(Author's note : this was put in the comedy section by the Editors and the intro is ironically funny, but it's really an actual interview with an actual medical marijuana dispensary owner. Seriously.)
From the outside, it looks like any other Los Angeles mini-mall in a slightly run down area. A handful of stores and not enough parking. An ethnic restaurant, a laundromat, and a medical marijuana dispensary.
The recent admission by Olympic Gold medalist Michael Phelps that he is one of millions of Marijuana-Using Americans has lit up a new round of discussion about America's drug policy and it's war on drugs. In California, it's been legal for qualified patients to cultivate, possess and use the drug for about five years. Storefronts that sell marijuana have sprung up across the state, especially in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
This dispensary, as is the norm, has a tightly controlled entrance with an armed guard who checks customer's IDs and paperwork to confirm that they are legally qualified. I had heard that the store sold a number of different strains of marijuana, a weed that grows naturally in the wild and has never caused an overdose related death.
However, since I'm not a patient, I was unable to gain any access to the dispensary. And I was thirsty.
Luckily, a couple of storefronts down, there's another store.This one has the friendly sounding name of a 'convenience store' and it sells a number of perfectly legal drugs and intoxicants.
I was able to enter this store, I'll refer to it as a Kwik-E Mart, with my two children. There were no security checkpoints of any kind. A quick tour of the store revealed rows and rows of alcohol, which is consumed by nearly all it's users (some of whom are addicts) in order to get 'buzzed' or even 'drunk' to the point of 'unconsciousness' or 'death'.
Had I been so inclined and taken the beverages off the premises, I was shocked--shocked, I say!--to learn that nobody at the store would have stopped me purchasing as much alcohol as I desired and then sharing it with my young children. I could have even enticed them with what members of the booze subculture refer to as a 'drinking game' such as Caps or "Hi, Bob!" Children love games.
'Convenient'-ly, there were also numerous strains of intentionally addictive and cancer causing cigarettes, shelves stocked with items brightly labeled as 'food' with no nutritional value that have been linked to medical disorders such as diabetes and obesity, and any number of unregulated pills and supplements like 'horny goat weed'. I won't even mention the pornography that the store had, which I was unable to fully examine to determine exactly how perverted it was due to the nagging presence of my children and the frowning gentleman who seemed to own this den of decadence.
One mini-mall. Two stores. Only one is in danger of an arbitrary raid by the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration...and it's not the one I brought my kids into. The one the U.S Government has a problem with is the one I couldn't even get into.
Undaunted, I spoke by telephone to the owner of the medical marijuana dispensary.
What is the biggest misconception you think people have about you?
I guess it's this idea that we're the stereotypical scary 'drug dealer.' Here's how I got involved in this business.
I had a family member diagnosed with endometriosis. They went to a doctor; a 'pain specialist'. They prescribed a whole handful of different prescriptions - oxycodone, hydrocodone, paracetamol, loraset, Percocet.
Then (my family member) got their hands on a marijuana 'edible' one day and tried it. They told me "I'm not feeling pain. The pills I was taking just made me not care that I was in pain. This actually makes the pain go away."
That's when I decided that I wanted to be a part of this movement. I was actually angry. It was somehow acceptable to pop an OxyContin but not smoke a joint?
But not all the people that buy from you are in intense pain, right?
No, they all have legal prescriptions but like people who get prescriptions for pills, some of them probably just want to relax. I should say that while I think the medical use is really important and it's what got me involved, I think we need to legalize marijuana once and for all for any adult who wants it. Lots of Americans work two or three jobs and want a way to loosen up or get to sleep that isn't going to potentially kill them.
Which brings Heath Ledger to mind. (The official cause of Ledger's death was "acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine.")
Are you getting rich?
(Laughs.) No. I'm still driving my clunky old car. My Co-op is about the cause, the movement. We work as hard as possible as vendors with growers to keep prices low. It's almost a non-profit. So one thing that's happened is that we help keep prices lower everywhere else.
Is your a business a big secret from the people that know you?
Well, to some extent it as to be because of the Feds. But my parents know what I do. They worry about me but they raised to believe in fighting for causes so they are proud...
What are your dealings with the government?
Well, I pay taxes, of course--state and federal. I just finished my 4th Quarter taxes. The irony is that I'm paying the federal government to fine me and raid.
In these Federal raids, the DEA comes in, they take all the marijuana, they break your security camera and they take all your computers. What they don't do in almost any case is arrest anyone. No arrests, no charges. The DEA just comes in and basically robs the place.
How has California law enforcement treated you?
The local police have actually been extremely helpful. We were robbed at gunpoint once. The police came in and took a report. Then they took all the medicine.
If a jewelry store gets robbed, they don't take all the jewelry, right? But I'm not blaming the police because there's no procedure. This whole thing is new
So, I have a perishable item and I need to get it back. The local law enforcement was great about it. Showed me form to fill out, stuff like that They even told me "We know you're there now so we'll do some extra patrols."
So, we're lucky in my neighborhood. Some places, it's much worse. The police falsely detainpeople, take advantage of the shop owner. But my experience has been good.
What would happen if shops like yours were shut down?
I think it would be a horrible move to go backward. We need to go forward. Legalize marijuana and regulate it. I actually want regulations instead of this constant back and forth of not knowing what's allowed and what isn't. Give me the regulations and I'll follow them.
If they legalize it, the DEA harassment will be over and a lot of the fascination with it will be over. Marijuana will just be something you get at a shop.
I have some patients who can't sleep, can't eat, or are in constant pain. They don't want dependence on opiates, which cause migraines in some people, some people have their sleep wrecked, bad dreams..it can be horrible. Those pills make you numb.
The patients who come here know that marijuana works better for them. So like I said, we can't go backwards. There's something fundamentally wrong if this can't be offered to people.