The West goes to pot

Medical marijuana is a legitimate way to cope with various ails, so why fuss over a plant in the ground? Asks author.

International Cannabis And Hemp Expo Held In San Francisco
A study has suggested that laws legalising medical marijuana showed a nine per cent drop in traffic deaths and a five per cent reduction in beer sales [GALLO/GETTY]

I walked into the clinic with $45, a photo ID and a coupon I found in an alt-weekly at the liquor store across the street. I was feeling anxious, I told the doctor, just not altogether right: A little depression here, a bit of insomnia there – tell-tale symptoms, a lonely cynic might say, of the pandemic “human condition”.

But I needed help. And according to the online reviews, I’d found one of the few compassionate ears in Hollywood.

“So, how long have you experienced this anxiety?” inquired my board-certified medical professional. She was dressed in a crisp white lab coat, “Dept of Plastic Surgery” embroidered on the left chest pocket, and sat at a wooden desk with a blood pressure machine and my medical file in front of her. Behind her was a sparsely filled bookcase and a poster advertising competitively priced shots of vitamin B12.

“I guess the anxiety started in high school,” I said, speaking for about everyone who has ever gone to high school. “Around puberty, maybe.”

“Yeah, that’s when it usually sets in,” the doctor reassured me with a comforting nod. “Make sure you have a good support network,” she said, her head continuing to bob. “And try getting 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity each day. Do you have a therapist?”

I shook my head.

“You should get a therapist,” she said. “It can be good to have someone to talk to. And maybe try acupuncture. I hear it works wonders.”

I could dig the mix of the conventional and non-traditional, but let’s drop the facade: I wasn’t there to make what my mother would consider a positive life decision.

“Have you ever smoked marijuana?” the doctor finally asked after an eternity (or, four and a half minutes). I didn’t say no. “Did it help?” Of course it (obscenity) did, lady. She took my blood pressure and a final glance at my paperwork.

“Well, call and update us on how you’re doing in three months. And gain some weight.” I thought about making the obvious joke but just nodded instead. “Have you ever taken a B12 shot?”

 US authorities crack down on medical cannabis

Joining the club

And with that – after declining the B12 – I became an official medical marijuana patient in California, one of perhaps a million people, or two to three per cent of the population, who under state law can legally purchase and consume Cannabis sativa, sold in a dizzying array of forms, from sodas to cheesecakes, at more than 700 dispensaries here in Los Angeles County alone. For less than half the cost of a police citation for possession, pretty much any resident with some extra cash and a half hour to waste can get a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana, which was legalised for the treatment of a broad array of medical purposes by California voters in 1996.

If we’re being honest, the result is the de facto legalisation of marijuana in large parts of the state (albeit an imperfect form that still allows police to harass the lesser privileged with citations for possession and trumped up charges of distribution). To politicians and perpetually concerned parents and the decent, respectable advocate of drug policy reform, that’s a problem, the state’s widely supported medical marijuana programme considered a joke; a disaster. A programme intended to help the seriously ill is instead being used by a bunch of hipsters looking to get high.

In my case, 20 minutes after getting a doctor’s note from a plastic surgeon I was browsing a selection of ostensibly organic alternative medicine, a young Russian named Sergio behind the counter addressing me as “bro” and guiding me through treatment options like “Obama OG” (“It’s just a name.”), “Green Crack” (“It’s not crack.”) and “Houdini” (“It’ll make you disappear.”). As I left, purchase in hand, I confidently walked past a LAPD patrol car that was idling just outside, an angsty Rage Against the Machine song blaring in my head.

Dispense with the pleasanties

In other parts of the country, this state of affairs – the horror of people getting a buzz with somewhat less inconvenience – is held up by reactionaries from both parties as a lesson, a cautionary tale of what could go wrong.

“We do not want to become… California,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, remarked recently to justify his stalling the implementation of a medical marijuana programme signed into law by his predecessor. “I do not want this to become a cottage industry for unscrupulous doctors who will write prescriptions no matter what and for folks who might run these facilities who care more about profit than they care about compassionate care for individual citizens who qualify for it.”

Christie, having determined the profit motive to be the enemy of good health, then moved to immediately ban Merck, Pfizer and Walgreens from operating in his newly proclaimed workers’ state (he didn’t).

The California Horror Story is also being used to roll back the rights of Californians. Here in Los Angeles, the almost-exclusively Democratic city council – with the approval of the city’s Democratic mayor – voted this summer to outlaw all dispensaries within city limits, ostensibly because there are “too many” of them. Members of the council also asked the Obama administration to help them thwart the will of Californians by enforcing federal laws against the distribution of marijuana; within weeks of that request, the federal government moved to shut down more than 70 dispensaries across LA.

Why so serious?

Is the state’s medical marijuana programme a bit of joke? Well yeah, sure – but it’s a good one. Its critics lament that for many people it practically serves as outright legalisation, but advocates of drug policy reform ought not to shy away from accepting that charge. Think about it: For less than $50, or about half the cost of a misdemeanor citation, you can essentially buy immunity for most minor cannabis-related offences. And you know what? Society hasn’t crumbled, at least not because of anyone smoking quasi-legal pot. In fact, research suggests the wider availability of marijuana has decreased both alcohol consumption and traffic fatalities, in addition to serving as a life-changing medicine for the seriously ill.

 The Stream – Decriminalise it?

Yes, some unscrupulous layabouts and freelance writers may be dubiously alleviating their anxiety with a medical blunt, but the thing is: None of the professionally concerned would give even a modicum of a damn were the treatment for whatever ails you to come from a pharmaceutical company (and the process for getting it would effectively be the same). The moral outrage then seems to come not from a principled objection to drug use – if there’s a complaint to be made in 21st century America, there’s a for-profit pill to treat it – but from the not uncommon suburban fear that someone, somewhere might be less miserable.

Drug yourself up, fine, but don’t you go cracking a smile.

“In California, a person can legally get marijuana for anxiety or pain,” notes Shaleen Title, a lawyer who has campaigned for medical marijuana and broader drug policy reform with the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “Some people might consider that a ‘joke’, but it’s the law and it’s science – people do find relief from marijuana for conditions ranging from mild anxiety to terminal cancer.”

The crazy thing is not that a few people are getting pot prescriptions for what some perceive to be mild afflictions – the same thing happened with “medical” liquor during alcohol prohibition; the problem was the prohibition – but that any grown, mature human adult needs a special piece of paper from a state-licensed medical professional to purchase and possess a plant that at worst leads to jam bands.

This fall, voters in three states – Washington, Oregon and Colorado – will have the chance to go further than California ever has by legalising the use marijuana for all persons over 21. They have the political establishment against them – nine former heads of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have called on Attorney General Eric Holder to campaign against legalisation, just as he did when it was put up for a vote in California in 2010 – but they also enjoy greater numbers than ever: A majority of non-elected Americans now believe that drug prohibition has been a costly exercise in futility and that cannabis should just go ahead and be legal already.

When it comes to progressive change, history shows that the public always leads and, when they’re done getting in the way, the politicians eventually follow. But before our leaders can be led, they’re liable to double down on disaster, as President Obama has by further militarising the war on drugs, a war responsible for ruining lives from Honduras to Hollywood. Someday, though, as demographics shift – as old people die off, frankly – we’ll look back and wonder not at the absurdity of “medical” marijuana, but at the insanity of raiding homes and putting human beings in tiny, terrible rape cages over something that grows in the ground and makes people happy.

Charles Davis is a writer currently based in Los Angeles.