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A License to Chill

Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking Marijuana Can Be Hazardous To Your Health, Unless You Live In California And Suffer From Anorexia, Arthritis, Cancer, Chronic Pain Or Any Other Illnesses For Which Pot Provides Relief.

February 11, 2007|Michael Goldstein | Michael Goldstein has written for the New York Daily News, Sunset and other publications. His 2004 Los Angeles Times Magazine story, "Sheer Lunacy," won a feature writing award from the Los Angeles Press Club.

Do you medicate? I do.

I'm not talking about Xanax or Prozac or Vicodin or their siblings. I have a "recommendation" (not a prescription, a recommendation) for pot. This puts me in a legally and socially problematic condition. The state of California says I can ingest marijuana for medicinal purposes, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration thinks I'm a criminal if I do. Because THC can make you feel good when you're healthy as well as feel better when you're sick, people who don't know me might see me as a big-bong punch line, in a Cheech and Chong kind of way. If you pop Viagra, you're tough and sexy; if you smoke weed, you're half-baked. I've been an occasional user of pot for 30 years. Only in the past six months have I done so without risking arrest, at least as far as Sacramento is concerned. It was very easy to become a medical user, but it raised a question: Was I better off breaking the law? In Los Angeles County a recommendation can be filled at more than 100 dispensaries, many of which have been raided by the DEA. Proposition 215, the first of its kind in the nation, went into effect in 1996 and prohibits a doctor from being punished for having recommended marijuana to a patient who is "seriously ill." A 2003 law requires the state Department of Health Services to "establish and maintain a voluntary program for the issuance of identification cards to qualified patients."

I was aware of these laws long before last summer but hadn't felt the urge to take advantage of them until someone stuck a flier under my windshield. It was from California Natural Pain Relief on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, and it informed me, misspellings and all, that "Medical cannabis can be recommended for the care and treatment of Cancer, Cronic pain, arthritis, Migraines, Diabetes, Insomnia, Anxiety, Aids Nausea, Epilepsy, Lupus, Depression, Eating Disorders, Menopause, PMS, Asthma, etc."

When I visited California Natural Pain Relief, the folks there directed me to a doctor at another office. Since I experience occasional but painful attacks of gout, a form of arthritis, as well as other foot and knee pain, I brought a load of medical records and a vial full of Vioxx that I had been too scared to take. The doctor gave me a brief physical exam and a blood pressure test, discussed how marijuana could alleviate the pain and inflammation and wrote and signed an official-looking, green-trimmed recommendation. This included the doctor's signature, a photocopy of my driver's license and a key phrase: "approve of the use of cannabis for my patient." I paid $150 cash.

Armed with my license to chill, I drove back to Ventura Boulevard, smiled at the beefy bodyguard, strolled inside and handed the recommendation to the dispensary operator. There was a faintly agricultural scent in the air. Under a glass countertop were vials labeled Master Kush, Cotton Candy and OG Kush; also on display were variants of cannabis strains known as chronic and ganga. I forked over $50 for an eighth of an ounce and received a small pipe as a new-patient gift.

Later, when I told a friend about my purchase, he laughed and delivered the ultimate insult: "You paid more than street value."

My solace was that my uncontrolled substance use was sort of legal. L.A. lawyer Allison Margolin, who calls herself "America's dopest attorney," explained that my recommendation wasn't above-board in the eyes of the feds. But could they go after me if they found physician-recommended pot in my house? They could, but "no judge is going to pursue it," she said.

Margolin represents marijuana growers as part of her criminal defense practice. They are, she told me, "the bigger risk-takers in the system," because although the DEA might not bother with the likes of me (and hopefully not with people who are terminally ill), it does bother with Californians who cultivate pot destined for dispensaries and with the dispensaries themselves.

It isn't something many medical marijuana users spend a lot of time worrying about. "People have gotten very comfortable with the level of access in Los Angeles," said Stephanie Landa, who's serving a 41-month federal prison term for cultivating marijuana. But they don't stop to think when they're consuming their medicinal pot that "it didn't just fall out of the sky. It had to come from somewhere."

Speaking of consuming, medicinal weed isn't only inhaled. There's a contingent of bakers and candy makers in the alternative pharmacy universe who produce marijuana edibles. I've tasted several varieties, including a canna-brownie with crisp vanilla icing from Cotton Mouth Confections, which was delicious and chocolaty, and a baklava that was less enjoyable, the bottom tasting like a mouthful of buds.

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