The network of bruises and scars on Chris Smith's legs map the history of her falls, all those moments over the past 20 years when painful spasms from multiple sclerosis shot though her petite frame and left her collapsed on the ground.
At times, the Trabuco Canyon woman found the pain so debilitating she begged off family gatherings, staying in her room in tears. Now, the 43-year-old marketing consultant who lovingly raises African gray parrots has found respite in an occasional marijuana cigarette or cannabis brownie.
Cautiously, fearfully, Smith and others like her have ventured out in search of support and found the Orange County Cannabis Buyers Club, which has gained strength in the wake of the November passage of Proposition 215. The "Compassionate Use Act of 1996" makes it legal for patients or their caregivers to grow and use marijuana on the recommendation of a physician, in blunt contradiction of federal law.
In the months since the initiative's passage, patients have been pressing their doctors for marijuana recommendations, with mixed results. Along with the physical relief they say the drug bestows has come confusion and anxiety about whether the new law really protects them, and concern that doctors will balk.
Smith secured a letter from her doctor just days after the Nov. 5 election and purchased her first doses of the drug through the nascent buyers club, a floating semi-underground group that is cranking out membership cards and making marijuana available to those who can produce a physician's note.
Smith used the drug daily during a one-week period of piercing muscle spasms, and credits it with providing a relief that her prescription pills did not.
"It felt like it just melted the problem away," said Smith, who agreed to be interviewed only if her full name was not used so her identity would be protected. "My leg stopped jumping. It stopped the stabbing pain."
But new federal sanctions could make those medical notes much harder to obtain.
Federal officials last week vowed to pursue California physicians who recommend marijuana for their patients. Doctors could be excluded from the Medicare and Medicaid programs, lose their licenses to prescribe approved drugs, or face criminal prosecution, U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno warned.
Many patients say that jittery physicians--even those who supported the controversial initiative--increasingly refuse to recommend the use of marijuana out of fear.
In addition, a Northern California Superior Court judge ruled on Dec. 17 that an epileptic who smoked pot on the recommendation of his doctor cannot avoid prosecution.
So where does the law leave patients?
Smith is terrified of growing the cannabis plant herself, hasn't mustered the nerve to tell her mother about her sporadic use, and nervously jokes that she has mistaken El Toro planes flying over her home for drug surveillance.
Since federal officials made their announcement, she says, she has been too afraid to attend the patient support group or to pick up her supply of the herb.
"I'm feeling more frightened now," Smith said recently, taking a break from feeding and weighing a trio of newborn parrots at her elegant South County home. "I thought this [initiative] was going to be the answer to a lot of my problems. But to see the response to 215 . . . "
Passage of the proposition has raised the hackles of marijuana critics nationwide--from federal officials, who say no research shows the drug to be more effective than already legal treatments, to Orange County's own Sheriff Brad Gates, who led the fight against the initiative and sees it as a masked push for drug legalization.
"I think patients and physicians have been put in a very awkward position," said Dr. Juan Carlos Cobo, a Mission Viejo general surgeon and president of the Orange County Medical Assn. "Personally I think it's been a disservice all around. As far as the practical aspect, [the initiative] has not changed anything."
The Cannabis Buyers Club is the one-man mission of Marvin Chavez, a 42-year-old former movie extra from Santa Ana.
Chavez arrived at his current role of supplier to the sick through personal experience with the drug. He says he suffered a back injury in a bus accident, followed by a slip and fall on a cafeteria floor. Then, his medical records show, he was diagnosed with classic ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative condition that fuses the spine.
Depressed, anxious, in pain and unable to sleep, Chavez said he was swallowing a panoply of prescribed pills and hiding in his room. Last April, he turned to marijuana, and launched a personal crusade to run a local Cannabis Buyers Club, modeling it on a similar club in Hollywood.
Once a week now, a group assembles at Java Garden, a cramped coffeehouse with a checkered floor in a Huntington Beach strip mall, crammed with old sofas and glass-topped tables.