A month ago, a mysterious letter was delivered to my house.
"Hi!" it read. "You may not know it, but there's a medical marijuana dispensary within 1000 feet of your residence. And if you're not already a client, we would like to introduce ourselves!"
Ah, the joys of living in Venice Beach.
The friendly letter went on to explain that, in light of the recent laws cracking down on the hundreds of medical marijuana shops that have sprung up in Los Angeles, this particular store wanted to make good in the neighborhood by letting everyone know what they were about. And invite anyone interested for a free tour.
I don't smoke, but my girlfriend, who doesn't mind a little Johnny Lefthand now and again, insisted that we go. "What a wonderful thing for us to do together!" she said, though I secretly suspected she was just hoping they'd give us a free sample. I didn't resist; with California's proposed marijuana legalization measures coming up on November's ballots, I was curious to hear the thoughts of somebody on the inside. Besides, how often do you get to tour a pot clinic? I pictured a Willy Wonka situation, with bong-water rivers and glassy-eyed Oompa Loompas.
Yet Craig, the author of the letter, could not have looked less like my archetype of a Venice marijuana collective owner. Fifty-ish, trim, professional... Craig looked a bit like a young Donald Sutherland, if Donald Sutherland owned a pot clinic. The only thing that fit my expectations were two blood-shot eyes peeking out from beneath bushy white eyebrows - unavoidable side-effects, I suspected, of working around weed all day.
As Craig led us through a lobby that could have belonged to an H&R Block and down a confusing maze of hallways (designed that way on purpose, he said, to convince anyone casing the joint to go home and tell his thief buddies that robbing this place would be a terrible idea), he explained his mission. Unlike some of the other dispensaries which had gone into business purely for profit (a place down the street had made over five million dollars in eleven months, he told us, before they were shut down by the DEA and FBI for pot parties and setting up weed lemonade stands outside Venice High School), Craig really believed in the healing power of marijuana. He sometimes gave it away for free to suffering cancer patients who couldn't afford it.
"Last month," Craig explained proudly, "there were 24 operating marijuana collectives in Venice. A month from now, there will only be two. And we'll be one of them." With that, he opened the door to the inner sanctum. The "product" room.
Enya music and incense wafted over shelves of orange medicine bottles filled with massive, pre-stem-removed buds, arranged neatly inside glass jewelry-store cases that lined the room. Halogen track-lights sparkled display cases of elegant pipes. It was like the Zales of pot. On the wall was a colorful, marker-drawn shopping list of the strains you could buy, and their prices. On another wall was a green surfboard made entirely of hemp, which struck me as perhaps the most "Venice" thing that could possibly exist. My girlfriend's eyes were bugging out like she'd walked into a fairly-tale treasure lair.
Behind the counter stood an athletic young Hawaiian girl in tight black clothes. "This is Lilly," said Craig. "She and Kayla are our product specialists -- they handle the recommendations for patients and make sure they get a strain that's going to help them." Lilly gave a quick smile and went off to help a bearded guy at the end of the counter, who did not look pumped about our little tour. Craig leaned in, confidentially. "Lilly and Kayla know everything about marijuana," he whispered. "They're like the Charlie's Angels of weed."
At last, the topic of the November's vote came up. To our amazement, Craig shook his head. What reason could one of the biggest marijuana aficionados in all of Venice (and that's really saying something) have against the legalization of marijuana?
"I'll give you two reasons," Craig said. "One is big tobacco. Did you know that Phillip Morris just bought 400 acres of land up in Northern California? The minute marijuana becomes legal, they'll mass produce and flood the market. And of course, they'll add the same toxins they put in regular cigarettes to get you addicted, and very little THC, so you'll have to buy more... In short, they're going to ruin weed." He gestured around his beloved shop, with every flavor of every strain, in its purist form, selling for at-cost prices. "I like the way things are now."
"Two, legalization will mean more fifteen-year-old kids smoking pot. Smoking pot mellows you out, makes you lazy. When you're twenty-one, twenty-five, you can make your own decisions. But California doesn't need its fifteen-year-olds lazier than they already are."
"But don't 15-year-olds smoke weed already?" I asked, reality's advocate.
"Not as many as smoke cigarettes or drink. If they legalize marijuana, there's no chance that fewer 15-year-olds will smoke. And there's a good chance that more will. Anything that will probably make more 15-year-olds put substances in their bodies, in my opinion, is a bad thing."
Craig became somber for a moment. "Don't get me wrong, I love marijuana. Love it. But for anyone responsibly enough to make their own decisions, it's not that hard to get. Weed doesn't need to be legal for us to enjoy it."
As a typical liberal non-smoker, my response to the legalization question has always been "sure, why not?" Especially if it could help fix California's budget problems. But I'd always kind of suspected that anyone who was adamantly for legalization just secretly wanted to have easier access to getting high. And yet here was probably the biggest weed expert I'd ever met (except possibly Lilly, behind the counter), and he wasn't for legalization.
Maybe Craig was just looking out for his business (though that didn't seem his style; he was already complaining his little store was becoming too crowded). Maybe he was ignoring many of the good reasons for marijuana legalization. Or maybe he'd change his tune if he didn't have that doctor's note granting him access to his little ganja Shangri-La. Regardless, as we thanked Craig and made the long 750 foot walk back to my house (without any free samples, much to my girlfriend's chagrin), I reflected that Craig's openness had opened my mind to a few new avenues for debate regarding marijuana legalization. I suspect more will be opened, for all of us, before November.
Not that I've necessarily decided to side with him. After all, I live in Venice.