10 myths about medical cannabis
The tortoise and the where?!
”It’s true: Lumpy the tortoise lives at a Sacramento medical-cannabis dispensary in a room filled with pot plants. Needless to say, this isn’t textbook reptile habitat. But the healthy 12-year-old is much better off than the last-known instance of tortoise and marijuana crossing paths: in June, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, when customs busted a passenger trying to smuggle 300 tortoises and 5 pounds of weed into Malaysia.
I mention Lumpy because stories of senior-citizen tortoises toiling away in pot dens are exactly the kind of ridiculous myths stoners fabricate all the time. Like “Pot ice cream won’t give you brain freeze.” Or “DeMarcus Cousins has a medical-cannabis prescription.”
These little white lies are fun, but I was more curious about the hundreds of millions of dollars that exchange hands every year due to medical pot. Loyal SN&R readers no doubt have seen the ads in these pages. Cannabis is king, ka-ching.
This is why last year, after Proposition 19 went down to defeat, I got a doctor’s referral for medical pot and embarked on long, strange trip: Visit as many local pot clubs as possible, from Roseville to Florin Road, Orangevale to Midtown.
For all its ubiquity, medical pot remains shrouded in mystery, rumor, hearsay and bad jokes. It’s time to clear the smoke, answer all those questions you’ve always wanted to ask and prove (or disprove) the top 10 medical-marijuana myths.
Myth No. 1:
This is all just a big scam to get high legally.
Not all pot clubs are created equal.
Some are trendsetters. Such as One Solution, where employees use iPads to ring up your order. Or El Camino Wellness Center, with its Zen garden and Starbucks feel.
Others are suspect. For instance, the only way to find a certain dispensary in Roseville is to visit an entirely different location first, where, like some kind of rave, you can acquire the true address. And the actual club itself is makeshift at best; you could fit the entire store in the back of a pickup truck and be gone in less than 10 minutes.
Some clubs surprise—in a good way. Florin Wellness Center, hidden at the back of a ’70s style, open-air shopping center, boasts sleek hardwood floors and digital flat-screen menus. Grass in downtown’s Southside Park neighborhood took an unassuming former bank—or a gun shop?—and made it a cool, retro dispensary.
Others astound—for the wrong reasons. At one Midtown club, members must sign contracts agreeing to never discuss what happens inside, including this mention of a 20-something budtender with cherry-red eyes who can’t tell the difference between indica or sativa, the two basic types of cannabis strain. Or another club in the burbs, where the lobby still has that new-paint smell.
Some clubs, like The Reserve, a modest upstart with a Wild West bank theme, is run by clean-cut young guys who toss footballs and are happy to cash in on the medical-cannabis trend. Other clubs, such as The Green Temple down the street, are turning recession blight into pristine new retail, as is the case with their former rental-car shop turned marijuana in-and-out. And blessed be the mom-and-pops, such as A Therapeutic Alternative, a cozy and pleasant shop in a Midtown Victorian.
Still, medical-pot-is-a-joke cynics can find ammo for their thesis at any dispensary. They’ll scoff at the ever-present “under-30 male,” who’s de rigueur, often in numbers, inside any pot-club lobby, toting tall white pharmacy bags filled with ounces of cannabis, lacking signs of any physical ailments. Sometimes friends are waiting in cars, a common parking-lot sight. You can’t help but think “These kids aren’t sick; this is all a stoner swindle.”
“Everyone admits there are people who get a card to obtain marijuana but use it recreationally,” conceded Eric Wentworth, spokesman for MediCann—the only referral business I’ve heard of that has actually denied a prescription to a would-be patient. Wentworth says that, sure, there are people who “sneak through the system,” but counters the this-is-a-scam myth by noting that a lot of people try pot and simply like how it eases their insomnia, anxiety, depression.
“There are actually a lot of patients just self-medicating,” he argued.
I’ll go this far: I visited 33 local clubs during a two-month period. I absolutely believe in the therapeutic qualities of the high-grade cannabis proffered. (I wrote a cover about marijuana’s medicinal value in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS, chronic pain and more; see “The healing power of pot”; SN&R Feature Story; May 22, 2008). But in my recent exploration, I never did observe a lone grandma buying weed to treat her glaucoma. And I did see a lot of young males playing doctor, self-medicating the day away.
Myth No. 2:
It’s easy to get a medical-cannabis prescription.
Usually, doctors have a diploma or family portrait hanging on their office walls. The doctor that inked my recommendation for medical pot had an amusing picture of him in a swimming pool posing with a young woman and a dolphin.
Here’s how the process works: To purchase medical cannabis in California, you must have a referral from a licensed physician. There are some places in Sacramento that claim to provide referrals via online Internet examinations, but state law mandates that physicians examine patients in person.
After Prop. 19 failed, I finally submitted and acquired a “scrip” last November. Motivation was twofold. I wanted to write this story, but couldn’t do so without doctor’s orders. Yet I’ll admit that, like an oenophile moving beyond plonk grapes, I was curious about Sacramento’s clubs and their “top shelf” cannabis strains. Let me be clear: Unlike Sacramento Bee scribe Marcos Breton, I’m down with the hippie lettuce.
But my family doctor wouldn’t give me a prescription, so I’d have to go out of network. My new pot doc operates out of a commercial office spot on Q Street, tucked between a small taqueria and a Midtown bar notorious for two late-night stabbings this past summer. Incidentally, the space was also Barack Obama’s local campaign headquarters during the 2008 campaign. Good enough for the president, good enough for me.
At around 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, eight 20-something guys are waiting in the lobby. A male receptionist relaxes behind a wooden desk. Red duct tape clings to the carpet and forms a square boundary around the desk. A sign warns to never cross the red line.
After a few minutes, a doctor, who doesn’t give me his name, invites me into an adjacent room and asks that I not face toward him but instead turn my chair and look to his right. What’s up, doc? The exam is pretty basic. He asks whether I’m schizophrenic. No. Check a box on a form. When he finally inquires why I’m seeking medical cannabis, I explain that I was having difficulty sleeping. Insomnia. (This is a lie. My pug snores like a jackhammer, but that doesn’t even keep me from catching Zs.)
In less than 20 minutes, I have my referral: an 8 1/2-by-11-inch printout on fancy résumé paper. It set me back $50.
Myth No. 3:
Dispensaries are cash cows that don’t pay taxes.
Getting a cannabis dispensary owner to open their books is tantamount to prying energy-task-force transcripts from Dick Cheney. First of all, dispensaries operate under an unusual business model. They’re ineligible for federal 501(c)(3) status and therefore must pay sales tax to the California State Board of Equalization—even though medicine at Rite Aid goes untaxed and other nonprofits are tax-exempt. Club owners and employees must pay income tax to the Internal Revenue Service as well, even though the feds do not acknowledge their business’ legitimacy.
Sonny Kumar, who owns El Camino Wellness Center, arguably the city’s most popular club, says there’s a lot of confusion about what it means for a medical-cannabis dispensary to operate as a not-for-profit. He categorizes the business model as a “mutually beneficial company,” or a collective where patients and caregivers share expenses and costs.
“We are truly a not-for-profit,” he argued. “The extra money that we have goes right back into the place.” This is a credible claim. A lot of people refer to El Camino as the Taj Mahal of local dispensaries, what with its country-club-esque landscaping, state-of-the-art retail atmosphere and extensive complimentary classes for patients, not to mention free massage and peer counseling. A few dozen employees, from buyers to budtenders to security, receive health benefits, higher-than-prevailing wages and 401(k) options.
Still, Kumar will not disclose his salary. Nor will he divulge how much one of his estimated 8,000 active patients spends on an average each visit. Or how much El Camino paid in taxes to the Board of Equalization last fiscal year. But he’s not the only one: No club owner I spoke with for this story would offer up such information.
Given to speculation, it’s likely that smaller clubs in Sacramento rake in anywhere between $1,000 to $4,000 a day. Larger clubs, such as El Camino, One Solution, River City Wellness Center, Magnolia Wellness and Florin Wellness Center, surely significantly more, perhaps between $5,000 and up to $20,000 on the busiest days.
City Hall projects that 2011 fiscal-year sales tax revenue should range between $125,000 to $275,000. But the city only receives 1 percent of the total sales tax, which means that the 39 registered dispensaries could pay anywhere between $12.5 million to $27.5 million to the BOE. Do the math: Are medical-cannabis clubs in the city ringing up anywhere between $140 million and $315 million in annual retail sales? If so, that’s a whole lotta green.
FALSE (the taxes part, at least)
Myth No. 4:
If you get a medical-pot card, your name will be on the federal government’s ‘I smoke pot’ list.
Ryan Landers, one of the region’s original medical-cannabis activists (see my cover story last year, “Mr. Compassion”; SN&R Feature Story; October 28, 2010), says there are legit, terminally ill patients who refuse to obtain a marijuana recommendation. “They think everything on their medical record will be available on some government database,” he explained.
Tin-foil hat, maybe.
Here’s their side of the story: Counties throughout the state offer a voluntary medical-marijuana identity card. The logic behind the “county card” is to ensure patient protection from law enforcement and general hassle via a state-certified form of ID. If a cop pulls you over and you have a lot of pot in your back seat, the card instantly means you’re in the clear.
Yet most patients don’t acquire the card, in part because it’s optional—you don’t need one to buy pot at clubs—but mostly because it costs $166. And also because it means your name will be on a database somewhere as an official, government-recognized user of medical cannabis.
Landers, who collaborated with state Sen. John Vasconcellos to help craft Senate Bill 420 (a 2003 law that clarified the scope of Proposition 215) says the archiving of cardholders in county records was something he vehemently challenged during the bill’s conception. “I fought on the task force against potential abuse of those records,” he said, “and they still left them open to abuse.”
History has proven that Landers was right: A few years back, patients exposed that the Department of Motor Vehicles was using the county-card database to suspend the driver’s licenses of medical-pot patients. Americans for Safe Access sued the DMV in 2008, however, and the practice quickly ended.
Myth No. 5:
Sacramento County will shut down all pot clubs in its territory.
On April 5, 2010, landlords whose buildings were home to medical-cannabis dispensaries received a notice from Sacramento County code enforcement. These weren’t welcome-to-the-neighborhood Hallmarks; they were violation notices, and straightforward at that: Cease operations within 15 days or the county will take action, including possible criminal prosecution.
Sacramento County has never permitted medical-cannabis dispensaries. In fact, you won’t even find the word “medical” anywhere on the county’s pot-laws Web page. To do so would be, as activist group Sacramento County Patients Collective president Damien Payne says, a “tacit acknowledgement” of a pot club’s legitimacy.
As County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan explained: “By allowing for dispensaries—by adopting an ordinance—we’re basically saying they can commit a federal crime.” So she wants them shut down.
But county code enforcement director Carl Simpson insists his department works only off complaints. And that, at the end of the day, he doesn’t really know how many dispensaries there are in the unincorporated county. “If we’re aware of at least 25—and again, this is not based on any real data—there’s at least anywhere from 25 to 75,” he hypothesized.
Seven of the 25 clubs targeted by the letters made appeals in front of the board of supervisors this past summer. All seven motions were denied. Two clubs, City of Trees in Carmichael and The Green Temple in Arden Arcade, have asked for writs from a Sacramento County Superior Court judge, hoping to reverse the board’s ruling.
In the meantime, inspections carry on. Sac County Patients’ president Payne says his club, One Solution on Madison Avenue, one of the region’s busiest, where patients carry customer-loyalty discount cards, has been charged $470 twice for code-enforcement visits over the past nine months.
Many other clubs, including Jenna King’s family-operated Enso Wellness in Orangevale, have been inspected as recently as late December. A code-enforcement officer warned King that the department soon will be issuing fines, of up to “$1,000 a day” for noncompliance. If this happens, will it be the last stand?
“Oh, we’d have to close, yes,” King conceded.
However, Simpson says no clubs will be shut down just yet. This is because everyone’s waiting on the word of Steve Szalay.
Szalay is the county’s chief executive. He’s also the man charged with reaching out to department heads, the district attorney and the sheriff to formulate a plan for what the county should do with its 75 or so pot clubs. He’s tight-lipped about the process, but did clarify that the county is looking for approaches “other than the one we’ve been taking so far.”
He also disclosed that there are four options being discussed and anticipates reporting back to the board of supervisors within 45 days, or early March.
The patients collective hopes the county will enact a moratorium at this time and, after that, implement some type of ordinance, perhaps similar to what the city of Sacramento approved last year. And the pot clubs may have at least one ally on their side: new County Supervisor Phil Serna, who replaced Assemblyman Roger Dickinson a few weeks back.
Serna wouldn’t say outright what he thinks should happen to the clubs, though he did express an interest in eliminating the cycle of “ad hoc appeals and appearances before the board.” Fine—but does this mean the county should accomplish this by banning all the clubs outright?
“I will say this: That’s not what I’m saying.”
Myth No. 6:
Today’s pot is stronger than your daddy’s pot.
Leave the central city, take Business 80 to Interstate 80, then to Greenback Lane. Head east for what seems like an eternity, hit the second star on the right, drive on straight till friggin’ morning. And then keep going until finally, finally, you arrive in Orangevale, a quaint if unremarkable abode smack dab in the center of the Roseville- Citrus Heights-Folsom trisect. There’s not much to do in Orangevale, so it’s a good thing the burb is home to some of the best medical-cannabis clubs in the Sacramento area.
There’s no sign out front of family-owned-and-operated Gaia’s Gift dispensary, just a mural of a giant black stallion, namesake of the adjacent bar. A Mexican joint, La Placita, proffers hearty aromas at the other end of the strip mall. When you find Gaia’s, a small terrier greets you at the door.
Down the block, Enso Wellness is another club with a “dispensary dog”: This time, it’s Mia, a months-old, caramel-colored poodle. The pup was Christmas present for the club’s owner, who runs Enso with her mom and dad.
There are no dogs at the busiest dispensary in Orangevale, which is one of the region’s most popular: Magnolia Wellness. It’s located in yet another nondescript commercial office complex that, incidentally, is right across the street from my childhood orthodontist.
One important Trivial Pursuit factoid learned while visiting pot clubs: The light-brown Säter extended love seat from Ikea, which retails for $399, is winner of the Official Lobby Sofa of Sacramento’s medical-pot clubs. You can plop your butt on a Säter at Magnolia at almost every club it seems. Not to mention in my living room, which is how I noticed in the first place.
There are two reasons Magnolia is one of region’s top clubs. First, its superinformed budtenders sell award-winning cannabis, such as High Times Medical Cannabis Cup first-place winner Ingrid hash. Also, all of Magnolia’s strains are tested for potency, contaminants, pesticides, mold and other carcinogens by Steep Hill Lab, a medical-cannabis laboratory based out of Oakland that was the first of its kind when it opened shop three years ago.
If anyone can resolve the new-weed-kicks-old-weed’s-butt debate, it’s the chemists at Steep Hill. Verdict?
“It’s absolutely stronger,” assured CEO AnnaRae Grabstein, after conferring with Steep Hill’s lab techs. Here’s the science: Over the years, there’ve been huge advances in cannabis breeding and hybridization. Cultivators want visually sexy, aromatic pot—or what Grabstein calls “bag appeal”—because this is what consumers buy. So cannabis not only looks and smells different today than it did 50 years ago, but it’s also consistently more potent, what with its Technicolor leaves, robust orange hairs and dandruffy kief crystals.
Next time you smoke out with Pops, be sure to warn him.
Myth No. 7:
Pot prices are falling.
“We have the lowest prices,” Canna Care proprietor Bryan boasted. He also explained that when competitors complain that his prices are too low—this happens often, he said—he lowers them even more.
Stocky with a wiry, Founding Father-like beard, Bryan doesn’t look like Sam Walton. Yet his business philosophy is simpatico. Bryan and his wife, Lanette, run their dispensary out of another uninteresting commercial office park in north Sacramento. It’s one of the four original Sacramento pot clubs.
Today, Bryan also claims to have the most patients—“more than 10,000”—of any club in the region.
For a weed, pot isn’t cheap. Most area clubs offer a bargain-basement cannabis strain on their menu, usually in the $20 to $25 range for an eighth, or three-and-a-half grams. The ceiling for top-shelf buds is typically $50 an eighth. Additionally, clubs have all sorts of marketing and promotional incentives, such as happy hours, free joints with purchase and even two-for-one specials to sweeten the deal.
But Canna Care? They sell eighths for $10, offer multiple strains in the teens range, and top-shelf buds, such the mighty insomnia-crushing Romulan indica strain, is just $30 an eighth. Other clubs surely offer more remarkable, lab-tested, award-winning cannabis. But of all the 33 clubs I visited for this story, no one’s prices come anywhere near Bryan and Lanette’s.
In the real world of supply and demand, however, cannabis prices have taken a slow dip. Years ago, before the post-Obama pot-club surge, the price of an eighth teetered between $50 to $60. The $60s are long gone, and nowadays clubs have to remain competitive by offering plenty of quality, sexy-looking strains in the $30 range. Prices drop if you buy weed in bulk, as is the Costco way.
There’s some concern among dispensary owners that patients will buy, say, an $160 ounce at a club, then resell it on the street and net, say, $170 on the transaction. Dispensaries strictly forbid such practices—to become a member at any club, you sign a contract agreeing never to resell or share your medicine—but with so many clubs, it’s not unreasonable to assume there are a few street dealers doing this to defray the month’s rent.
As for market trending: Patients’ rights activists want more free weed for the terminally ill and lower prices in general. But the city of Sacramento’s new business-operations tax, which kicks in on July 1, will add up to 4 percent on top of the existing 8.75 percent sales tax. This could possibly raise prices, but until then:
Myth No. 8:
Think twice before indulging in edibles.
Cannabis ice cream is one of those things sold at clubs that makes the medical-pot skeptic ever more dubious of the “for medical use only” label. Because nothing says “medicine” like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Stoney Baloney.
During the past month, my girlfriend could hardly keep a straight face every time I brought home new edibles, which I’d either purchased or received as first-time patient gifts. Pot pretzels, Chocopotamus-brand marijuana dark chocolate, weed-infused rocky-road candy, brownies, honey-ginger hard candy, lollipops, a 12-ounce bottle of cannabis cherry-lemonade soda, two pints of ice cream—all bear the “medicinal” label, but are therapeutic only insofar as their THC content. Eat this stuff with any regularity, and you’ll wake up from your next food coma with type 2 diabetes.
Healthier edible options exist, such as cannabis olive oil. But in general, pot-club edibles skew more 7-Eleven than farmers’ market. The tastiest, arguably healthy edible I discovered on my journey—something I might actually consume again—was a cough drop made of trichomes, or crystals from the cannabis flowers, for $8 at El Camino Wellness Center. Puts Ricola to shame.
But the biggest concern about edibles is that no one really knows what’s cooking in a kitchen. Are chefs making cookies with spoiled eggs in a basement full of cat hair? Or, God forbid, licking the spoon while mixing brownie batter?
There needs to be some kind of top-down regulation of edibles production. Some ordinances in other California cities actually do this, stepping in where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration won’t—since the feds, for some reason, don’t recognize pot Rice Krispies treats as legitimate medicine.
But Sacramento has no law on the books, so you’re pretty much on your own. My advice is to ask budtenders and club owners lots of questions—Who makes these? And where? And do they have soap and hot running water? Or, even better, join a dispensary that offers free cooking classes and go Betty Crocker wild in your own kitchen.
Myth No. 9:
You’ve got a prescription so you can get stoned at work and smoke pot anywhere you damn please.
During last year’s World Series, Texas Ranger outfielders complained to the media of stinky pot clouds emanating from the bleachers at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. And a TV news clip went viral when Giants fans blew pot smoke at a reporter mid-broadcast, causing him to exclaim, “They’re smoking weed!” like Tom DeLay at an E-40 concert.
Texans were uptight—but they also were right: California’s pot laws have relaxed. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inked a bill last October to soften punishment for possession of an ounce of pot.
“I think the real myth,” offered Sacramento Police Sgt. Norm Leong, “was that local cops were always after pot in the first place.” He reminds that police often work off of complaints, but also that new medical-cannabis laws have made it tougher for district attorneys to prosecute cannabis cases. Plus, the city’s narcotics division has shrunk from four squads to only one over the past years, and the district attorney’s office is prioritizing harder drugs, such as meth. So cops don’t go after stoners as much these days.
As for the myth: Does anyone care if a patient wants to smoke in public or during work hours?
I figured that if I tried to receive permission to smoke at three places—City Hall, the county courthouse, SN&R—then I’d get some real answers.
The downtown courthouse was a bust. Sheriffs explained that they cannot allow anyone to consume pot out in front of the courthouse. One female officer even shared a fun story: Last week, a guy tried to smuggle a small amount of pot through security and into the jury waiting area, but was caught, so he ran off without his bag and belongings.
City Hall had the same story: The officer on duty said he would not allow it, but added that he wasn’t “looking for trouble,” for what it’s worth.
And yes, even SN&R has reservations when it comes to allowing qualified medical-cannabis patients to consume pot during work hours. Human resources director Deanna Frederickson put it this way: The company’s policy is that employees must disclose use of any prescription medicine that might impact job performance. In theory, then, I could tell her first and then smoke pot on my lunch break at home. But then, surely, I’d be too high to even run spell check. This would have the copy editors in a tizzy, my all-knowing boss would soon catch on and I’d be out of work faster than you can type “when keeping it real goes wrong.”
Myth No. 10:
California will never legalize marijuana.
Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare. You know: Everyone thinks the speedy rabbit is going to win the race, but he gets distracted and, slowly but steadily, the tortoise takes the checkered flag.
Well, the story of the ADD rabbit and the stoner turtle is a lot like the saga of the medical-cannabis movement.
Fifteen years ago, California voters legalized medical pot. And for 13 of those years, the movement inched toward its endgame of providing patients safe access to quality and affordable medical cannabis with a unified front.
During the past couple of years, however, things got hare-y. New clubs owned by fresh faces, outsiders who perhaps didn’t know the difference between Prop. 215 and Prop. 8, started popping up on WeedMaps.com and in these very pages. A very tight-knit community quickly became fragmented.
Prop. 19 didn’t help. The measure fell short at the ballot box but garnered an impressive 46 percent of voters. Its true failure, however, was the rift it caused among California’s marijuana movement.
And so now, all eyes are on the 2012 election—which was always the year the cannabis movement planned to try for legalization, according to National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws president and Prop. 215 co-author Dale Gieringer, who says now is the time to slow down and steady the ship.
“There are a lot of different ideas,” Gieringer explained via telephone from the Bay Area, “and we’re hoping there will be a little more public input in [the 2012] initiative than with Prop. 19, which was written by a small group of not-so-able attorneys.”
NORML will host a summit in Berkeley at the end of the month to kick-start the 2012 election brainstorm—and to also heal wounds.
In the political world, ballot-box failure is often the kiss of death. “The voters have spoken” is the flack’s parlance. But polls still show that a majority of registered state voters want to legalize pot, and activists and big funders remain seduced by the prospect of another effort to end prohibition.
So can legalization ever happen?
“I suspect that it’s pretty much inevitable,” Gieringer posited.
A call to Las Vegas oddsmakers wasn’t returned by deadline. Still …