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      LOS ANGELES: A License to Chill



              Return To OnlinePot's Legal Section Main Page       

By 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 Pr

    February 11, 2007

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.

With edibles, I never knew how much THC I was actually putting into my
system. One evening I ate half a brownie after dinner and couldn't get
to sleep until 2 a.m. I felt anxious and dizzy. I got lost in the
darkness, spinning in the corridor between the bedroom and the

At the movies I downed a My Kushbar (a concoction of dark chocolate,
blueberries and crisp rice), and my wife had to poke me as I sat
catatonically watching "Dreamgirls." I shook my head and handed her
the car keys.

Then there was the Volcano Vaporizer, a stainless-steel device shaped
like an Apollo space capsule. It works like this: You attach a plastic
balloon to the capsule, light the device, and the THC goes into the
bag. Take the bag off, push on a black valve, and vapor�not harsh
smoke�blows into your mouth. There's little odor and a highly
efficient high. So efficient that later at the gym (don't worry, I
walked there) I almost had a Janet Jackson exposure moment as I
started to whip off my cargo shorts only to discover I'd forgotten my
gym shorts. My trainer muttered, "You've convinced me you're going to
have a heart attack," and threatened to fire me as a client.

Marijuana did help calm my foot-pain problems. Also, my appreciation
of everyday beauty was enhanced. At Balboa Park, the end-of-summer
foliage and the grass, sky and late-afternoon pollution around the sun
appeared in Technicolor sharpness. At the same time, I was anxious and
confused. I hadn't taken so much pot in years. For six months (in the
spirit of scientific inquiry) I consumed maybe one gram every two
weeks; my previous marijuana purchases had been on the order of a
quarter-ounce every two or three years through the usual
friend-of-a-friend channels.

When I started smoking pot on the East Coast in the '70s, I remember
the choices being basically Jamaican, Colombian and skunkweed. Today
the strains are dizzying in variety and power, and all are available
at the dispensaries. It's a real business: The Los Angeles Journal for
the Education of Medical Marijuana, a free monthly, lists doctors,
collectives and lawyers and covers events such as the 2006 DOESHA Cup,
a tasting event in which California marijuana growers compete. It's
all a bit overwhelming for a boomer.

Is Los Angeles the Amsterdam of America? Not quite. Dispensaries
aren't coffee shops, as they're called in the Netherlands, where pot
is sold and consumed as casually as beer is here.

Dispensaries are more like cash-and-carry package stores in states
that control liquor sales. Another party stopper: Sharing or reselling
a patient's medical cannabis is illegal.

Some dispensaries try to make it all seem like a party, though. They
advertise with slogans such as "KushMart: Where It's 4:20 Always"
(4:20 being shorthand for smoking pot or getting high�and,
incidentally, the number of the 2003 state Senate bill). There's also
a maybe-not-so-clever propensity for employing words such as
"therapeutic" and "herbal" and "compassion"�so that the initials of
dispensaries, including Therapeutic Health Care and Today's Holistic
Caregivers, are THC.

I found one outfit that doesn't mess with any of that: The Natural
Relief Center in Canoga Park, which doesn't advertise and shuns
windshield fliers. Owner Michael Levitt got into the business one year

"I was comfortably retired," he told me, "but my wife didn't like me
around the house so much." What motivated him were myriad health
problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure. "At 51 years
old, it doesn't wear well to deal with street thugs to get medication.
I thought I could help people and bring the game up as a businessman."
He described his storefront as "a community spot." There's a
hairdresser on one side and a newsstand on the other.

In L.A., City Councilman Dennis Zine of the West Valley wants
dispensaries to be located in industrial, commercial or business
areas, "where they're not going to have an impact on young people."
I'm all for that. (By the way, the City Council's Planning and Land
Use Management Committee voted in January in favor of enacting a
moratorium on new dispensaries until the city devises rules governing

I learned a lot during my months as a medical marijuana user and came
to three conclusions: My tolerance is low; pot should be legal as a
pain reliever; the distribution system in place right now has room for
improvement. But it's like Winston Churchill said about 
democracy! it's the worst form of government, except for all the others.