When my mother walked into the medical marijuana dispensary, her first words were: "I'm here because I have pain. I do not want to get high."
An unassuming woman in her early 60s with perfect skin and ghost-white hair cropped short like a schoolboy's, she had been suffering from peripheral neuropathy. The soles of her feet hurt. There was nothing wrong with them, but something between her brain and the nerves in her feet was getting lost in translation.
She had tried everything: pills, acupuncture, a special diet, rolling around in a wheelchair. She even went to a healer, who diagnosed the problem as trauma from a past life. He waved a few crystals around and sent her home.
The idea came from The New York Times, which reported that cancer patients found significant pain relief when they smoked one or two puffs of cannabis a day. A tenured college professor, my mother hadn't smoked pot for 32 years, but she'd tried everything else.
She asked her pain doctor, who said, "You should try it, but I can't prescribe it for you."
Because the federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug on par with heroin and cocaine, many doctors are loath to recommend it. But a crop of doctors has sprung up in medical marijuana states to fill the need.
And so my mother, Isa Aron, drove down Pico Boulevard to Herbalcure Cooperative, a small, lime-green West Los Angeles storefront just west of the 405. Instead of a window, the brick wall facing the street has a mural depicting what the dispensary looks like inside. She walked around back, through the parking lot, past the hulking security guard and into the small shop, where she stated her purpose plainly.
"I want the kind that doesn't make me high," she said.
"Yeah, we have that kind," the manager said reassuringly. "We have both kinds."
This, of course, is nonsense. Pot is pot. All pot gets you high, and all pot, to a certain extent, has medicinal value.
The manager was trying to make a sale, but there exists within Los Angeles a kind of fantasy about medicinal marijuana: that there is good pot and bad pot, and if only we could separate the two, L.A. wouldn't be in the mess it's in.
For more than 15 years, City Hall has failed to create a workable ordinance regulating medical marijuana. It watched as Oakland, San Francisco, West Hollywood and even Los Angeles County enacted regulations, and then proceeded to dither, fumble, stall, mismanage, misplay — and finally overreact.
Now, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and City Council District 14 representative Jose Huizar are pushing an ordinance to ban all marijuana dispensaries. The motion has passed the L.A. City Council's Public Safety Committee and the Planning Commission, and could be decided by the full City Council in a matter of weeks — or days.
Word is, several members of the deeply split council are ready to approve a ban.
That it would come to this, in a city as seemingly liberal as Los Angeles, is nothing short of astonishing.
"I think it's absurd, ridiculous and totally wrong," says Westside City Councilman Bill Rosendahl. "They're throwing out the baby with the bathwater."
The fact that the ban even has a chance of being approved is a direct result of the city's strange and often baffling medical marijuana policy, a kaleidoscope of legal speculation and interpretation, which is always in flux.
"It's a horrible mess, and it's the City Council's fault," says Michael Larsen, president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council in northeast L.A. and one of the more vocal opponents of marijuana dispensaries. "This problem doesn't exist in other cities. Some have decided to allow dispensaries and create ordinances, and some have decided to ban. But either way, they acted."
Each dispensary owner likes to say that his or her dispensary works hard and plays by the rules. It's those other dispensaries — the supposedly bad ones, the unscrupulous ones, the unwanted neighbors, the fly-by-nighters — that are the problem.
Avedis Ghaghian, co-owner of California Caregivers Alliance in Silver Lake, says of the bad dispensaries of years past, "They put a black shade on us."
To stay within the letter of the law in L.A., such as it is, weed dispensary owners and their employees today are trained by lawyers and consultants on how to operate and how to speak. Customers are patients. Doctors don't prescribe marijuana, they recommend it. Pot is medicine, or meds, or sometimes flowers. Owners might be called consultants, while employees often are volunteers who aren't paid a salary.
Of her bosses at California Caregivers Alliance, dispensary volunteer Stephanie Tirado says, "They can make a donation to us if they see fit." Some dispensaries pay salaries, but at the Silver Lake dispensary Tirado is paid with irregular cash amounts and free pot/medicine.