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By Jill Stewart
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Inside are four equally plain-wrap rooms. Two patients wait for appointments, middle-aged white guys, dressed casually but well, clutching medical records. You could yawn with the ordinariness of it all, except that in the world of medical cannabis, nothing is ordinary. This work is simultaneously cutting-edge, radical, humanitarian and possibly professionally suicidal.
“I do it because morally it’s the right thing,” says Denney. He’s 55, a USC medical-school graduate, with silver hair and beard — slap 50 pounds around his middle and he’d make a credible Santa Claus. “Cannabis has been used medically for thousands of years. For 60 years, our government has been lying to us about it, and patients are being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. It’s unconscionable.”
After years as a Northern California family practitioner and ER doc, Denney went into a cannabis-approval practice in 1999. “I was intrigued by the politics and science — mostly the science.” Cannabis, unpatented, easily grown, a people’s remedy if ever there was one, has been shown in studies to reduce eye pressure in glaucoma patients, lessen chemotherapy-induced nausea, improve appetite, relieve some multiple-sclerosis symptoms and ease pain. Nobody’s yet reported a death from overdose. Eventually, struck by the number of patients who were coming all the way from Southern California to see him, he recruited his former colleague, Sullivan, and headed south to set up a practice that he hopes to hand over eventually to a local doctor.
Patients seeking medical marijuana, says Denney, “come in every ethnicity, professionals, blue-collar workers. I’ve seen police officers. I had a judge sit in my chair.” The vast majority suffer from some kind of chronic pain, neurological problems including migraines, and gastrointestinal disorders that they’ve successfully treated with pot on their own for years. Then there are “the ones in chains and tattoos who say, ‘I need marijuana because . . . um . . . oh yeah, I can’t sleep.’” Denney sends them on their way.
It’s been almost eight years since California voters approved medical use of marijuana with a doctor’s approval. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that doctors had the right to advise sick patients of the benefits of pot; then the 9th Circuit ruled that medical users who grew their own couldn’t be prosecuted. But under federal law, marijuana use for any reason remains illegal — a Class I substance, just like heroin and crack. Patient-users are still being busted, and doctors are still coming under investigation by the California Medical Board. (Denney’s two Southern California predecessors were put out of business.)
Why has Denney stayed out of trouble?
“I practice good medicine,” he says. “I perform thorough exams. I review records and document my findings. Law enforcement, including the medical board, are like jackals. They go after the weak.” Still, there’s a surreal side to what he does. He can recommend that patients use cannabis, but not tell them where to get it. Some of his patients are longtime user-advocate-activists. Andy Kinnon, 41, who’s already spoken to several reporters, lays it out almost proudly: “I choose to use cannabis! — I smoke it, I eat it, I vaporize it.” But most are like the two men in the waiting room, who quietly take their turns, then scurry out without talking to anyone, including each other — upstanding workadaddies and soccer moms who know what works for them but whose kids get lectured in school on the evils of drugs, and who’re well aware of the stakes in going public. “They’re not interested in being radical,” says Denney. “They just want a piece of paper saying they’re not criminals.
“In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Denney adds. “In a perfect world, patients would get medical cannabis approvals written by a family doctor, and I would be home in my garden, growing tomatoes.”
To my left is the Pot Prince of Bel Air, an unassuming toker who was busted in ’97 with 4,116 marijuana plants in his home on Stone Canyon Road. To his left is Rob Morrow, formerly Dr. Fleischman from Northern Exposure, now the star of Street Time, a Showtime series loosely based on the life of Richard Stratton, publisher and editor in chief of High Times and all-around badass. Stratton himself is here too, in town from Manhattan to celebrate the opening of his magazine’s West Coast office, located above Luna Park, the bar where a couple dozen cannabis connoisseurs are gathered for happy hour.
Stratton, who looks like a bulldog in designer clothing, is telling me about spending eight years in federal prison for smuggling pot and hash into the States. Prior to his ’83 incarceration, he’d built an international drug empire that afforded him whimsical jet-set trips to Paris, 4,000 acres in Texas, houses here and there, a date warehouse (one of his cover operations), and interludes at the Plaza Hotel replete with hookers and who knows what else. Before that, in ’74, partly as a reaction to the country’s post-Vietnam, anti-establishment sentiment, but mainly as a way to educate a relatively green populace about marijuana, he helped notorious counterculture figure Thomas King Forcade fire up High Times. Thirty years later, Stratton is back, this time at the helm. How’s that for living the American Dream?