This is going up at FIRST OF THE MONTH -- but at a time of some uncertainty. Due to pressing public interest -- at least the interest of two pressing members thereof -- the editor has okayed my debuting it here.
“Tell me why you want the prescription,” Dr. Wizard (not his real name) said.
“You mean besides the glaucoma, the intractable back pain, and the weight loss?” I smiled.
He did not reach for his pen.
I’d expected no problem. When I’d telephoned my request, I was surprised he’d even wanted to see me. In the past, on his own, he’d loaded me with vitamins and supplements about which Wikipedia says nothing more reassuring than “Of no proven medical benefit.” But while I waited in the examination room, I’d heard him listening to a recording of the Dalai Lama chanting, and relaxed.
Sure, I was readying for investigative journalism, but I was not without legitimacy. Post-heart attack medications had fucked with my sex life. From my law school days, when doing drugs had provided an appealing outlaw cachet, I knew marijuana made food taste better, music sound richer, minds think more amusingly, and bodies respond more sensuously to touch and tongue. But as joints had become as common at parties as cheese dip, they had faded from my life, save for the occasional toke at a Bob Dylan concert. Now I wanted pleasure without popping more pills.
“Be careful,” he said, signing the script. “Since we were young, there’s been a lot of...” He smiled now. “...botany.”
Five thousand years ago, Roumanians did it. Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Jews, gnostic Christians, and Chinese did it. Until 1911, when Massachusetts made it a crime, Americans from sea to shining sea did it. Then apparently impressed by the improved moral and physical fibre of Bay Staters, twenty-eight states shut the door. In 1937, the federal government slammed it on the rest. Social historians put this down to an alliance of industrialists trying to stamp out hemp-based competitors and physicians hoping to rid their market of cannabis-prescribing herbalists, capitalizing upon a bogus science which confused boo with heroin and an overlay of racist Puritanism that hysterically free-associated into the issue imaginary reefer-maddened Negroes and locoweed-loaded Mexicans doing the nasty to white women in back rooms, while true Americans limited their existence-enhancement to Johnny Walker and Camels. Turn on otherwise, and, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Louis Armstrong, Jennifer Capriati, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and former Gov. Mitch Daniels (Rep. Ind.), go to jail.
In 1996, California, which had already brought the country surfing, avocados, and right- turns-on-red, became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, permitting possession of up to eight ounces if prescribed by a physician. California did not go to the extreme of recognizing an entitlement to “pleasure,” but it did authorize alleviating “chronic pain” – also AIDS, anorexia, arthritis, cancer, depression, glaucoma, insomnia, migraines, PMS, PTSD, spasticity, if that did not sufficiently improve public health, and “any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” By 2011, a thousand-or-so dispensaries had sprung up, serving a million-or-so patients and producing $100 million in taxes annually. Twenty states and the District of Columbia followed California’s lead.
The federal government did not embrace this trend. When Barack Obama first ran for president, he declared medical marijuana a matter between physicians and patients and stated his justice department would have better things to do than trying “to circumvent state laws on this issue.” (He told Barbara Walters the same thing after his re-election.) Yet in four-and-a half years, his administration raided more cannabis dispensaries than George W. Bush’s in eight – and spent $100 million more in the process.
Obamabust has threatened to confiscate the buildings of property owners who rent to dispensaries. It has threatened to prosecute the banks and credit card and armored car companies with whom they do business. So while doctors may write prescriptions, their patients, in the words of one advocate, may be forced to “violent gangs” to fill them.
The AMA is behind it, I’ve heard. Or regional attorney generals gone rogue. Or the police-and-prison lobby wishing to insure its members full employment. “Relax,” says my physician friend Dr. Buzz (not his real name). “You’re already dealing with gangs for your medical needs. Only they’re called ‘hospitals’ and ‘drug companies.’ The more you examine their pricing, the more you want to involve RICO.”
To enter the dispensary I selected, you have to show a security guard your prescription and photo ID. You show them again to the receptionist and at the sales counter, though there seems insufficient time and space between any two stations for an imposter to replace you.
Some customers were frail; some bulged with iron-pumpers muscle. Some wobbled when they walked; some strode sweaty and baggy-shorted like they’d come from running full court. Offered a substance to sniff, some seemed less attentive than I when a wine steward presents a glass and my thinking runs toward, “Red. Fine.” Others held discussions as refined as classics scholars parsing a new translation of Homer.
The dispensary offered gift samples, senior discounts, reward cards, home delivery. Its cases held pre-rolled, concentrates, flowers. Ounces went for $100 to $350, an eighth from $40 to $50. Varieties included Girl Scout Cookies, Purple Erkle, Strawberry Bubba. The green-thumbed could purchase plants. Foodies chose among chocolate, popcorn, butter, root beer, lemonade. When I knew drugs, the only brand name had been Acapulco Gold. Consumers then required little more than sieves for straining stems and seeds. Now afficionados own grinders which shred buds into increased potency and $250 vaporizers to protect against carcinogenics. I felt like Rip Van Winkle, awakened from a forty-five year nap.
I chose the blackberry-flavored dark chocolate. “OOOOH,” said the salesgirl. “That’s the best!”
Like I had expected, “One nibble every four hours, sir.”
I knew cannabis’s delights. I knew studies confirmed its medical benefits and argued it harmed lungs and livers less than cigarettes and alcohol. But even the recent pro-pot CNN documentary “Weed” warned of potential danger for those younger than twenty-four when frontal lobes become fully developed. Now nearly half the patients of Berkeley’s dispensaries are under thirty and less than ten percent over sixty-one. This over-representation of the young-and-most-likely-healthy over the elderly-and-more-likely-infirm may make one suspect that the lure of giggles and corn chips has out-weighed the risk of harm in the decision making of much of our citizenry and that marijuana advocates, in using the ill to pry open the slammed door have happily allowed others to crowd the room. But even for those insufficiently libertarian to care, it seems to me their disbursal could best be achieved best not by clubbing the dispensaries but policing the physicians whose tickets allow the hordes entry.
At one end of this spectrum of enablers stands Dr. Wowie (not his real name). He has practiced family medicine for thirty years. He has consulted on cannabis for twenty. He is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility and, along with Willie Nelson (its honorary chairperson), on NORML’s Board of Directors.
Dr. Wowie charges $250 for a one-hour consultation, paid in advance, by cash or credit card. He requests the medical files of those he consults. People concerned about their suitability for weed (and can afford $250) may be well-served by seeing Dr. Wowie. But he did not respond to my request for an interview, so I could not inquire why his consultations take longer than my annual physical, why he does not bill insurance carriers, or what percentage of his patients he denies a prescription. The budget conscious or those unwilling to gamble, like my friend Mahatma Rabinowitz (not his real name), gravitate toward establishments like the Peesnluv Clinic (not its real name), whose advertisements offer multiple convenient locations, welcome drop-ins (preferably unencumbered by medical records), and charges $60.
As we stepped from Mahatma’s Toyota onto a north Oakland side street that seemed entirely occupied by nail polishers, tan enhancers, and hair extenders, I drew the attention of a jittery fellow in unwashed sweats. “O.G., y’all want the doc?”
I knew from prior field trips that “O.G.” meant “Old Gangster” and was flattered that my black leather jacket and shades had suggested street cred, not narc-hood.
“Second floor.” He opened a door. “Lemme show you somethin’.”
He pulled a fist-full of laminated $20-discount cards from a pocket. When a physician had opened a similar practice near my former office, flacks had passed out similar cards to passers-by. This fellow had circled some block for hours.
“Lemme have five,” he said, “‘ll save y’fifteen.”
The clinic was “Cash Only” – but an ATM stood by the receptionist’s cubicle. A hand-lettered sign said “We Do Not Accept Discount Cards Sold Outside,” but Mahatma’s source went unquestioned. The receptionist provided a four-page form.
Mahatma ignored questions that violated his sense of privacy, like his address and employer. He correctly identified his treating physician, provided we are talking 1998, when the man still lived. He checked without reading a number of boxes, including one swearing he had read each box. He went with “headaches” as reason-for-visit.
A fiftyish gentleman in a white lab coat of the type rarely worn by “doctors” outside of television commercials summoned Mahatma. (Review of the California Medical Association’s web site shows an orthopedic surgeon with his name.) Mahatma returned in five minutes with his prescription. He had been asked his height and weight. The forms had not been looked at. Neither had Mahatma. (Another friend reported a less thorough evaluation. No physician had been available, so the receptionist faxed her questionnaire to Los Angeles, and a return cleared her.) The clinic did not respond to my request to interview a spokesperson, so I was unable to explore its procedures further.
The man remained outside. “Admit it. You be feelin’ wishy-washy on me.”
“No,” I said.
“See, see, see I worked it out for you. That’s the person I am. That’s the heart I have.”
“You were dope,”Mahatma said.
“I jus’ tryin’ to feed my self, like the man inside tryin to feed his self. Everybody jus’ wanna eat.”
That seemed a good summation.
Causes Bob Levin Supports
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, PEN, Berkeley Emergency Food & Housing Project.