Medical marijuana as a ‘wonder drug’

I’ve taken plenty of heat from readers about my column last week describing how easy it was for me to legally buy marijuana.

Most chastised me for flushing my pot down the toilet before trying it, calling it a cowardly cop-out, a threat to the safety of the region’s water supply and a missed opportunity to let others know what kind of pain relief marijuana actually provides.

“Flushing good medicine down the toilet was a silly, wasteful gesture,” e-mailed Michael Levitt, a 52-year-old who uses marijuana to treat his diabetes and high blood pressure and ran a dispensary in Canoga Park until the feds forced him to shut down last year.

I dumped the pot for legal reasons and because I’d accomplished my journalistic mission by buying it. As a columnist and a parent, I was more interested in seeing how easy it was to get it than discovering the effect of marijuana on my arthritic hands.

But I’ve learned enough from readers this week to understand why some consider it a wonder drug: The registered nurse crippled by a genetic joint disease who was able to toss her Vicodin and use her hands again. The disabled veteran with kidney failure who was vomiting every day until he began smoking marijuana. The single dad confined to a wheelchair after a traffic accident who is now able to climb a flight of stairs.


And I was surprised that I could have learned how easy the process of buying marijuana is by hanging around the mall, talking to 18-year-olds.

In the 12 years since California became the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana for medical use, the drug’s distribution network has grown from a small collective of cannabis clubs to a sprawling network of unregulated dispensaries -- some with their own prescribing physicians.

Their competition plays out bluntly online and in ads like these in LA Weekly: Free delivery. Medical Cannabis to your door! Bonus gifts. Free joint for every new patient. Instant medical approval. If you don’t qualify, your visit is free! Money-saving coupons. Discounts for Medi-Cal/Medicare.

In the week since my column ran, I’ve talked with more than a dozen high school and college students -- honor students and chronic truants, the kids of corporate lawyers and immigrant housecleaners, everyday smokers and teens who’ve never even seen it. Everyone said they have friends who have used marijuana, and they’re not the loser potheads of my youth:

The Catholic school cheerleader who brings weed-laced brownies to the team parties. The Yale-bound student body president who hits a joint three or four times a week. The soccer star who gets high on weekends to enhance the buzz of nature specials on TV.

None of them would let me use their names in this column, though several proudly displayed their cannabis cards to me.

“It’s not even, like, a drug to us,” one high school senior --headed for UC San Diego -- told me. He “got legal” at a Sherman Oaks dispensary the day he turned 18. In his Porter Ranch neighborhood, he said, a cannabis card is considered a convenient passport to harmless fun, like buying a season pass to Magic Mountain.

A senior at a Santa Monica private school -- who doesn’t have a card but smokes occasionally -- told me he doesn’t think having access to medical marijuana makes a teen more likely to use. “It’s not like once they turn 18, that’s when they start smoking weed. It happens much earlier than that.”

None of his friends with cards have medical ailments, he said. “They just look online and find a place, call and make an appointment. It’s the safe way” to get marijuana.

What’s the unsafe way?

He laughed. “It’s not like you go in a bad neighborhood, meet in a dark alley, there’s a guy in a hooded sweat shirt, you slip him a $20, he gives you a bag of whatever.

“There are kids you know who sell weed,” he said. “Sometimes they’re your friends. . . . It’s going to his house, saying ‘Hi’ to his mom, going up to his bedroom, and he gives you the marijuana.”

If NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) had the lobbying power of the pharmaceutical industry, we could fill our pot prescriptions at neighborhood drugstores and flush the Vicodin and Valium instead. That would sit just fine with me.

But I don’t think teenagers should smoke marijuana.

Yes, it can ease stress, erase anxiety, help you stop worrying about why the boy you like didn’t text back or how you’ll do on the upcoming AP exams. But learning to manage those feelings is part of growing up. Marijuana is a comfortable escape from a necessary struggle; it can too easily become a habit that saps energy and turns a motivated kid into a slacker.

Yet, under the law, an 18-year-old has the same right as a 50-year-old to purchase and use marijuana legally. The problem is unscrupulous providers who aim their marketing at healthy young people, and physicians who hand out prescriptions (legally considered “recommendations”) without examining patients or inspecting their IDs.

Ultimately, the medical marijuana delivery process relies on patient and physician integrity. Some folks are going to game the system for a legal high. And some will credit it with making their lives worth living.

Beverly Hills physician Craig Cohen has turned down enough “24-year-olds with insomnia who haven’t seen a doctor” to make him wonder about his role in recommending marijuana: “Am I just the candy man? That’s in the back of my mind,” he said in an interview last week.

But his other patients keep him going. “People with strokes, muscle spasticity, peripheral neuropathy. . . . The people I see are amazingly sick,” he said.

“The state has provided a way for them to get relief. What’s needed now is tolerance. And recognition that these people and their pain are real.”