Investigating Medical Marijuana

No matter where you live in the United States, you have probably heard about the medical marijuana laws that have passed in California. Our intrepid alumni reporter takes a look “behind the Orange Curtain” for what the medical marijuana process is for the layman.

No matter where you live in the United States, you have probably heard about the medical marijuana laws that have passed in California.

Known as Proposition 215, the law allows “patients with a valid doctor’s recommendation, to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal medical use.”

Since it’s passing in 1996, this has become a hot topic not only in California but across the nation as 13 other states have also passed similar laws.

Marijuana in the OC

Living in the heart of Orange County, the topic of Medical marijuana is as hard to avoid as talking about the Lakers. For example, the local free “OC Weekly Magazine” that can be found in every coffee shop and newspaper stand in the county is literally filled with advertisements for medical marijuana. The advertisements run the spectrum from dispensaries, doctor’s offices (for prescriptions), delivery services, or even legal services.

Clearly, the medical marijuana industry is already big business. Plus, people are talking legal pot everywhere I go. My ninety year old grandmother even asked me about it! And like most issues, it seems to be becoming more and more polarized. Some people see legalizing marijuana as a slippery slope of drug legalization that could lead to every child turning into a drug addict. Others see marijuana as the answer to all our economic problems (tax it!). Many “pro marijuana” activists believe that it can treat a wide variety of health problems like stress, pain, headaches, and insomnia (is there anything marijuana can’t “treat?”)

This polarity can also be seen by the fact that new dispensaries open daily, supposedly legally, while at the same time the police are constantly raiding them and arresting the distributors. The confusion rests mainly on the fact that due to the state law, the drug can legally be sold as treatment for medical conditions. However, federal law dictates that marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic which makes it illegal to sell.

First Hand Experience in The Legalized Marijuana Circuit

Since I am involved in the addiction recovery world, I pay attention when  I hear any discussion of marijuana legalization. I wonder what its effects will be on the friends I have in recovery and whether it will lead to an increase in marijuana addiction in the future.   We have written extensively on this site about the various marijuana products that are becoming available due to the phenonomenon of pot dispensaries: like hash and tincture.  We are also of the opinion that the legalization of marijuana may be benign for many but will ultimately lead to marijuana addiction for some.

But, I’m also torn because, if it really can help people with medical problems why should it be illegal? Marijuana seems less addictive and  destructive than many other legal substances (ie. alcohol or opiate medications like OxyContin).

So, flash forward a couple years to the present and I am surrounded by the new phenomenon of  “legal” weed being sold apparently everywhere around me.

Getting the Marijuana Prescription

Talking it over with a group of friends one night about a month ago, one of them (we’ll call him Jack), said he was thinking about getting his marijuana prescription.

Curious, I asked Jack many questions: when, where, how, why? He told me: the next day, in Santa Ana, from a doctor that specializes in prescribing marijuana and that he was sick of having to rely on friends of friends to buy his pot.

I laughed, saying “your sickness is that you’re sick of buying pot from friends?” He said, no, he was going to say he had migraines, depression and insomnia. I know him pretty well, and didn’t know he suffered from any of these conditions.

He said, “That’s because I self medicate already!” He said it with a smile that I wasn’t sure how to take. We talked a little more and eventually he asked me if I wanted to go along with him so I could document the process. So I did.

I pulled up to Jack’s apartment in Costa Mesa around 10:00am on a Saturday. He answered the door very quick and I could tell he was excited. The prospect of getting a card that made his marijuana habit legal was something he told me he never thought would happen, and I practically had to force him to sit down and answer a few questions before we left.

I was curious as to how he was able to find a doctor that would give him a prescription and he sat down at his computer and showed me. With a simple Google search, he was able to bring up a map of the local area, and it showed all the doctors specializing in prescriptions, dispensaries and even had reviews. I was shocked by the amount of spots on the map, and even more shocked when he ran the search at my house. There was a medical marijuana dispensary a stone’s throw from my house, and I never knew!

Anyway, Jack showed me how he had picked his doctor based on good reviews, and a discounted price ($69 normally, but $59 with a mention of the website). He had already called the doctor’s office and they said no appointment was necessary, that he could just walk in.

We pulled into a non-descript two story office building across the street from a large medical center in Santa Ana. The building seemed to be filled with small doctor’s offices, dentists, law offices etc. There was nothing from the outside to denote that the doctor we were seeing was anything other than a regular doctor’s office, except for two young, scruffy looking guys standing outside looking confused. When we entered, I heard one of them say, “Oh, this must be the place,” and follow us in.

The waiting room looked like any other doctor’s waiting room I’ve ever seen, except it was very crowded and filled with men ranging in age from 20-40. We were greeted by a young receptionist who took Jack’s name and driver’s license. She told us to have a seat while he filled out the paperwork.

The paperwork was not the normal doctor’s office initial paperwork you get. There weren’t any insurance forms to fill out and it was definitely structured around marijuana. The form asked specifically if you suffer from any of the following: insomnia, anxiety, migraines, pain or depression. There was also a spot to add any other condition. Jack marked that he had insomnia and migraines. He said he thought about just marking insomnia, but was worried that if he was caught driving after smoking that having a prescription wouldn’t be a good excuse if the prescription was supposed to put him to sleep. I wasn’t sure if I followed his logic, but one of the other patients overheard him and said that was a good idea and that he was going to change his form.

The forms also stressed that the doctor wasn’t actually giving a prescription, but a “recommendation” that marijuana may help alleviate symptoms.

I asked Jack if he really did have migraines and insomnia, and he said that he used to really have migraines at least a couple times a month and has always struggled to fall asleep. Jack said he was constantly taking ibuprofen and tried several over-the-counter sleep aids and was even prescribed Ambien. He told me a story about waking up after taking Ambien and stumbling into his bedroom window, shattering it. “No more Ambien for me!” He said he started smoking pot recreationally in college and realized after few months that his Advil bottle was still full. “I hadn’t had a migraine in months!” At the time he didn’t realize there may be a connection, but when he quit smoking for a few months because of a job where they drug tested, he noticed his migraines started occurring and his insomnia was coming back.

I wanted to question him further, but the receptionist called Jack to the examination room.

I asked if I could go with him and she said okay. She weighed him on a scale and ushered us into an exam room. I realized I was still wary of the whole thing when I was shocked that the room looked very much like an exam room should. It had an exam table, a diagram of the body, rubber gloves and one of those glass jars filled with cotton swabs. After a couple of minutes the doctor came in with Jack’s chart. He introduced himself and after taking Jack’s blood pressure and listening on his stethoscope, he began asking about Jack’s pre-existing conditions and allergies. He then asked Jack about his migraines and insomnia. Jack told him basically the same story he had told me in the waiting room. The doctor said “uh huh” throughout and kept his head down, jotting notes in his file. The doctor then went through a list of potential side effects of marijuana including paranoia, marijuana addiction, and possible lung damage. He said it very quickly and in a way that reminded me of a security person at an airport asking you if you have any potential dangerous items in your pockets or bags; in other words, like he said it a lot.

And that was it. After about five minutes of face time with the doctor, he shook both our hands and we walked up to the counter where they handed Jack two letters certifying that he had been recommended to take marijuana, by a physician, to treat a medical condition. She said the total was $69, so he said it was $10 off if he mentioned the website, and the woman behind the counter told him it was $59 for the first letter and $10 more for the second, so that he could have a backup copy in case he lost the first. Much like the doctor, she acted like she had given this speech a million times. I could tell Jack wanted to argue with her, but like most people probably do, he just said, “fine, whatever,” and paid the $69. She then handed him a stack of business cards with marijuana leafs on them and said if he referred five other patients he’d get his renewal for free.

As we left the office, that was now so full people they were forced to stand, I asked Jack if the last minute salesmanship soured him at all to the process. With a huge smile on his face, he looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Yeah, right! Let’s go get some legal weed!”

Stay tuned for the third part in this series where I go with Jack to a few dispensaries to purchase medical marijuana.

Jack and I got in his car and he pulled out his iPhone. I had to laugh when he showed me that there was actually an iPhone App just for finding nearby dispensaries based on our GPS location. Before I could say, “the times they are a changing” Jack pointed to a star exactly 2.2 miles from our location, and exclaimed “X marks the spot!” and handed the phone to me. I read some of the reviews while we drove. The reviewers seemed to have their own language and I asked Jack what some of the terms meant.

I learned a lot on that short drive. For example, if the dispensary sells “edibles” that means they sell marijuana products that don’t have to be smoked. These include traditional items like marijuana brownies or cookies, and more exotic items like weed butter, ganja beer, pot lollipops, marijuana tincture, and even bud BBQ sauce.

I was able to discern on my own that a “pre-rolled” was a joint, or marijuana cigarette, but I again had to ask for clarification when I saw the word “tincture.” I asked jack what that was, and he said, “oh, it’s liquid weed. The marijuana is soaked in alcohol and it absorbs all the THC out of the plant.”

“So you drink it?” I asked, wondering how this was different than the “ganja beer”. He laughed, “No, you just put a few drops on your tongue, and goodbye migraines.”

A moment later we pulled into a strip mall in Orange that I had seen at least a dozen times before, but had never realized that the store next to the Subway sandwich shop was a marijuana dispensary. It didn’t proclaim itself loudly as a dispensary, but it didn’t really hide it either. The sign said they were a caregiver’s association, which was generic enough, but the red-yellow-green font should have been a clue.

I felt a little nervous as we walked up to the doors. I hoped nobody I knew saw me walking in. “I’m just doing this for a story I swear!” seemed like an awkward explanation. Luckily, nobody seemed to recognize me and we hurried through the tinted doors. The waiting room was again not what I expected. It was a well furnished, brightly lit room with music playing softly and several flat-screens showing basketball. There was a bored looking uniformed guard with a pistol on his hip leaning against a glass door in the back. I couldn’t help but notice a distinct marijuana smell pervading the room. Jack went to the front counter and gave the cute girl behind the counter his paperwork and a picture ID. She said it would just be a few minutes for her to verify his “recommendation.”

I asked her what the process was and she said they just needed to look his info up on the internet. She said they see a lot of people from the doctor we went to, so it shouldn’t be a problem. I asked if I could go in with him, but she said no, not unless I had a “rec” as well. She seemed pretty firm about it, so I had a seat. It was about five or ten minutes later and the girl told Jack he go in. He picked up his paperwork and went to the door the guard was now holding open. He told Jack, “don’t use your cell phone in there,” and let him in. After the first door shut, I saw another guy holding an interior door open. He shook his hand and led him into the interior.

Since the idea that originally got me to go along with Jack on his quest for medical marijuana was a curiosity as to how all the legal aspect of marijuana was going to affect a casual user, I decided to do a follow up with him after about two months to see how it was working out for him and see if he had increased his usage.

So, I gave him a call and asked if I could interview him. He said ‘sure man, come on over,” and I have to admit that his slow speech sounded like he may already be high (it was around 11 am on a Sunday.)

Driving over I spotted two dispensaries. It has become a little game I play now while driving. I try to find all the “hidden-in-plain-sight pot clinics” I had never noticed before. They are normally in strip malls and have names with “caregiver”, “patients association”, or “natural medicine” etc. and many have a green cross or the red, yellow, green font like the dispensary I visited with Jack. Everybody I point them out to, is stunned by how many there are here in Orange County.

I pulled up to his place and immediately upon entering noticed he was missing some furniture and the place was a bit of a mess. I thought, wow he’s really smoking too much pot; but he explained that his girlfriend of a couple years had recently moved out.

I gave him my condolences and jokingly asked if the breakup had anything to do with her having to compete with “Mary Jane” for his affections. He said no, that she wasn’t a huge fan of his pot smoking, but assured me that they had been doomed for months. I let it drop but thought about the relationships I had ruined over the years drinking, and how I never blamed the booze.

I asked him how many dispensaries he had been to since he got his prescription. He laughed, “probably about six.” I said that seemed like a lot. He said it was, but he was lured in by the “first-time specials” the dispensaries offer their new customers. I remembered the free half-bottle they had given him and asked if having all the extra weed was causing him to smoke more. He thought about it and said, “I don’t know. Probably, yeah. I may not actually be smoking a ton more, but I’m definitely high more, with all the edibles I’ve been taking. They last forever and they are so easy to take.” He reached into a drawer and pulled out a medicine dropper I now recognized as tincture and said, “This is so easy. I’ve definitely fallen in love with this stuff. Just a couple drops and you are good to go. Or I’ll eat a lollipop anywhere. Nobody even knows you’re doing it. It’s awesome.”

Then after making me confirm that I wasn’t going to use his name, he admitted that he has even taken a few drops before work or smoked at lunch which was something he hadn’t done before. He must have seen a worried look on my face because he quickly added, “I’ve just been depressed about the breakup, and we’ve been really slow at work. I’m not going to keep doing it I swear. It’s just been a couple times.”

I told him that was kind of what I was worried about, with the ease of access leading to an increase in use. He was quick to defend, saying “Hey man, I was smoking anyway. I may be doing a little more because of the edibles, but, normally after a breakup I do a little depression drinking, but I bet I’ve had 3 beers since I got my prescription. So I guess I’ve just picked my poison.”

After a bit of reflection, he said, “You know, I don’t think you should use me as an example. I think the dispensaries really do help people that need help. People with cancer, arthritis, chronic pain. It’s legit man. I’m not a great example. Sure I think it really does help with my migraines and insomnia, but really, I like to get high. But, hey, I was going to be high either way, so why not make it legal, tax it, I’ll pay! And if it really was impossible to get, I’d just drink more, and really, drinking has to be worse. I’m a much better stoner than a drunk.”

I told him no problem, I wasn’t trying to make him the poster child for medical marijuana; I just wanted to see what the experience was like and share it.

Now that I type it up, I think he is right. Maybe I should have found somebody that was truly suffering; who really found an extraordinary amount of relief from medicinal marijuana. But, on the other hand, he seems like the typical smoker I know that is getting prescribed. Somebody that finds a little relief, but really, just likes to get stoned, and is going to do it, whether it’s legal or not. So why not make it legal?

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder as I drove home, picking out dispensaries every couple of miles, how many casual users would ramp up their use with the new convenience. How many of them will start going to work high that didn’t before, ruin relationships, and eventually have to seek help to quit? And would this increase in addiction be worth it to help the people that really need it? I guess we will have to wait and see.

Until then, as always, if you or anyone you know needs help recovering from a marijuana addiction, contact a representative at a drug treatment facility like Sunrise Ranch

Thanks to Sunrise Recovery Ranch, my daughter was able to get the lasting recovery she deserved from her addiction and her co-occurring mental health disorder. I am super grateful!

– Michelle A.
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