Nick Miller, Sacramento News & Review

It’s early spring in Sacramento. Trees are filling out with leaves; buds are beginning to flower. The morning air is fresh, crisp, clean. A security guard at a downtown medicinal-marijuana dispensary checks IDs from behind a security door. A customer slips a card through the slot. The metal screen unlocks.

“Come on in.”

The young man posing as a customer brandishes a handgun.

“Listen up!” the gunman yells. He wants the money. And the weed. He points the gun at the guard’s face. “Do you want to die today?”

Bad move.

The guard may sport humdrum blue-gray garb, but his tattooed arms, shiny bald head and no-nonsense demeanor hint that he can hold his own and then some.

“I’m not going to die today, motherfucker!” he yells, reaching for the man’s gun and forcing him to the ground. A scuffle ensues. Another man armed with a sawed-off shotgun storms into the dispensary lobby. Two-on-one. Out of nowhere, a patient joins the fight against the two intruders. Then an employee. The trio wrestles away the shotgun and force the gunmen out the door. Furniture is tossed. A stair railing breaks loose. The suspects flee. Thankfully, nobody is severely injured. Cops arrive. Later, a KCRA helicopter decorates the cloudless sky.

The robbery attempt is all over the local 5 p.m. news.

“Attempted robbery at pot club! Suspects at large! Stay tuned!”

It’s the same old story every time medical marijuana hits the mainstream media. Missing are the other 364 days of the year that patients visit Sacramento dispensaries and safely access affordable medication that significantly reduces dependence on expensive prescription drugs and dramatically improves the quality of their lives.

Voters approved the use of medicinal marijuana with the passage of Proposition 215 over a decade ago, yet there’s still the perception of pot as an illicit street drug. For one, medical marijuana is still illegal under federal law, a fact that makes the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors nervous. In fact, in March, they refused to implement the state ID card program in the county, a move that prescription-pot proponents say decreases safe access for patients.

Missing from the news reports are the patients themselves, who suffer from a panoply of diseases and disorders, ranging from AIDS to cancer to post-traumatic-stress disorder. Some of the patients have even fought for democracy in Iraq, only to return home and find the will of the people of the state of California thwarted by political expediency. They’re fighting overseas, then returning home broken physically, mentally, or both, only to be denied the one thing that brings many of them relief: medicinal marijuana.

Is this a great country or what?

Sgt. Jason Franks regularly traveled Route Irish, a Baghdad thoroughfare littered with IED potholes, for months without incident. When he arrived one February morning at Baghdad International Airport and veered left into a secured area, it was as routine as routine gets in war-ravaged Iraq. Suddenly, a blinding flash and an ear-splitting explosion. His truck immediately died, its front windshield shattered, blown out. Debris rained down. A car bomb had exploded right behind him. His ears rang like psychedelic chapel bells at high noon.

Franks escaped unscathed, but the ringing lingered. A year later, in January 2006, an accident while he was stationed back in Texas irrevocably altered his life.

“We were moving a bunch of [artillery], and a lot of it fell on me,” Franks says matter-of-factly. X-rays showed two herniated discs: one bulging into the spine, the other low on fluid, both permanently damaged. Doctors were quick to prescribe the holy trinity of painkillers: OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin. Three times a day. Each. He became “a walking zombie.” The men under his command covered for him at first, but finally, in July 2007, Franks received a medical discharge and moved to California.

The prescriptions kept coming.

“[Veterans Affairs] gave me a bottle of 500 Vicodin just like that,” Franks recalls. He took the drugs, but he felt worse. The ringing returned. “I’ve been having … I’m not going to say suicidal thoughts, but crazy thoughts, where some guy’s gonna piss me off and I’m going to end up beating him up, like road rage or something stupid like that,” he confesses. A father of four, the veteran lives with his wife and kids in Citrus Heights. Days-old stubble gathers on his chin, an Army cap shades his vulnerable-looking eyes. “That’s not me,” he says.

Daniel Aquino also knows about physical and mental pain. Last September, while tubing at Discovery Park on the American River, he suffered a horrific boating accident.

“I didn’t even want to go boating,” he laughs now. “Or get in the water, because I think the water’s filthy.”

Aquino took his turn on the inner tube, and even had a good time. Then it was someone else’s turn.

“Right when I grabbed the back of the boat I felt a current, and my foot hit the propeller, the middle of it,” Aquino remembers. He panicked, then screamed. “A rope caught my foot, then the propeller, which pulled me down into it and caught my swim shorts. I was so worried about drowning that I couldn’t feel the propeller ripping me apart.” He made it to the surface, where he saw his right leg was torn to shreds. He was relieved: It was only his leg.

“Then I looked down again and realized all my intestines were hanging out,” he says. An ambulance came. “My six-pack was looking so good. Then that propeller ripped it right in half.”

At the hospital, he learned he had permanent nerve damage. Multiple hip fractures. Aquino was sedated, a vegetable. Morphine. Percocet. He’d been on pharmaceutical drugs before, so he knew the drill. At 15, he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic—he claims he was misdiagnosed and blames it on hormones, divorced parents and living in two homes. “I was just a pissed-off kid,” he says. Doctors put him on antidepressants, antipsychotics and mood stabilizers. Risperdal. Haldol. Paxil. Cogentin. Zyprexa. “Take a pill so that you don’t get the side effect from other pills,” he explains. “I started going kinda crazy.”

Aquino drank and experimented with street drugs. He’d get worse, then get more prescriptions. By age 20, he was overweight, with man-boobs and a potbelly. His hair was falling out. “For about six years of my life, I was pretty much sedated.”

In pain, immobile and sickened by the side effects from his pharmaceutical regime, Aquino decided to seek out alternative treatment.

The same thing happened to Ruby Ring.

“I’m an ex-heroin addict,” Ring reveals. “I did heroin for 26 years, and I’ve been clean for almost 22 now.” Hard drugs; alcohol; new, harder drugs—Ring’s a classic case of self-medication. “At one point, I was taking 200 milligrams of morphine a day,” she remembers. “When you take a lot of morph, you don’t sleep soundly.” Add a bit of Norco and OxyContin, and you’re dealing with a powerful Big Pharma cocktail.

Ring was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and surgery to remove tumors included a complete hysterectomy. She also has hepatitis C, which has progressed to stage-three liver fibrosis. She endured the flu-like symptoms of interferon/ribavirin therapy to no avail. “I’m like that one in 250,000 where the hep C treatment makes you worse,” she says. The treatment failed, leaving her with two new problems: Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Big Pharma failed Army veteran Louis A. McDaniel as well.

The 37-year-old Louisiana native’s come a long way since the first Persian Gulf war, when he was a 13 Bravo cannon crew member blowing stuff up at Fort Drum, N.Y. “We didn’t have the eye and ear protection that they have now in the military for the field that I was in,” he explains. “I’m working around an instrument that emits more sound than any concert you’ve been to, but I’ve got 89 cent Wal-Mart plugs in my ears.”

Decibels up to 300 MHz, discharge clouds that caused near-zero visibility and lugging 100-pound crates of ammo across upstate New York took its toll on McDaniel. “Sometimes we’d have a mission where we’d have to expend all ammo, which means we would just let off every round that we had. Just to clean shop.” He and his cannon crew would spend endless hours detonating artillery. Forty-five seconds a cycle. Hundreds and hundreds of rounds.

McDaniel was medically discharged in November of 1990. He was weighed down by insomnia, chronic pain and a vision disorder called Fuchs’ dystrophy, which makes objects appear blurry because of corneal swelling. His eyesight is 20/100 in each eye and getting worse.

“I was completely out of the loop with all the pills I was taking,” he says. “The Vicodin. Soma. The 800 milligrams of ibuprofen. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was tired, listless.”

In 2005, he moved to Sacramento, quit the drugs and got a medicinal-marijuana prescription.

This April, UC Davis published unprecedented findings on the relationship between marijuana use and pain. Thirty-eight neuropathic-pain patients, with diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis, were given a high-THC marijuana cigarette, a weaker one or a placebo. During each session, patients took a uniform number of puffs. Those that smoked marijuana experienced “significantly” reduced pain, relief that lasted as long as five hours, with “inconsequential” side effects.

Other major studies in the past 10 years also have dispelled the theory of marijuana as a useless stoner drug. Cannabinoids have been proven to inhibit cancer and tumor growth. Pot’s a known pain inhibitor and can improve quality of life for terminal patients. It can reduce symptoms of appetite loss, depression, nausea, anxiety.

For McDaniel, marijuana was a last gasp. He quit pharmaceutical drugs, got a marijuana prescription (or “215,” as they say) and began using a topical ganja cream to heal his ailing leg and ankle. “If I don’t have my medication present—and by medication I mean medical cannabis—then I’m pretty much stuck in the house the remainder of the day.”

He doesn’t drive, so he takes light rail from Rancho Cordova to get his medication at a Southside-area dispensary. That’s a lot of walking, so his leg has to be ready for a workout. Ganja cream, a THC-based lotion with a mild mango-butter smell, eases McDaniel’s pain for hours. One $12 bottle usually lasts six weeks. For him, it’s nothing short of a miracle drug—especially in a world of thousand-dollar prescription tabs. “Just dab a little bit around my ankle and leg when I get out of the shower,” he explains. “From the very moment that I begin massaging it in, I feel results.” McDaniel also smokes and eats food that contains marijuana. And, on that rare occasion when the pain’s too much to bear, he’ll make a cannabis-leaf tea infusion with hot water and honey.

There are two types of marijuana strains to choose from, and each produces different but beneficial effects. Indica strains are more effective for relieving pain. Sativa strains work better on mood disorders. McDaniel smokes indica marijuana as a painkiller, but if he has to work, he uses a sativa/indica blend. “I’m able to function through the day regardless what I smoke,” he says. “It doesn’t make me a vegetable” or get him too high.

Ruby Ring has been sober for 12 years, off heroin for 22 years and hasn’t used tranquilizers or sleeping pills in six years. She started smoking marijuana because she was in pain from chronic disease and her pharmacopeial options were nil. “For me, medicinal marijuana is a way of functioning,” she explains. “I’m not one of those people that sit on the couch all day, stare at the TV and smoke pot. I like the option of having an alternative to being drugged out on narcotics.”

Ring uses a $700 medical-grade Volcano-brand vaporizer, which allows a patient to inhale only THC and no smoke. She says the effect of smoking without smoke is a more calming and therapeutic, which allows her to function and remain focused throughout the day. “Medicinal marijuana is not for everybody,” she realizes. “Personally, it helps me tolerate my everyday pain and discomfort.”

For Daniel Aquino, pot’s a cure-all. When he was 20, improperly diagnosed as schizophrenic and jacked up on a rainbow of pills, he became frustrated with side effects and decided to quit all of his prescriptions and gave medicinal marijuana a try. Pot calmed him down—no more craziness, unpredictable behavior or zombification. He could do things; he started working out. “The doctor should have told me ‘go ride a bike’ instead of prescribing the pills,” he said. No heat stroke. No dizziness. No high blood pressure. He got a job in construction. He worked out so much, he eventually became a personal trainer. By 22, he quit using marijuana, the erratic behavior of the past behind him.

Five years later, after being chopped up by a boat propeller, Aquino got out of the hospital, quit the pain meds and went back on medicinal pot.

It eased the pain, but he was depressed. “I’m a personal trainer. All my friends are personal trainers. All they talked about was ‘Hey, I lifted this today.’ I didn’t care. Get out of my room.” Would he become his 20-year-old self all over again? “I woke up every morning in pain. I wanted to cry. I was told it’d be one year to recover.”

He lost 20 pounds and loafed around the house ripping blood-soaked bandages out of his wounds and repacking them with fresh gauze. But the weed helped, giving him a positive outlook and the strength to work out. He was “85 percent recovered” after only eight months of rehab, well ahead of his doctor’s prognosis.

In a way, prescription drugs caused more damage than that spinning propeller blade. “It’s pharmaceuticals that actually kill people,” he says. “It’s liquor that actually kills people.”

That’s an opinion apparently not shared by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. In March, the five-member board broke suit with 40 other California counties and nixed a plan to implement medicinal-marijuana ID cards for patients, which would have ensured safe and standardized access to medication.

Supervisor Jimmie Yee wore a gray suit and blue tie the day Sacramento County killed patients’ hope for safer access to medicinal marijuana. On that afternoon, Yee and Supervisor Roger Dickinson argued for the IDs, but a 3-2 vote by the five-member board voted not to issue cards to local patients. Sacramento joined 17 other counties that have sided with the federal government against enforcing state law. And while patients still can access medicinal marijuana, proponents contend the rejection of the state card is a major setback.

“There are clear advantages to having ID cards available to patients, especially in law-enforcement situations,” explains Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project. For example, if a patient is pulled over, cited for marijuana but only has a doctor’s prescription, a law-enforcement officer must verify with the physician the veracity of the 215 recommendation. If the doctor’s unavailable—as so often they are—the patient may have to spend some time in jail.

With the state ID card, there’s no confusion. Patients don’t get hassled, and law-enforcement doesn’t waste time or money arresting individuals who can’t be prosecuted.

“To fail to provide these cards, as per state law, is just irresponsible,” argues Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based member organization that promotes legal access to cannabis for therapeutics and research. “This decision does nothing but increase the potential for confusion and for people who are entirely innocent to be arrested and put through unnecessary misery.”

Supervisor Yee joined Dickinson in support for the ID program, but in the past had voted against similar programs. “I did change,” he confesses. “It’s just that I’m becoming a little more sympathetic to those that could use medical marijuana in the proper manner. I’m starting to listen to those that say the use of medical marijuana is truly a relief.”

Currently, only five people in the United States can legally smoke marijuana. Each month, the U.S. government mails these patients a circular tin filled with 300 joints. They’re the last of a defunct federal compassion program from the 1970s. Everyone else using pot, recreationally or medicinally, even in California, is in violation of federal law.

But in Sacramento, state and local authorities don’t prosecute legitimate patients with proper prescriptions. Neither do they go after the dispensaries that provide the weed. Problem is, the dispensaries have to regulate themselves: They pay millions to the Franchise Tax Board and employ local residents, but the county forces them to operate in a quasi-clandestine netherworld. “We want to be regulated,” says one dispensary owner, who equates regulations with safer access to medicine for patients.

Ruby Ring volunteers two days a week at her dispensary. She also takes advantage of free yoga classes held on the premises, something she’s never done before. “A lot of people think dispensaries are just places to buy pot,” she says. “That’s not what it is. You have to know how to use it to make yourself feel better. It helps me keep myself involved in life.”

Louis A. McDaniel also gives back. After he quit pharmaceuticals and regained his strength, he became a certified massage therapist and now volunteers four days a week at his local dispensary. As patients come and go with bags of medicine, some stop and visit McDaniel’s portable massage table in the surprisingly chic dispensary living room. The place is a veritable community center.

And the Drug Enforcement Administration could take it away at a moment’s notice.

The last eight years under the Bush administration have seen an unprecedented federal crackdown on California medicinal-marijuana dispensaries and legitimate growers, who each day live in fear of having their businesses shut down, losing their families and going to jail for 25-plus years. Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has gone on the record stating he’ll force the DEA to end raids in California. For a patient like Iraq war veteran Sgt. Jason Franks, safe access is a right he’s most definitely earned, if anyone has.

In January 2005, Iraq held democratic elections. For three days straight, Sgt. Jason Franks guarded a polling place at a local school on Haifa Street in Baghdad. Franks didn’t sleep a wink. “I can’t nap when someone might shoot me.”

Later, after the car-bomb explosion and his subsequent back injury, he was prescribed anti-anxiety meds. Franks couldn’t stay awake. “They gave me some stuff for anxiety, but when I took it, I just slept all day.” Clonazepam. Five milligrams. A hefty anxiolytic dose by any standard.

A physician recommended that Franks see a medicinal-marijuana doctor, so he got a pot prescription and headed to his local dispensary. It changed his life, and he now only takes high-blood-pressure and stomach-acid medication. He’s no longer lethargic or in a quasi-coma. He has enough energy to be a good dad. “We don’t hide it from them,” Franks explains of his pot meds. “They know what I take. My 12-year-old daughter is open with me about it. She says she likes me better on marijuana than on the pills.”

This week, Franks is hitting the books hard, studying for finals at American River College. He wants to teach high school, but studying comes second to being a father. “I wait till my kids go to bed, and then I have time to do my homework.”

Life’s still a struggle. He can’t go out to dinner with his wife because he’s uncomfortable in crowds. At his kids’ school events, he stands in the back near the door. “I have fear of suicide bombers,” he says. “It’s a seeded fear that I have. I get real anxious, then it’s ‘OK, I’ve got to go.’” He’s seeing a therapist for his post-traumatic-stress disorder. The marijuana helps. He even started a veterans’ meet-up at his local dispensary. They talk and go fishing near Discovery Park. Things are looking up, thanks to medical marijuana. He’s not sure how he’d get along without it, especially now that he’s been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, or TBI, from the war.

“I’d probably end up back on pills, honestly. I hate to say it, but there’s really not much else for me at this point,” Franks says. “I should have the right to access marijuana safely. I fought for that freedom. That’s how I look at it.”