine (high-grade marijuana flowers) to his most indigent patients.
'We care about our community,' Mark said. 'We don't want them to drive two or three hours to Santa Barbara or Santa Cruz.'
About half of Mark's patients are senior citizens, he said, with ailments ranging from AIDS to insomnia. Mark estimates there are as many as 2,000 medical marijuana users in the Five Cities area.
Besides providing patients with high-grade cannabis, which comes from a loose cadre of local and Northern California growers, Mark's co-op also distributes clones - young, female starter plants - and trains some patients to grow their own medicine. Mark sells the clones for about $5 each; sometimes he gives them away. Other clubs will charge up to $15 or $20 for a healthy clone.
Koory, who's defended other medicinal patients and caregivers, is not intimately familiar with Mark's organization, but he explained that co-ops are explicitly called for in the California Health and Safety code.
'As far as I'm concerned, he's protected,' Koory said, but he acknowledged that the local governments are not conforming to the rest of the state. 'We're kind of behind the curve.'
The local moratoria don't offer a clear definition of a dispensary, but many, including Koory and SLO City Councilwoman Christine Mulholland, interpreted a dispensary to mean a public storefront as opposed to a private facility.
'It's a way of sidestepping the issue,' said Mulholland, who voted against the city ban. 'It's still very cloudy at this point.'
While the co-op may be operating in a gray area in terms of legality, Mark is confident that what he's doing is legally protected and morally upright.
'It's the healing of the nations,' Mark said. 'That's really how I feel about it.'
And that's good news for my dad, because he has enough problems without being treated like criminal.
Staff Writer Jeff Hornaday practices what he preaches and reaps what he sows. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.