At West Hollywood’s Medical Marijuana Farmacy dispensary on Santa Monica Boulevard, around the corner from Whole Foods and Fountain Day elementary school, Jack Johnson is on the stereo, apple juice and water are set out for the taking, and a sign above the door reads not just “Open,” but “Very Open.” Only slightly disrupting the welcoming atmosphere, a security guardmonitors the scene just in case.
Last month, federal agents raided the Farmacy, along with 10 other L.A. County dispensaries (four others in West Hollywood alone), and many feared the shutdown was for good. But the Farmacy is back in business with nearly 20 full-time employees, one a patient himself who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and numerous consultants, including a psychologist, two advising physicians, a legal-aid professional, a massage therapist, an herbalist (who helps answer questions about the other herbs sold here), and a registered pharmacist, JoAnna La Force, who sits on the board of directors and acts as the Farmacy’s spokesperson.
Sitting in the high-walled garden in back, La Force discusses the recent raids, which she describes as “demoralizing,” her passionate feelings about medical marijuana, and sharing a public parking lot with a private elementary school.
You were raided by the Drug Enforcement Agency, but you’re still open?
There was never any federal injunction for us to close. Basically, the Drug Enforcement Agency came in to make a statement. To my knowledge all they took was our medicine and cash on hand. The consensus, from what I hear from attorneys and other people involved, is that they wanted to make a statement to West Hollywood [dispensaries], that “just ’cause you are unregulated doesn’t mean you are exempt from federal law.” According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the DEA’s funds are being cut to support the war, so, like any other bureaucracy, they want to show their worth. The easiest thing they can hit is marijuana.
The task force that came in here [usually] does big cocaine and heroin cartels. So when they crept around the corner with their guns and everything, they thought they were going to have to bust through the door. They came in and the door was open. They actually had to help some people out — there was a guy in a wheelchair and another guy on crutches. They actually apologized to some of our staff for their dress because they had bulletproof vests and AR-15s. They were pointing them at patients’ heads.
[Afterward], incredible people came out of the woodwork. Members of our cooperative, people who grow for us, came down the next day and brought medicine and said, “Just put it on consignment and pay us when you can.” Patients were knocking on the doors going, “Please, what is gonna happen?” So we opened two days later.
What is your medical background?
I am a registered clinicalpharmacist and I have my board certification in geriatrics. For the last 20 years I’ve worked with the elderly, and the last 15 years with hospice. I do pain management for patients in hospice who have less than six months to live. That is where I became interested in medical cannabis. Oftentimes I had elderly [patients] or their families ask me, “I really want to try medical cannabis. How do we go about getting it?” And I would say, “Gosh, I don’t know.” What they find is that it helps reduce the anxiety and depression associated with pain, especially with chronic pain; it’s just amazing that people can have [their] quality of life [return] and go back to work. When I saw that, I knew that I needed to find a way to help people have safe access, basically.
So, you view marijuana like any other drug you might prescribe?
I view it as a medicinal herb. If I could wave my magic wand, I would not only reclassify cannabis, I’d declassify it [from the DEA’s drug schedules] and put it in the same type of classification as [the medicinal herbs] valerian or kava kava. That’s where it should be. I would like to take the economical and political importance out of it and let it just be there as a source of healing for people.
Marijuana is a Schedule I [drug], which means it is highly addictive and has no medical use, which is absurd. Methamphetamine is considered a Schedule II — in other words it is a drug of high abuse but it has medical value, because they use it for narcolepsy and other things. As long as marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, the DEA says they will enforce it until the end.
You’re around the corner from an elementary school, Fountain Day School, where some parents have complained about having to be confronted with the dispensary and answer questions about drugs before they feel their kids are ready to handle the information. Do you understand the awkwardness a parent might feel about discussingmedical marijuana? There are a lot of assumptions people make about it.
I think it is [about] educating people and letting them see it is not a terrible thing. It’s fear, and we need to get over that. Terminology is very important. We are a medical center — that is what we are. We don’t use [the words] “pot,” “weed,” “getting high.” That is not what we are about. When you have patients who are very ill, you want to know how it works for them. What I would like parents to know is that we work very hard with the school to make the neighborhood as safe and positive as possible. I am inregular contact with Andrew [Rakos], the director of the school, to immediately take care of any problems or concerns, of which we have had none in the last seven months that I am aware of.
What goes on in the parking lot you share with the school?
We have our security people walk the parking lot three times a day, sometimes four, and they keep a log of things that go on. In the last nine months there have been 12 incidents where they had to ask people to leave, but they were intoxicated homeless people. We went to one person smoking in his car, but he was smoking a cigarette and he was actually an employee of Whole Foods. [Patients] sign very strict rules and guidelines to be a part of this cooperative and procure medical marijuana for illness. They cannot smoke in their car or medicate in the parking lot, and if they disobey any of those rules their membership gets canceled.
How much money does the Farmacy make?
It varies. People think we are making tons of money, and I am sure that there are unethical places that have opened where they’re not paying their taxes. But we do everything by the book, with state and federal laws, the IRS. We pay our payroll taxes. It’s like any other business. That is another fallacy — people think we are making millions of dollars, driving around in Mercedeses and Bentleys. I drive a Toyota.
Were you the West Hollywood dispensary that was robbed?
Um, several dispensaries have been robbed. We have not been robbed. I think maybe one of the reasons is that we have an open-door policy.
Why do most other dispensaries have a buzzer and a locked gate?
I don’t know. When I first went to one I felt like a criminal. The reason we don’t have [a buzzer and gate] is that we are adhering to state and local laws. We are not criminals.