Sense and Sinsemilla

It wasn't like closing down a pharmacy. Scott Imler couldn't just tape up a sign reading "The Cannabis Buyers' Club has moved to. . . . Thanks for your patronage!"

A week after the Sheriff's Department raided the second-floor West Hollywood office suite where the CBC had dispensed marijuana to the ailing, the CBC was in business again in a West Hollywood church.

It wouldn't be precisely true to say that trade was so slow that Scott Imler couldn't give his marijuana away. Yet the bust had scared off some of the clientele. And then the reliable local suppliers got skittish and vanished. That left only Mexican dope, the quality of which even NAFTA could not improve.

Imler and his volunteers--among them Babaji, he of the long hair and short name, who had sat chanting in his jail cell last week until the CBC Four were released--were back to the same drill. The boxed files and thrift-store percolator and the heavy-gauge blue plastic box of carefully titrated and bagged marijuana had to be hauled in and set up on the kind of tables that churches use for pancake breakfasts, in the same room where AA and Al-Anon meet each week.

This time, though, Imler's protocol is more thorough, more disciplined. What he dispenses is recorded and tracked--only so much to any patient over a given period of time. Doctors' letters of diagnosis with authorization for marijuana use must be renewed and verified--no scribbles on cocktail napkins or scrap paper, as happened in the San Francisco CBC that got raided last month, and with some justification, perhaps, given its slipshod controls.

Imler is mindful of the raids, and of the church, which is his church, and especially of the election. Medicinal marijuana, Proposition 215, is on the November ballot.

It is there because it has passed twice through the state Legislature and been gubernatorially vetoed. The California Medical Assn. voted it down but wants a final, definitive medical study, for in a way not yet entirely understood, something about marijuana works wonders for some people: cancer patients, AIDS patients, patients with seizures or spasms or glaucoma.

Eight ailing Americans--eight--are officially authorized to get marijuana from the government under a federal program. When the late husband of the nurse behind Proposition 215 smoked dope after his chemotherapy, he didn't throw up and he even mustered an appetite.

Favored 53%-31% in a Times poll, Proposition 215 is a dodgy thing. Both Bob Dole and Clinton's top drug man are against it. And Dole is poking at Clinton with the sharp stick of the President's 4-year-old MTV joke about wishing he had inhaled.

There remains, too, the jaunty counterculture pose--"Cannabis Buyers' Club" sounds more raffish than therapeutic--the "Reefer Madness" subtext, the odor of nonsanctity vs. the whiff of virtue.

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Whatever Quasimodo the Hunchback so touchingly proclaimed from the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral, nothing remains of the medieval inviolacy of sanctuary except a certain delicacy of feeling; no cop who hopes to pension uneventfully out wants to make a bust in a church.

The church in question is the Crescent Heights United Methodist Church, West Hollywood's oldest continually existing institution, a smallish whitish building on the same corner where the first pastor pitched a tent in April 1914 and fell to preaching.

Pastor Tom Griffith has let the CBC operate here while it looks for new digs. His regional conference moved to support Proposition 215, and he sees no conflict between keeping people off drugs and letting the sick have what helps them. The offspring of a long line of temperance folk on both sides, he notes that booze addicts outnumber illegal druggies 10 to one.

He has seen the CBC's clients--wasted men with AIDS, a woman dying of breast cancer. "Part of the old phrase 'being saved' means being able to be functional with God and with one and another and oneself. Any form of dysfunction"--profound pain and nausea among them--"keeps one from doing that."

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Scott Imler caught an edge on a ski slope 13 years ago, cracked his head against a tree, and that night began the seizures that didn't stop, even with barbiturates, until he began smoking marijuana. Three hits a day keep the seizures away.

Stephen Jay Gould, the protean Harvard paleobiologist, baseball fan and writer, smoked it medicinally to thwart the nausea that came after chemotherapy.

And my small part of the story is this:

About a dozen years ago, at an age when such a thing is as unlikely an ailment as dowager's hump, I was diagnosed with glaucoma, a side effect of a serious birthmark. It had already wiped away some of my peripheral vision and was smudging up more of it every day, like dirt obscuring a car windshield.

Successively stronger medicine didn't work; it only made me dizzy and could give me kidney stones. There remained marijuana. It was not fun; it was tedious. But for a time, until surgery was the only option, that was all I had.

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