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A visit to the medical marijuana doctor

Oooh, there's a pinch in my lower back.

My head hurts too.

And my vision is blurred from going through long lists of Southern California physicians who specialize in herbal medicine. I need relief, and I need it fast, but how does one go about choosing a medical marijuana doctor?

"I am a person first, a scientist second and a friend always," a Melrose Avenue doctor says in an ad that can be found in medical cannabis magazines.

I suppose there are advantages to having a medical marijuana doctor who is a friend always. But I wasn't really looking for a friend.

"Sadly, many of the doctors' offices in our field are shoddy at best," said an ad for a clinic in my neighborhood. "They definitely are not something to gamble on."

Good advice, I guess. In the end, I chose a Glendale clinic because it was close to home, offered "superior professionalism" and had an appointment time that worked for me.

But I was a bit nervous on my way to see the doctor. What if I got rejected?

Not that I've heard of that happening to anyone. The open secret is that it's a cinch to get a marijuana "recommendation" in California. A "recommendation" isn't a prescription, but it would allow me to visit a dispensary and buy my buds.

In Los Angeles, locating such a place would be no harder than locating a palm tree. The little green crosses are everywhere, with 186 dispensaries operating with city permits and an estimated 600 more that found a loophole.

Why so many?

Because of the usual bungling at City Hall. An estimated 600 or so managed to open -- if you can believe this -- during a MORATORIUM on new dispensaries, while city officials fiddled.

Neighborhood groups began complaining about proliferation, proximity to schools and rising crime. So now we've got a city attorney who wants to shut them down and a City Council that will take another whack at this thing in a week or two. But in the meantime, you can shop til you drop for "Sonoma Coma" and "Humboldt Haze."

This is what happens when you're in that murky middle between legal and illegal. I'm all for medical marijuana, and know it brings great relief to many sick people, but it doesn't take a detective to realize that recreational users are driving the industry under the guise of medical need.

As I've written before, we'd be better off legalizing pot altogether in this country, as well as regulating and taxing it. Instead, we spend a fortune on a failed fight that helps cartels and drug gangs prosper, even as bodies pile up.

But let's get back to my courtship of Mary Jane.

I parked in Glendale, took the elevator to the top floor of a high-rise and was greeted by a young man in jeans and a ball cap.

"Are you here to see the doctor?" he asked.

As far as I could tell, the entire floor was abandoned but for this little operation. Nice to know there's still one part of the economy firing on all cylinders.

Three other patients were waiting, including a woman with a cane.

When she stood, she walked gingerly.

I could be in trouble, I thought. My back problem wasn't as obvious.

Should I limp when it was my turn?

I felt like I was in a Coen brothers movie. The big empty room, the unseen doctor behind the door, the furtive glances between patients.

I filled out some forms, describing the back pain that began roughly 25 years ago. Surgery was recommended in later years, but I've opted instead for stretching and occasional painkillers.

Sometimes the pain crawls down my legs or up my back, sometimes it wakes me up at night, and that's the truth, so help me God.

I turned in the forms but then, on the table next to me, I saw a medical marijuana magazine called "The 420 Times," in which the lead story was, conveniently, "Your First Doctor Visit. What to expect and know."

I began to read.

"Would they take me seriously? Would I be laughed at?" the author wrote. "Turns out, I really didn't have much to be worried about. Getting medical marijuana wasn't as hard as I thought it would be."

His problem was migraines, and he was in and out of the office in no time, marijuana recommendation in hand.

I was in a panic. I'd had a headache or two. Why hadn't I gone with migraines, and was it too late to switch?

Before I could move, the woman with the cane exited the office 10 minutes after she entered. The doctor, wearing a white lab coat, followed behind her.

"I looked at it from across the table, and I trust you," he said to her.

It sounded promising.

When it was my turn, the doctor sat at a desk in an otherwise empty room and read my papers. The only medical equipment I saw was a blood pressure cuff.

The doctor told me there were many options for treating back pain, and I told him I didn't want to risk surgery or take conventional painkillers. He wanted to know how I'm affected when back pain keeps me awake.

I'm fuzzy and have trouble focusing the next day, I told him.

He seemed to be looking for a different answer. If I'm a writer, he said, did that mean I had trouble doing my job?

Definitely, doctor.

I stood to show him where my back hurts. He asked me to bend down, and I demonstrated that I couldn't touch my toes, but I don't think he could see that. He hadn't moved from his seat.

I pointed again to my lower back and asked if there were a disc that low.

He said he knew nothing about back problems.

"I'm a gynecologist," he said.

I see.

He asked if I could have my primary care doctor fax over a brief note about my back problem.

Sure, I said.

"There's no rush," the doctor said.

Without having laid a hand on me, he led me back out to the receptionist with the ball cap. I paid $150 for my 10-minute exam and was given my recommendation.

"This certifies that Steve Lopez was evaluated in my office for a medical condition, which in my professional opinion, may benefit from the use of medical marijuana."

Several more patients were waiting their turn.

Me? I had some shopping to do, and several hundred stores to choose from.

Check back here Sunday, and I'll let you know how it went.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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