Sometimes I can't believe how Californian California is. Women walk around half-naked, waiters call patrons "dude," and medical marijuana is legal. But I wondered just how legal. Could anyone buy it? Even me, who doesn't have cancer, AIDS, arthritis, glaucoma or even any previous pot-smoking experience?
Medical marijuana isn't really legal -- in 2005, the Supreme Court said federal anti-drug laws trump state laws -- but California and 11 other hippie states have been flipping off Washington for years.
Finding a medical marijuana distributor is shockingly easy, as Times columnist Sandy Banks noted in her recent columns on getting pot to treat arthritis. Sprinkled innocuously around L.A. County are more than 200 dispensaries that look like health food stores or pharmacies -- including three just at the intersection of Fairfax and Santa Monica. To shop at these places, though, you need a doctor's recommendation on an official form. Once you have that, no California cop can arrest you for holding up to eight ounces. That amount, I'm guessing, was based on conservative medical estimates of how much Snoop Dogg would need if he came down with glaucoma at the same time Animal Planet aired a "Meerkat Manor" marathon.
I made an appointment at a medical office recommended by Shirley Halperin, the coauthor of the new book, "Pot Culture: The A-Z to Stoner Language & Life." Halperin chose our particular clinic less for its medical expertise than the fact that it shared a parking lot with a pot dispensary. Stoners are very clearheaded when it comes to avoiding extra effort.
As I sat in the tiny waiting room, filling out my medical history and getting nervous, Halperin assured me that no one she knows had been rejected, which seemed convincing because the only people sitting near me were two healthy looking guys in their 20s. When I got called in, I entered a doctor's office different from any I'd ever been in. It contained only a tiny desk, two chairs, a small TV and two cans of Glade. Also, the doctor wore a Hawaiian shirt.
He took my blood pressure and asked what I was suffering from. "Anxiety," I said. And then "occasional insomnia." And even though he seemed to be moving on, I blurted something about headaches. The only malady that would have made me more similar to every human being throughout history would have been "these painful little pieces of skin that peel up next to my fingernails."
The doctor followed up on my insomnia, however, and asked if I was having work problems or relationship issues as he handed me a photocopy of a handwritten list of psychiatrists. He'd give me a recommendation for medical marijuana for six months, he said, and would extend it to one year if I saw a therapist. The whole thing took about four minutes.
I paid the receptionist $80 -- cash only -- and she gave me a filled-out form that states I am under medical care and supervision for the treatment of a "medical problem." I felt touched that the doctor hadn't just written I was suffering from "stuff."
At the dispensary, a Harley-riding bouncer checked my newly minted medical forms and driver's license and let us inside. The dispensary was like a really nice coffee shop, with paintings on the wall for sale, couches and a drum kit upstairs for live jazz.
A pretty woman behind the counter -- kind of a pot sommelier -- brought out a huge menu, divided into sativa (uppers) and indica (the downers all dealers sell) varieties, with names such as Bluedot Popcorn, Hindu Skunk and Purple Urkel. Like a high-end tea shop, she used chopsticks to procure the buds from glass jars -- all organic and grown in California -- which she had me smell and look at under a microscope. I settled on a gram of Sugar Kush, which sounded appealing until I wondered what kind of breakfast cereal would cure Sugar Kush munchies. Honey Bunches of Fudge? Frosted Mini Frosted Minis? Count Plaqula?
Next, I took the advice of a fellow patient and went to buy some "edibles" at the Farmacy. This is the most famous of the L.A. dispensaries, with three locations, only two of which are right next to a Whole Foods. The Westwood branch is a sleek health food store that also sells vitamins and lots of Goji berries, and, unlike at the doctor's office, all the salespeople wear white lab coats. As a first-timer, I got to spin a wheel to determine my free gift medicine, which was a pot-infused lollipop. I also bought a vegan chocolate-chip cookie medicine and a chocolate bar medicine, and deeply considered the gelato medicine.
Wondering if I had an unusually easy time, I called High Times magazine's 2006 Stoner of the Year, Doug Benson, a comedian who just released "Super High Me," a documentary in which he stops smoking pot for 30 days and then, for his next month, is high every waking minute. As part of the documentary, he got his medical marijuana certificate. "I told my doctor I had a weak back. And when he said, 'How long?' I said, 'About a week back.' " He did not get rejected. As a patient or a comedian.
In fact, Benson buys all his pot from a dispensary now. Even with the sales tax, he pays the same price and, he said, gets more consistent quality than he did from a dealer. "I had a dealer who came by my house, but this is more convenient," he said. When I asked him how that could be, he explained: "I used to have to sit there and listen to his stories. Because dealers like to hang out."
I always wondered what would happen if marijuana were legalized for anyone over 18. It seems it already has been, and nothing happened.