How California patients use pot

Michael Pollick, Herald-Tribune

Steve Johnson is 28, a rapper who goes by the stage name “Young Kodak.”

Late last year, he tore a ligament in his lower back while lifting a couch. It still causes him pain. For relief, he buys medical marijuana from the Berkeley Patients Group.

Johnson is among 1 million card-carrying medical pot patients in California — but he’s not the typical user.

Tom Lalos is.

At 68, he wears thick glasses and suffers from glaucoma. The condition has robbed him of vision, and kept him from fully enjoying the simple pleasures of reading and collecting stamps. The eye troubles have also forced him to carry a cane.

“Being a graduate of the 1960s, marijuana didn’t hold any terrors for me at all,” Lalos said.

In the eight years since California voters approved medical marijuana, striking demographic data has emerged. Those ages 29 and younger account for a very small percentage of registered users — just 1.4 percent. By contrast, people 50 and older account for nearly two-thirds of all users, according to a survey by Americans for Safe Access.

“It is really a growing segment, particularly as you see the baby boomers growing older,” said Sean Luse, chief operating officer of the Berkley Patients Group, which has operated for 15 years.

“Some of those people have had experience with marijuana in their life, maybe when they were younger, so they are not as scared,” Luse said. “Or it doesn’t seem as strange to them to try it as a medicine in their older years.”

In addition to 27 holes of golf, three swimming pools and miles of hiking trails, the senior community of Rossmoor, adjacent to Berkeley, has its own medical marijuana club.

Renee Lee started the club, Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Group for Education and Support, three years ago. Today, it has 120 members and holds monthly support meetings.

“For me, I had brain surgery,” Lee said. “I had a brain tumor removed in 2005, and I have chronic pain in my foot because it turns out it was nerve problems. So I had the two going on.

“I tried the medical marijuana, and I smoked a little bit, and I could walk,” she said. “I could do at least half of our mall where before I couldn’t do it at all. That is why I started this.”

In the 23 states that have approved medical marijuana, there are “at least 2 million” users, said Americans for Safe Access spokesman Kris Hermes.

Numbering roughly 1 million, medical marijuana users in California account for about 2.6 percent of that state’s total population.

This suggests that in Florida, where a constitutional amendment in November will likely follow the established California model, some 500,000 residents might carry medical marijuana cards.

Marijuana advocates contend that the drug has a host of medicinal benefits, from arresting glaucoma to easing chronic pain. But some practitioners say it also can help stimulate appetites and relieve nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, ease pain from nerve damage and alleviate muscle spasms and shaking.

Not everyone agrees. Florida law enforcement officials, in particular, caution that allowing legalized marijuana use for medical conditions could lead to unexpected consequences: increased homelessness, crime, traffic accidents, even DUI fatalities.

Gloria Cutshall is undeterred. The 56-year-old lives in the Central San Joaquin Valley and uses medical marijuana to reduce chronic nerve pain in her arms, and lessen her reliance on prescription painkillers.

She’s had reflex sympathetic dystrophy, or RSD, for 14 years, ever since surgery to correct a repetitive motion disorder didn’t work. “The pain is pretty serious,” Cutshall said.

To combat it, her doctor put her on morphine. Over time, her dosage grew. Her grandchildren began to worry.

“It was killing the pain but it was also killing me,” Cutsall said.

She credits marijuana with helping her get off the morphine and reduce the dose of another prescription opiate, Norco.

“Now I get out and watch their games,” Cutshall said, talking about her grandchildren. “I can actually be a part of their lives.”

Lee, the club organizer, isn’t surprised.

“It is not all in their heads, because I hear this over and over again,” she said.

Cutshall, who lives on Social Security disability payments and relies on Medicare to pay most of her doctors’ bills, finds it ironic that government assistance pays for opiates, yet she cannot get reimbursed for the cannabis, which helps her cut back on opiates.

So Cutshall has begun growing her own pot, in a strip in her backyard surrounded by chain-link fencing and situated alongside corn and chile peppers.

“I just don’t trust tomatoes, because caterpillars are a big problem,” Cutshall said.

By county ordinance, she can grow a dozen plants at a time. To learn how to grow them, she took courses at Oaksterdam University and invested in about 30 books on the subject.

It is fairly easy to become a medical cannabis patient in California.

As could become the case in Florida, there are qualifying conditions, and the Sunshine State’s proposed amendment, as conceived, would allow doctors wide latitude on who could legally receive medical marijuana.

“Physicians have recommended marijuana for hundreds of indications, including such common complaints as insomnia, PMS, post-traumatic stress, depression and substance abuse,” according to a Patients Guide to Medical Marijuana published by a marijuana advocacy group.

John Sugg, president of the Sonoma Patient Group, another California dispensary, said most prescriptions are good for one year, a time period settled on after much trial and error.

One patient there, who identified himself only as “Walker,” said marijuana “levels out” his chronic pain. But he acknowledges that he was using cannabis long before it became legalized.

“I have been smoking it since 1970,” said Walker, who retired after a career preparing graphics and other materials for presentations by Deutsche Bank and others.

He said he prefers to get pot from licensed dispensaries, rather than from street-level dealers.

“You can just do your business and go your way, without having to worry about finding a dealer, who am I dealing with, what am I getting, and what are the consequences going to be.”

Lalos, the 68-year-old cannabis user, typically visits the Berkeley Patients’ dispensary once a week.

“I usually get two baked goods, which are long-acting and I eat part of one each night,” he said. He also buys three and half grams of leaf marijuana and a little granular hashish, which he mixes and smokes to increase potency.

He spends $40 to $45 per week on marijuana products — $20 to $25 for leaf marijuana and two cookies for $7. He pays $15 to $25 for a gram of hashish, but stretches that to last two weeks.

Besides warding off blindness, Lalos said marijuana has enhanced his enjoyment of life.

“It just makes what I do at home much more interesting,” he said. “I don’t have a TV, so I read a lot. And just the right dosage will make the book more interesting. I also collect stamps. With a little bit of weed — not too much — it makes the stamp collecting much more interesting.”