Colleen Daley lives on a sunburnt patch of overzoned Chula Vista real estate. She is besieged by the odiferous crosscurrents of wafting grease and the crackling bark of drive-in order speakers — her one-bedroom ranch is surrounded by fast-food joints. And that’s where she thinks her problems as a marijuana farmer started.
“The plants were eight feet tall,” she says. “My boyfriend and I were trying to keep things under wraps, but you know, you can only do so much. So it’s like they kind of knew.”
“They,” she suspects, were employees from one of these restaurants who had spotted her marijuana plants sprouting up through the roof of the greenhouse tucked in the far left corner of the yard, a rust bucket of a thing in its final stages of dilapidation. Daley guesses that if some covetous neighbor couldn’t have Daley’s grow, he’d made sure she couldn’t either.
“There were 13 officers in ninja outfits,” she recalls, of the day the police busted her.
She had 20 plants, putting her grow at 8 plants over the legal limit according to the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (California Proposition 215), which makes the growing, purchasing, and ingestion of marijuana legal for those who can demonstrate a medical need for the drug.
Daley smokes pot because she suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS). Most of the time, she deals with an exhausting but manageable combination of muscle numbness, irritation, and spasms. But she knows it’s only a matter of time before her MS kicks into high gear.
She’s a big girl, “on the hefty side,” as she puts it. Her fleshy face holds expressive brown eyes, and when she smiles they smile right along. “It’s a lifetime thing,” she says of the disease. “The regression is very slow — like a slow torture.”
MS eats away at the sheathing around the brain and spinal chord — in the same way that mice will nibble away at a house’s plastic-coated wires. Depending on its severity, the disease causes excruciating pain. Daley has undergone heart surgery and lives with a pacemaker and a mechanical aortic valve in her heart. The mutiny in Daley’s body has also manifested itself in a bizarre condition known as Arnold-Chiari malformation, in which part of the brain pushes down through the base of the skull.
“The first time I went to get diagnosed by a neurologist, he sent me for a neck X-ray,” she says. “They found out that — this is so weird — that I had about an inch and a half of brain leaking down my neck — like the stem was coming down into it. Right, like I don’t have enough problems. So I had to have brain surgery too.”
Cannabis’s active ingredient is THC — tetrahydrocannabinol — a complex molecule that custom fits itself to inhibitors and stimulators in the human body’s neurological skein. Medical research is coming around to what everyone from Bob Marley to William F. Buckley has held to be true — by tweaking these various response mechanisms in the body, the naturally occurring THC in marijuana palliates pain and delivers an intricate palette of highs that depend on the cultivation and processing of the cannabis plant.
The other common active ingredient in marijuana, cannabidiol (CBD), works as both a spigot for THC, controlling the amount released by the plant, while adding its own particular effect to the drug. If THC puts the “high” in marijuana high, then CBD puts the “stone” in marijuana stone. Working as a sedative, it both complements and counteracts the THC, leading growers to breed pot varietals that rival wine grapes in number and flavor.
It was Daley’s desire to process her own marijuana that first led the CVPD on its wild goose chase — before the CVPD could confiscate her grow, it’s had a tough time of it corralling three ornery China geese that made no distinction between cops and thieves.
With 700 square feet of backyard to run around in and three kiddie pools to wade in, the geese served as guards for Daley’s late, great marijuana-growing operation. She put the geese out there, she said, after she began noticing footprints and bent plots of grass where sleeping bodies, presumably transients, had lain the night before.
As a backup to her guard geese, Daley electrified the top of a five-foot-high stone wall, enclosing her backyard with a livestock fence packing a 7000-volt charge.
“You really have to be trying to get over that wall to hit that charge,” she explains. “And one night, someone did.”
She figures that one of the restaurants’ employees just couldn’t resist.
“I have an audio tape [part of a homemade camera surveillance system] of a pulsating shock and then—” Her face lights up with a mixture of sympathy and mischievous delight — a scream — ‘AH...
AHHH... AHH... AHHHHHHH!’ And then a couple of minutes later you hear a girl’s voice saying, ‘Can you stand up?’ So someone got zapped and thrown, and I heard the scream — I was up watching TV, say ten o’clock at night — and you can hear me in the audio tape saying, ‘Yeah.… That’s why I bought [the electric fence]!’ ”
Perhaps, she acknowledges, the precautions were too effective — not long after, the CVPD came knocking. Daley admits to being guilty as charged of exceeding her 12-plant limit, but she found out the hard way that the letter of the law is all that matters to officers of the law.
“I was way over my legal limit, so I can’t say anything about that because that was my fault. But we were growing outdoors, and bugs were killing everything, and we went through two harvests without production because of the bugs. With this second harvest, the cops showed up and took everything. They left one plant for me, and I told them that they were taking my medicine…”
These days she buys her weed. Compared to growing her own, the monthly visit to a local dispensary (she won’t reveal its name or location) leaves a hollowed-out feel to her wallet.
“The difference really was the quality,” she says. “Medical marijuana [from the dispensaries] — you’re paying out the butt for it. Street prices, you can get half a pound of Mexi on the street for anywhere from $300–$350 for half a pound; but you go to a medical-marijuana store, and you pay $70 for an eighth of an ounce,” or $1200 for a half pound.
Daley smokes both strains of pot, indica to enhance sleep and sativa to palliate her chronic pain. The most popular theory differentiating the two relates to the fact that the sativa plant has a higher THC-to-CBD ratio. Its ingestion yields a livelier high — think Bill Cosby’s take on a pothead laughing his ass off at a hamburger. This sort of high diminishes the body’s pain levels to a manageable degree. The converse ratio — higher CBD-to-THC — is found in the indica strain, allowing a smoker to achieve a heavier high — think the languishing, stoned-out look of a veteran pothead. In fact, the stereotype is not altogether unfair: it is this particular property of indica that facilitates a horizontal attitude after ingestion.
“So far, medical marijuana has handled every MS symptom I’ve had,” Daley attests.
According to Daley, she was never charged with a crime after the raid, receiving only an incident report from the CVPD.
“I think once the cops found out I was small potatoes, they never came back. They never did anything to me. They told me not to grow ever again — and I said, ‘Don’t worry about that — you scared the you-know-what right out of me.’ ”
And with a wave of her hand, she dismisses the police and neighbors as two of medical marijuana’s more unfortunate — but acceptable — side effects.
How big? How much? How often?
Despite Daley’s insouciance, San Diego’s legal community is feeling the side effects of medical marijuana. And no wonder, given that San Diego has a hate-hate relationship with Prop 215. The anti–medical-marijuana crowd hates it for going too far to indulge the rights of patients, and the pro–medical-marijuana crowd hates it for not going far enough.
Whichever side of the joint Californians see it from, Prop 215 ensures the right to medical marijuana as recommended by a physician and lists a number of diseases that benefit from its use. It ensures that patients, physicians, and caregivers are protected under the law from persecution or sanction. It even has the benefit of an accompanying bill — California SB 420 was signed into law as Gray Davis’s parting shot in 2003 — calling for the creation of a voluntary identification-card program and limiting the number of plants — 6 mature and 12 immature — a patient may grow. SB 420 also limits the size of a patient’s stash to eight ounces at any one time.
San Diego attorney Patrick Dudley never meant to become involved with medical-marijuana law. But as lawmakers pass a flurry of amendments and clarifications on Prop 215 around the statehouse like doobies on a Saturday night, lawyers such as Dudley are stuck defending a stream of California residents hauled into court on federal charges. Knowing that these cases, which stem from foggy distinctions persisting in the current law, can be easily remedied, Dudley’s routine has all the professional satisfaction of getting stuck with an empty roach clip.
In dislodging marijuana patients from between the horns of federal and state statutes, Dudley has become one of a growing battalion of San Diego lawyers who find more of their time taken up by Prop 215.
One aspect of the law vulnerable to abuse — which Dudley knows because he’s seen it firsthand — is the issue of quantity. How much cannabis, either in a Baggie or in the ground, is a patient allowed to possess?
He explains: “The courts have come down and said that since Prop 215, broadly speaking, does provide for specific quantities of processed marijuana, it’s very difficult, in fact impossible, to say how many plants is enough or too much.” Law-enforcement groups see a pound-per-plant limit, while patients’ rights advocates claim that the ratio of production to yield cannot have an absolute value. “These patients’ advocates will say it’s really about the size of the grow. That’s how you can get a better, more precise calibration of how much cannabis these plants produce.
“The law as it stands also reveals the lack of, shall we say, botanical know-how among lawmakers and, for that matter, law-enforcers. Just to play the numbers, it’s difficult, especially for someone who is a novice grower, to get the right quantity out of the right number of plants.”
A 12-plant limit, Dudley notes, does not account for variables that invariably come into play when Mother Nature gets involved.
“According to law enforcement, any plant is counted which is rooted. So, even if you have little baby plants that you’re getting ready to grow after this grow is done, knowing that a grow takes between three and four months from beginning to end, then those baby plants count too — even though they’re not flowering at the time [and therefore void of medicinal value]. Young plants just ratchet up the plant total when really they’re just growing 12 [medicinally viable plants] at a time. So the language is not carefully crafted. If the law is going to name a specific quantity, then they need to be much more precise.”
Dudley doesn’t see a solution in the plants themselves but in the places where the plants are grown — what size is the canopy? What size the room? What’s the square footage? How high is the grow-room’s ceiling?
“From a legal standpoint, that’s a better way to go,” he says but notes that so far these questions have remained unanswered.
Lawmakers and law enforcers alike have more fertile ground for legal action, Dudley concludes, when they remain rooted to qualifiable issues regarding medical marijuana.
“What illnesses are credible, and what illnesses aren’t? I see a lot of gray area in this question — and I understand why law enforcement struggles with it.” But the law is straightforward on this issue, Dudley insists. The marijuana doctor can write a recommendation for any condition he deems a serious illness.
“Once the doctor writes that recommendation, I think the burden lies with the doctor,” he adds. Because the onus is on the experts, law enforcement should focus their attention on the doctors, not the patients. “I think that if there’s an issue there, an abuse going on, then it’s really an issue between the doctors and medical board and not between patients and law enforcement.”
Dispensing with niceties
One way to corroborate Dudley’s opinions would be to talk to professionals who dealt firsthand with the perils of pot growing — the owners and workers of what are known as either medical-marijuana dispensaries or commissaries.
Or so I thought.
Since Prop 215 was passed, these legal (at least according to California state law) pot purveyors have been sprouting up around California.
Supposedly, here’s how things work at a Weed-Mart: After being admitted to the dispensary, a patient shows his doctor’s recommendation and the required state-issued ID card; the patient is then shown a seat while the Weed-Mart associate checks out his papers; if everything checks out, the patient is invited to purchase the product that best suits his needs.
That much I learned from Daley and Dudley.
But San Diego is currently in a mild state of panic over medical marijuana. Since a notorious June 6, 2006 bust of local medical-marijuana dispensaries by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), in conjunction with the SD County Sheriff’s Department, most dispensaries have either closed up shop while waiting for better times or fled north out of the county or are lying so low they have to look up to count buds.
Finding anyone associated with one of the closed Weed-Marts in San Diego was more trouble than it proved to be worth. Finding someone to talk to at one of the open but clandestine operations was impossible.
So I headed north.
The staid and laid-back surfer culture of Dana Point is a far cry from San Diego’s busyness, but the Dana Point commissary must have been close enough to memories of 6/6/06 to give its proprietors cold feet at the slightest ripple in circumstances, and sometimes a reporter makes a ripple without even trying.
The Dana Point Commissary set up shop in a dingy grey townhouse. At my first knock, the door buzzes alive with a remote security lock. I open it and make it as far as the waiting room painted in the inevitable moldy-sickly green of any marijuana-related color scheme. On a TV mounted in a corner of the empty room, one of CNN’s talking heads reports at a conversational volume.
Adjacent to the receptionist’s window, a door leads, I assume, to the product room. As I walk toward it, it opens and a man’s well-coifed head pokes out.
“Yes, can I help you?”
Introducing myself, I tell him I’m there to meet Steve.
After inviting me to sit, he jerks his head back through the door and disappears.
I take a seat in one of the cheap stacking chairs that line the waiting room’s mirrored wall. Two minutes later, the man’s head sticks out the door again.
He introduces himself as Tony, no last name. A young guy — no more than 25. With a friendly face, and perhaps by habit, he treats my presence as the prelude to a potential sale.
“Is Steve here?” I ask.
He takes a step out the door — now his torso and one leg are visible as well — but clings to the doorjamb as if trying to hold up the building.
“Steve’s not here today,” he says. “He called in sick.”
I repeat, with more detail, that Steve and I had made an appointment to meet regarding my story.
Tony takes another quarter-step into the room, and now everything is visible except his right arm up to his shoulder. He seems to be holding on to something behind the wall — maybe a security alarm.
“He won’t be in until…um…later. Today. He’ll be in later today.”
I tell him I’ve driven 70 miles with a borrowed car to see Steve. That gas prices are what they are. That I am on a deadline. That surely he can do better than “later today.”
Now he stands altogether in the room — tall and wiry, like a basketball or track star. Fully engaged, he still keeps his distance, perhaps to keep the tactical advantage over this potential threat. However it translates, he knows he’s let this reporter into the waiting room on his watch.
“Look, I apologize for that. I…you.… He really is sick, and I know he’ll be in later today.” Tony stumbles, hoping to regain a surer footing with the truth. “Really — I know because I know Steve personally. We live in the same house. We share the same house, and I can tell you he’ll be in the later part of the early afternoon. But I don’t feel comfortable calling the shot here, so maybe you should come back when Steve comes in.”
Which means what — one o’clock? Two o’clock?
look, you drove all this way, why don’t you go get some lunch and I’ll call you when he gets in?”
After giving him my cell phone number and checking the headlines on CNN one last time, I head for the door.
I drive back up the other end of town to visit one of the most popular marijuana doctors in California, Dr. Alfonso Jimenez. After 6/6/06, he too had fled north to Dana Point.
“…a Cannabis specialist or Qualified Medical Marijuana Examiner has become a specialty because of the medical-legal complexities surrounding the issuing of a Medical Marijuana Recommendation.”
—Alfonso Jimenez, Dr. Jimenez Guide: Medical Marijuana Guide (pg. 4)
Dr. Alfonso Jimenez is a celebrity in the medical-marijuana community. A Hispanic Jew, he considers himself a serious practitioner in a serious branch of medicine.
He doesn’t shy away from the attention he’s drawn to himself either. With flash and panache he greets and sizes up a stranger in a single glance. His wavy shock of black hair with dramatic brown streaks matches his intense, anthracitic eyes, close set in a dark complexion.
In conversation, his demeanor changes often, but make no mistake, he’s locked into the Mission: to make democracy safe for cannabis — and vice versa.
With the newshound, he’s all sound bites dashed off in rhetorical curlicues and masterstrokes; with the patient, he’s bedside manners, with a style both supercilious and compassionate; and with the cell phone in his breast pocket, he’s his own best publicist. And in case you were going to ask, he anticipates questions in a verbal saber dance that morphs from anecdote into statistics into political rhetoric. Thus:
“You just missed it,” he says by way of greeting. “We had a couple San Diego patients this morning who came all the way up here to see me because there are no dispensaries and co-ops there in San Diego anymore. A lot of these people can’t afford to [make the drive], so really what the San Diego County Board of Supervisors has done [by allowing 6/6/06 to happen] is really heinous. You know, we live in a democracy and 56 percent of the California people voted for Prop 215, which is more people than voted for President Bush or President Clinton in their elections.”
Instead of the typical white coat, Dr. Jimenez sees patients in acid-washed jeans and a black Grateful Dead T-shirt — a glittery silver, top-hatted, and grinning skull. The one professional note in his dress is the stethoscope draped in traditional fashion around his neck.
His 12’x12’ examination room includes a black Naugahyde examination table — the supine design suggests a psychiatrist’s couch. The exam-room walls are decked in the framed parchment of various medical affiliations, licenses, degrees, and awards. A laptop has been plopped down on top of a low three-drawer bedroom side bureau that might have once held the doctor’s socks and underwear but now serves as his desk.
He hands me a lighter and a pen, both printed with his practice’s logo — a caduceus sprouting a cannabis leaf and flanked, two to each side, by the letters MMSD — Medical Marijuana of San Diego.
Despite what the logo promises, there is no weed on the premises.
“Patients do not get their medicine from me,” he states. “In fact, it’s illegal to write a medical-marijuana recommendation on a prescription pad.”
He brings out in quick succession the paperwork that legalizes a medical user, including a handy wallet-sized version of the user’s recommendation.
“This is for local law enforcement,” he says, handing me an unsigned copy of an official doctor’s recommendation. “This is what you present with your California driver’s license or ID to the dispensary. The patients get pictures and an ID card from me, and this can be verified online with the driver’s license.”
It’s understandable that Dr. Jimenez remains vigilant about the letter of the law — when the law’s spirit is still in question in San Diego County. Like some Orange County pot-shop owners, Dr. Jimenez is an exile from the 6/6/06 shutdown. He says that he’d been fairly busy in San Diego until the big bust — seeing 20 to 30 patients a day, three to four days a week.
“When the dispensaries and co-ops shut down, there were about 50 of them in the county, and they were all pretty active. When they did shut down, I think most people just said, ‘Hey, why get a recommendation if these dispensaries are all shut down? I don’t want to go all the way to L.A. or Orange County.’ So as the months went by, I noticed a big drop in my patient count.”
Cutting his losses, Dr. Jimenez split the difference between his San Diego and Orange County patients.
“We moved my office in Laguna Beach downtown, closer to Dana Point — as close to the San Diego County border as we could — so it wasn’t too far away from my Orange County patients.” Many patients, about 80 percent, do make the Dana Point trek, but Dr. Jimenez fears others look for their medicine on the streets. If he can discourage anyone from buying off the streets, he considers that a day well spent. “People tell me, ‘Look, I’m going to buy it illegally, but I’m using this for insurance,’ ” he says. “When we had that happen a couple times, I started saying to my patients, ‘Well, I’m Jewish-Mexican, you know, and the Torah says you can’t break the law of the land.’ So when I heard that, I knew it was my responsibility to try to make these people come up here to Dana Point and get their cannabis.”
Dr. Jimenez moves to his office door, opens it, and peeks out. The patients are beginning to pile up in the waiting room, so he excuses himself.
“Call my cell…” he says over a shoulder as he heads out the door.
There were 4 people in the room when I arrived that morning. As I leave, that number approaches 30.
I’d heard nothing all day from Tony. The day is drawing down on 3:00 p.m. Tired of waiting, I return to the townhouse and knock at the commissary door.
This time, some unseen presence opens the door. The once-empty waiting room is now exploding with activity. Festivities are in full swing, a regular college-dorm party — complete with a young man chasing a nubile young lady and snatching at her miniskirt. Everyone turns to the door, and as the high-pitched high jinx dies away, I hear a voice from the other side of the room filling with the air of authority.
Before I can step inside, the man behind the inflating voice makes his small but determined way to the doorway.
“Dude, there’s a buzzer on your left,” he says, pointing with annoyance at the residential doorbell attached to the jamb.
He has a bad haircut and a worse mood. He wears the clothes of a teenager — black T-shirt and goofy plaid golfing shorts, tennis shoes unlaced and tube socks rolled low. His patent-leather hair seems not so much to grow from his scalp as spread like an oil slick over his skull. Stone-faced, Peter Pan — he does not give his name — looks me up and down suspiciously and mutters, “Can I help you?”
It sounds like an afterthought. Nevertheless, Peter Pan requires an answer.
I tell him in abridged form everything I told Tony earlier in the day.
“Well, Steve’s not here right now, and I apologize but I’m the one here now, and I’m making the call. So if you’ll excuse me.…” And with more force than Emily Post would have thought necessary, he shuts the door.
By the book
“My compassion forced me to conduct research from [sic] my patients and the following are highlights of my study: 76.65 percent reported that cannabis has been very effective in treating their conditions. 71.50 percent reported that they were able to stop or reduce their prescriptions and/or over-the-counter medicines.”
—Dr. Jimenez Guide: Medical Marijuana Guide (pg. 2)
The next time Dr. Jimenez and I meet, we sit at the bar at Maryjane’s in the San Diego Hard Rock Hotel. Perhaps the meeting place was meant as a joke on his part — I didn’t ask.
This time, he’s brought a copy of his book, the self-published and redundantly titled Dr. Jimenez Guide: Medical Marijuana Guide. Besides being a compendium of legal, medical, and agricultural know-how, the book also serves as a manifesto of sorts.
Mysteriously double-quoting himself, the good doctor writes:
“Dr. Jimenez states, ‘During my long journey to becoming a doctor it became clear that “Health is Wealth” and I noticed a pattern that is essential to maintain health for all vital organs.’ ”
“I’m self-employed,” he says while autographing (“Welcome to San Diego. Cheers to your health! Cannabis Doc…”) the book. “I don’t have to get someone else’s approval to do what I do. I don’t want to work for HMOs, for instance. They don’t want the physicians writing recommendations…because it’s their policy.”
Jimenez acknowledges that pot docs have a reputation for being too quick on the draw, especially in writing recommendations for minors.
“Out of my 6000 patients, I think there’s been 3 or 4 patients I’ve had under 18,” he says, adding that California has legal safeguards he is careful to follow. “Both parents have to be there, whether they’re divorced or not. Their doctor has to have a statement stating that the patient will benefit from a recommendation, and they have to have medical records [to support the claim].
“For example, I saw a patient who was involved in a car accident. He was taking methadone for chronic pain, and Vicodin. He was taking about eight different medications, as a matter of fact, for his pain. He was depressed, but he was also very smart, at the top of his class in school. He was not a stoner, and his family was very professional, well-to-do and educated. They came in and brought in all the paperwork and wanted their son to be on cannabis so he could get off the oxycontin and other meds.”
Jimenez takes a few additional precautions when dealing with minors.
“I actually call the physician when someone under 18 comes in,” he explains. “I tell the doctor who I am and tell him the situation before we go forward.”
Dr. Jimenez claims his record is impeccable. “I’m not doing anything illegal. I’ve never been sued and never been in trouble with my medical license in any way in my life.”
Noting that his workload is no larger than an average HMO doctor, Jimenez reports he’s helping 1100 patients at the moment.
“For perspective,” he says, “if you work for a Kaiser HMO outfit, most family physicians have 1500 patients or so.”
So medical pot is also a business, and business is fine, Jimenez says, despite the challenges of practicing cannabis medicine in the San Diego area.
“This is absolutely a lifetime vocation,” he says. “I’ll tell you, too, right now, I’m breaking records every single day. That Saturday we [first] visited was a record-breaking day at the office.”
Even the bad press that medical marijuana has gotten in recent years has been good business for the marijuana doctors, Jimenez adds.
“Every time medical marijuana is in the papers, where it’s bad or negative, you can ask any cannabis doctor in the state — we’re busier. People are just angry.”
Marijuana for the masses
Dion Markgraaf is the president of the San Diego Chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a medical-marijuana activist group with headquarters in Oakland.
But really, that’s just his day job.
Fresh-faced as a college freshman and conversational in even his most passionate moments, his demeanor belies the heart of a revolutionary.
Markgraaf is a self-proclaimed Communist.
Today, he’s dressed in solidarity with hempsters around the world: earthy brown shorts, a plain navy-blue T-shirt, and a faded navy-blue cap with a tauntingly familiar logo on the crest — CIA. In this case, though, the letters stand for Cannabis Intelligence Amsterdam — a marijuana consortium working out of marijuana-friendly Holland.
“Everything I have on is made out of hemp,” he explains.
Perhaps the first official political agent of the legal-weed culture, Markgraaf established his pedigree by starting his own reds-for-green movement: the California Cannabis Consumer Party (CCCP).
He shows me a postcard-sized version of the party flag he’s designed. At the flag’s center, the trademark five-pointed leaf flames with revolutionary red from a field of that same earthen green splashed on the Dana Point Dispensary. The political party, as Markgraaf saw it, was a case of grasping at the last straw — but after 6/6/06, it’s a straw he hopes will break stiff-backed attitudes toward medical pot.
“I’m trying to inform the masses about the economic potential of cannabis and the stupidity of our overall policy toward weed,” he says. “In a sense, I don’t have to even go for the people who are against cannabis, if I could just tune in to the people who are for cannabis.”
Like all good Marxists, Markgraaf sees education as the first step toward solidarity. After closing his own dispensary business in the wake of 6/6/06, he decided to start the International Cannabis University (ICU) as a way for medical-cannabis users to grow a green thumb. ICU students, Markgraaf said, get down and dirty with the plant as the university seeks to root the medical-marijuana community in the basic units of labor involved in cannabis growth — its seeding, nurturing, and harvesting.
With about 100 growers in its student body, ICU is a work in progress. Located in an office building on the southern edge of Clairemont, the campus consists of about 700 square feet of office space littered with the detritus of administration. A photocopier looking for a permanent home hunkers in the middle of the front office. A couple of bulletin boards papered over with stale memos hang from the walls. Cardboard boxes full of files mingle with open packing crates full of hemp-related material — clothing, topical creams, and hygiene products.
In the back room — which serves as ICU’s main classroom — color photos of the cannabis plant hang in rows. The photos are close-up shots of the weed in its states of growth, bloom, and fruition. From the center of the room, an overhead slide projector juts from the ceiling, dangling at a broken angle, while at the far end of the room, a 2x4-and-plywood dais waits for an instructor to mount.
As ICU’s head professor of weedology, Markgraaf begins a course with an introductory lesson in irony. He notes that the same county that has placed such tight restrictions on growers also experiences the best weather and soil conditions for cannabis in all of California, making it a veritable Eden for the saw-toothed weed.
“Ideally, you want to grow outside and as big as possible,” he explains. “Cannabis will take as much sunlight as it can get. In fact, as far as cannabis and hemp go, in southern parts of the world, where ozone is getting depleted, they’re finding that cannabis is one of the only things that will grow with any consistency.”
According to Markgraaf, the ideal shape and size of a cannabis plant is 10 to 14 feet — tall and wide. The ideal plant has to have volume — not just height like cornstalks, and not just width like your grandmother’s azaleas. The ideal crop, Markgraaf notes, is a row of plump plants radiating at the same size in all directions, resembling a garden topiary of giant green boulders.
But such a monster reefer crop, Markgraaf adds, while producing a maximum yield of quantity and quality bud, also draws attention to itself — and not the kind of attention that wins 4H ribbons at the county fair.
“At that size, it grows over most houses and fences,” he says. “This means that your neighbors can see it. So, there’s a difference between the ideal situation and the reality. The biggest pests are really your neighbors, not the bugs. Neighbors can nip away at your grow just as well as bugs.
“I know this crippled guy who every year gets robbed,” he adds. “He has such beautiful plants too. He’s even had people help him by camping out in his grow at the right time, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Someone still manages to make a haul.”
As a weed, Markgraaf noted, cannabis is in many ways a low-maintenance plant — leave it alone and it will do its best to please. He warns ganja gardeners, though, to resist being overly scrupulous.
“A big myth out there is that it’s good to pare back the plant’s leaves,” he says, striking his best Martha Stewart tone, “but the leaves are the solar panels. People think, ‘Oh, the light is not getting down to my buds!’ So they’ll prune the leaves — and then they wonder why their harvest is so bad.”
In fact, he added, the hobby-grower needs only Mother Nature’s toolbox to succeed — water, California sunlight, and a few nutrients — like the goodies in garden-variety potting soil — and a good grow is all but guaranteed.
Stirring the pot
Markgraaf invites me to attend the monthly San Diego Americans for Safe Access (ASA) chapter meeting. It is held at the top floor of the same multi-tiered office building that houses ICU’s campus. With open balconies ringing each floor of the building’s exterior, the place looks like a layer cake with stucco frosting.
Each floor is accessible by elevator or stairwell. I get in the elevator with a man who gives his name as “Ed.” He says it is his first meeting.
The evening proceeds less by Robert’s Rules of Order and more on impulse. The crowd’s growing numbers alone seem to push the meeting into a starting position. As the crowd gathers, Markgraaf keeps looking around as he prepares the multimedia props set up at one end of the room — laptop, projector, screen — and when he sees with nervous impatience that enough is enough, he brings the meeting to order.
Members and guests fill the neat arrangement of chairs — seven deep by ten wide — while the overspill takes up positions in the back of the room. The lights, already dim, are muted even further as Markgraaf calls the crowd to attention. Plucking and stabbing at his laptop, Markgraaf punctuates his PowerPoints about ASA’s current status, marijuana’s current status, his current status, etc. The procedural manner of his comments and his banter with his audience have the look and feel not of a revolutionary meeting of minds but of Rotary Club quotidian.
Then come the guest speakers — someone making a movie about medical marijuana; someone stumping for a political race; someone else advertising his pot home-delivery business; and a handsome young Asian girl, a student at UCSD, giving her best shot at riling the crowd for an upcoming pro-legalized marijuana talk on campus cosponsored by the conservative Federalist Society and the liberal Students for a Sane Drug Policy.
Then Markgraaf opens the meeting to the peanut gallery. Barely waiting for the starting whistle, Ed from the elevator hurls his first boulder.
“I don’t understand why we speak of safe access, as if marijuana is something harmful…
These kinds of groups never seem to challenge the pharmaceutical companies, and I’m wondering why — in terms of harmfulness, whether it’s recreational or not, pharm drugs are being used and abused by a huge percentage of the population and ASA should promote marijuana as an alternative to harmful pharm pet rocks, and it never is.…”
Almost at once, Markgraaf finds himself in a hobbyhorse rodeo. In vying for control of the discussion, he holds on for dear life:
Dion: Yes, I hear what you’re saying. You know, I like to say marijuana’s a gateway drug, in reverse.
Ed: Oh, come on, everything is a gateway drug — because anyone who drinks beer started out on milk, and anyone who started heroin started out on milk —
Dion: — it helps people off the hard drugs, off those pharmaceuticals —
Ed: Gateway is a bad terminology —
Dion: Yes, I saw the reaction it got.
Ed: Say, ‘alternative’ —
Dion: This is one example of many.… Believe me, we’re as frustrated as the next person, and we —
Ed: But it doesn’t seem that those arguments are made as an alternative to what may be harmful, legal prescription drugs. It’s not presented that way…. Marijuana should be the alternative to things that hurt your kidneys and livers —
Dion: I hear you. Look, I’ve been in the cannabis movement for 15 years.
Ed: So you’ve been around the bend.
Dion: Yes, I’ve been around the bend —
Ed: So, then why aren’t the arguments being made?
Dion: Can I just finish…? Thanks. Look. Here in California, it’s hard to find someone who’s against medical marijuana, see? So you don’t see us arguing against someone — there aren’t really any other people —
Ed: It’s easy to find these people because in this country I cannot find safe access to medical marijuana.
Dion: That’s the practicality. Everyone’s for medical marijuana, but the practicality is where to get it? How to get it? How does it come here? Those are difficult questions that people don’t want to go to. Now, if you want to, you can get involved in the political system and come up with solutions…. I think you would have a hard time finding anyone in San Diego who doesn’t believe in medical marijuana.
Ed: So, then, why aren’t these arguments being made?
And so on.
After the meeting, members and guests mingle — the pause of a wave before it washes back out to sea. Among those willing to speak about medical marijuana, “John” — he doesn’t want his real name used — comes across as a quirky but genuine article. A retired ad-writer for major U.S. industries, he’s been coming to the ASA meetings since December 2007. John is extremely tanned — the look and color of dried apricot — and speaks with a rich timbre turning to gravel from too many cigarettes.
“My legs have a burning, boiling sensation in them that just feels like lava that’s about to erupt,” he says. “It’s all the way from the buttocks down I feel these eruptions.” He grins, running his hand in a half-clenched demonstration down the length of his buttocks and leg. “That’s how I would describe it. If I smoke marijuana between 10:00 and 12:00 at night, I have the most wonderful sleep. I don’t dream. I don’t even get up to go to the bathroom. And in the morning, that burning sensation is 99 percent gone. My legs feel normal — like they did before 1985.”
But the biggest pain in John’s ass these days isn’t the drugs — it’s the skyrocketing cost of reefer. Heavyset, wearing a baseball cap, and looking as if he should be hanging out in a mechanic’s bay at Jiffy Lube, another guest walks up and interjects his comments about how the high cost of gasoline is driving just about everything up. John smiles, but his silence leaves these comments otherwise untethered.
“When I was living in San Francisco,” he continues, “I had a wonderful guy who got me good stuff at a good price. I had him for almost 20 years…and never once did he raise his prices. He died in 2000. He was in his 70s. I remember going to his hospital bed and saying, ‘Dan! Dan! What am I going to do? You’ve been providing me my medicine — next year is our 20th anniversary. Dan, pull through for me!’ But he died about two hours after I saw him in the hospital. So that was it.”
When he moved to San Diego, John realized he was no longer going to be living the high life — at least not at his old San Francisco rates.
“I came down here not knowing anything,” he admits. “I bought from these guys off the street. What a bunch of rip-off artists down here. I have never encountered a more rotten group of people than the street dealers down here.”
John said that he thought he had a good “source” — and paid him $100 a lid — “and that’s another thing, no one down here knows what a lid is — an ounce — 28.3 grams.”
Following our conversation, the otherwise diffident Fuel Injection Guy attempts another breakthrough.
“I’m from St. Louis, and I remember when I was a little kid,” Fuel says. “My mom? Yeah, she used to sell lids.…”
“So anyway,” John says, segueing into nothing, although he does wrinkle his bronzed forehead in a sort of acknowledgement of Fuel’s contribution. “I have a scale and weigh everything out.” He explains that he was shortchanged the 0.3 grams after his last transaction.
Now, after what he’s seen and heard at the ASA meetings, John says that he’ll most likely stop going to the streets for his medicine.
“The same delivery services I found online were here tonight. Back when I called one and told him I have a scale, he told me he’d be delivering an eighth. I weighed it out and it was exactly right. I figure the people here are decent. They’re nice.”
His bloodshot eyes look up to the ceiling, unconvinced of his good fortune.
“But, you figure, I’d been paying for 19 years $30 for an eighth,” he says, the scorn palpable. “Now I’m paying $65 for an eighth. But I guess, well — you know. What consumable hasn’t gone up in price?”
“We have the highest gas in the nation,” Fuel repeats. “Or anywhere else in California.…”
Dealing with pain
Another first-time ASA meeting member, Bill Malt is a complexity of contradictions. He’s an acculturated West Coast transplant nostalgic for his Midwestern roots; a gay man who avoids gay culture; an ex-pot dealer who avoids drug culture; and a memoirist who doesn’t want his real name used in this story.…
“I haven’t taken it yet, but I think I want to try medical marijuana,” he says, hushing his voice beneath the jazz playing from the coffee shop hi-fi.
Malt is a stroke victim. Although he’s recovered from the paralysis that gripped the right side of his body, he’s lost a step or two in the pace he’d maintained in life.
“I have been on morphine and Vicodin for the past 11 years,” he explains. “During my recovery from a stroke — I was diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy [RSD].”
Also known as complex regional pain syndrome, RSD is a chronic neurological disorder characterized by severe pain, excessive perspiration, tissue swelling, and sensitivity to touch.
“Mine is not a curable situation. RSD manifests itself in the hands, the feet, the shoulders. The pain is constant and extreme. I’ve tried ibuprofen and a bunch of other stuff, and they all screw around with your digestive system.” He beams a gentle smile. “I like to be alert and in control. I’m not trying to get high. I’m trying to get pain-free.”
After surgery did a number on his larynx, his voice has a mere husk of the command it enjoyed in his younger years — sounding like someone who’s just inflated a balloon. In measured tones, carefully distributing his breath within each sentence, he lets me know he’s coming close to making a decision.
“I’ve developed a resistance to Vicodin,” he adds. “I also don’t like it because it’s highly addictive. I don’t like feeling that way.”
Malt says that for normal pain levels he takes a low dosage of morphine — about 15 ml, three times a day. The problem with morphine, he explains, is that it is as unforgiving as a needy lover — if you miss a date, your body hears about it.
“If I went to bed and fell asleep without taking the nighttime dose, I would go into withdrawal, like I would imagine a heroin addict would go through, only milder.”
Speaking as one on his last dime, Malt says he’s even tried Marinol — synthetic THC taken in pill form — and found it worse than the other drugs he’d been taking.
“It didn’t do anything for me except make me high,” he notes. “The other night at the meeting, I’d heard that it was bad for you, so I’m glad I didn’t stick with it.”
A friend who was treating arthritis with medical marijuana first suggested that Malt try cannabis.
“So I got a prescription [recommendation], which came to 150 bucks,” he says, his face freezing in sticker shock. “I wasn’t ready for that.”
But, money aside, Malt still hasn’t tried it out. Before attending the ASA meeting, he probably would have remained on the fence about the whole thing.
“I found the meeting the other night interesting, more interesting than I had expected. I had only expected to go there and find out how to get the pot because I’m not acquainted with dealers. I didn’t want to do anything illegal.” He pauses. “I want to try it,” he says, convincing himself as much as anyone. “I don’t know. I have a condescending attitude — I look down on people who use it. And I know, intellectually, that’s kind of stupid. There are worse things, and it’s probably better for you than alcohol. But you know, I associate it with lowlife and low class.”
Living it up in New York City in the late 1970s, Malt was making the rounds in “the Hip Era,” as he called it — when dance halls like Studio 51 were part of hedonism’s kingdom and the disco ball its guiding light. Flared slacks and off-the-shoulder blouses were the uniform of the day, porn was chic, and Mary Jane was queen of pleasures.
“I was a dealer of pot,” he says, “but you can read about that in my memoir.” Malt says that his memoir runs to about 50 chapters, and he isn’t done yet.
“I’m gay,” he also declares, at the same time acknowledging ambivalence to gay culture. “I had a girlfriend at one time; I was engaged twice to be married. I guess I have my straight life and gay life, and they’ve often overlapped.”
Now, as he contemplates a distinct second chapter with marijuana, he looks back with rue at the first.
“I stopped talking about it,” he said, recalling his wild years. “So I wrote about it instead in my memoirs. It’s at the heart of the period when I was doing a lot. I’m melancholic about my past and the ability I had to sail through a high life and a social life with tons of friends. And now…
well, now I’m old.”
High Church of San Diego
“I personally know that cannabis has the power to heal and enlighten like no other sacrament. It has been a key part in my own healing and salvation. God would want me to share this fact with the world, God would want me to shout about my salvation from the rooftops and encourage others to join me in the holiest of sacraments.”
— Sermon #2, Paul Smalley, Ministry of Hope
There’s not too much difference between the enthusiasm with which some people have taken up the ganja rallying cry and what another age might have called religious fervor. But for University Hills resident Paul Smalley, marijuana is not the messiah of the hedonist but the miracle worker for the suffering.
Smalley is determined to establish San Diego’s own church of marijuana. He and his wife live out their affluence in one of those impossibly built University Hills neighborhoods that defies mudslides.
A polymath with a host of degrees and a roadmap of career paths on his résumé, Smalley claims expertise in economics, accounting, law, financial management, and life insurance.
These days, however, he’s become a high priest of marijuana as founder of Ministry of Hope, a church for pot patients wishing to participate in the liturgy of the joint with the added benefit of community support.
All the more remarkable, in his 39 years Smalley has managed most of his success from a wheelchair. In 1986, he sustained a spinal cord injury that left his lower body semi-paralyzed. He cannot stand upright for any great period of time and spends most of his time fighting a two-front war — chronic back pain and chronic depression.
We talk on his backyard patio, which doubles as his church’s “sacramental chamber.” I smoke cigarettes and he smokes weed. He brings out a small medicine-bottle of the stuff — White Dragon — as we speak and rolls a number with a deft ballet of fingers.
He lights up, pulls on his joint like a sump pump, and holds onto his inhale as he prepares to revisit 1986.
“When I was a teenager…”
No, on second thought, with an impetuous shake of his head, still holding his inhale, he decides to back up into history even further.
“Well,” he says, a thick rope of pot smoke channeling from his mouth at last, “I’ve always been clinically depressed. But when I was 18, I finally threw myself off a cliff.”
He nods, acknowledging to himself that his own account of the injury remains incomplete. After waiting to hit the bottom of that cliff once more in his mind, and with eyelids narrowing at the thought, he says, “I wanted to kill myself.”
Smalley admits that at the time he was higher than the 100 feet he fell from the cliff. But he insists that what he thought was his last joint on earth proved to be his saving grace.
“I read studies after the fact,” he says, looking back at his suicide attempt. “Cannabis is probably the only thing that prevented brain injury. I fell 100 feet straight down off a cliff. I didn’t hit anything on the way down. I just hit the boulders at the bottom. The doctors say I probably bounced.”
Coupled to his psychological crisis was a growing desire to help people — in the hospital, on the streets; anywhere he saw physical suffering, he saw marijuana waiting in the wings, poised to rescue.
“I looked at myself and saw that I was having the time of my life compared to most of these folks,” he says. “I mean, I’m getting my shit kicked out of me while I’m lying here in the hospital, and I’m having the time of my life, comparatively speaking.
“So that’s sort of part of my thing with the church,” he explains. “The people who need cannabis the most are the least able to afford it. I’ve spent $2000–$3000 a month for as long as I can remember — that’s a quarter-pound a month of high-quality cannabis. So I know how much it costs people.”
Ministry of Hope opened its doors in December 2007. Services, such as they are, are very basic, says Smalley, a lapsed Catholic.
“They include no reference to any specific religion or historic religious figure,” he says. “The idea is to be as open as humanly possible and not exclude anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, political view, sexual lifestyle choices, or sexual orientation. I don’t care if you have tattoos or you’re homeless — you’re all human beings and all deserve a place to go.”
Ministry of Hope’s outreach includes weekly public meetings, a website, and the church’s monthly newsletter, “Hope Heals.”
“The [state-issued] ID card is the only way that anyone can get patient-support services through the church — for obvious reasons,” Smalley says, referring to his church’s strict observance of Proposition 215. No marijuana is bought or sold at the church; the operation is strictly BYOW — bring your own weed — but Ministry of Hope offers patients a place to inhale.
A typical weekly church service at Smalley’s house — which for the moment serves as Ministry’s church — consists of preaching, reaching out, and toking up.
“After a brief sermon, I invite the card-carrying members to join me for a private sacramental ceremony,” he says. “I’m doing the main service in the living room, and then we use this outdoor area as the sacramental chamber.”
In the end, Smalley admits he still has a ways to go — and his church is not yet built on the solid financial rock of donations from an overflowing membership. At the moment, the full-time congregation consists of Smalley, his two dogs, his mother-in-law, and his wife.
“My wife and mother-in-law are especially important to me,” he says. “When no one comes for services, they keep me company through it, so I don’t feel like a total idiot. Half the time it happens this way, but like I said, I’m starting from zero.
“If they took me to court today, I’m not sure I would be able to prove I was a church,” he admits. “I think I am a lot more than Scientology — but what are you going to do?”
Smoke without fire
Rudy Reyes doesn’t smoke marijuana — but he does inhale it. A medical-marijuana patient since 2004, he’s had his fill of smoke and fire. In fact, when it comes to the methods of ingesting marijuana, he doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter.
“I’m looking for the cleanest hit I can get off cannabis,” he said. “I’m a burn survivor, from a fire, so I can’t smoke.”
At his elbow, Reyes has his vaporizer — a two-foot piece of rubber tubing connected at one end to the vaporizing unit, a metal box that looks and functions, as Reyes describes it, like an Easy-Bake Oven. Attached to the opposite end of the rubber tubing is an open-ended glass bulb about the size and shape of a golf ball, which Reyes had custom-made for his mouth. It is through this bulb that the healing begins.
“I had lip issues at first and could not open my mouth so much,” he explains. “So the doctors made this part wider so it could fit over my lips.”
The box bakes a couple of tablespoons of pot at a time, separating out the hot air and sending the therapeutic vapors up through the tube to Reyes’s mouth. Once in his lungs, the drug spreads THC particles through his body like tiny Swedish masseuses working out the kinks in his fire-scored nerve endings.
“The vaporizer can slowly raise the heat to whatever I want to program it.” Reyes’s gnarled fingers play lightly over the buttons and gauges. “I like mine at 400 degrees. But the vaporizer can go as high as 430 degrees. When it goes through the tube, and you can see the vapor coming through, a very light vapor, it is virtually clean. The tube gives it plenty of time to diffuse and cool down. It’s the cleanest method. Doctors recommend it in my case.”
Reyes first won fame during the 2003 Cedar Fire — the worst conflagration in California history. Starting October 25, the fire roared through the wooded areas of San Diego County, devouring 280,278 acres and 2820 buildings and killing 15 people, until it was contained on November 11. Most victims attempted to flee the fire in the Lakeside area, three from the same location that Reyes barely escaped from — Wildcat Canyon.
“I was the worst one injured in those fires,” he says. “I played the hero that night. I went in and got my family out, and I got neighbors out.”
Reyes and his family owned 12 acres of property in Wildcat Canyon — most of it hilly scrub, which at the time of the fires was tinder-dry. Once he’d secured the safety of family and neighbors, Reyes watched a wall of flame roll across his front yard. The flames were licking at his house when he began looking for an escape route. The road leading off his property had created a fire break. His only chance for survival waited down at the other end of flames arching over the road. Sizing up the tunnel of flame, he broke into a run, right through the center.
“As soon as I hit the fire line,” he says, “I covered my face with my hands just before going in. A few times, I saw a flicker of flames go through my fingers into my face.”
Reyes made it to the other side and began walking toward the main road. A passing motorist picked Reyes up and drove him to paramedics waiting at the bottom of the canyon. Lying on the paramedics’ gurney, he remembers paramedics cutting away his clothes and a voice — perhaps a paramedic’s — saying, “We’re going to put you to sleep now, so you’re not in any pain.”
“I’m not in any pain right now,” Reyes said. But he later discovered that his scored nerve endings had left him numb. “Uh-oh,” he remembers the paramedic saying. “Well, we’re putting you to sleep anyway.”
Reyes woke up two months later.
“I woke up on Christmas Day,” he says. “They had me in an induced coma for two months — it was a ‘let’s pull the plug and see if he lives’ situation.”
With over 65 percent of his body scarred by third-degree burns, Reyes is a walking miracle — one that manages his constant pain with marijuana. The intense heat warped his face into a mask of scar tissue and melted his hands into shrunken claws.
Reyes recovered at University of California San Diego Hospital’s Burn Center. Family and friends made regular visits, but just as regular was the intense pain caused by the raw nerves exposed on the surface of his charred flesh. To make matters worse, complications began to pile up on Reyes’s chart.
The most serious complication came with only a few months left of recovery. Reyes’s body had reached a saturation point with pain medication. Graduating from painkiller to painkiller, he was told by his doctors that he was running out of options.
For palliative care, pot became Reyes’s only option. But the little weed wasn’t just bringing relief through ingestion, Reyes discovered. Topical creams made with cannabis extracts have kept his skin moist, a dire necessity for burn victims, Reyes said. In ingested form, cannabis has helped reduce his blood pressure and the muscle contractions in his heat-scored muscles.
“For burn survivors, the muscles are like a rubber band when it’s exposed to heat,” he explains. “The rubber band gets brittle and loses its elasticity. Same with my muscles.”
Reyes admits that other factors played into his arms’ recovery, but the THC works as an effective muscle relaxant.
“The contracture levels had been going down so far that with some weight training and tai chi, we straightened my arms out,” he said. “It was painful as fuck, but I did it. I had zero surgery.”
In June 2004, Reyes was discharged from the Burn Center.
“I know I’m going to need another surgery in another few years,” he says, looking at his wrinkled skin. “Right now, I’m in limbo. I try to keep myself as healthy as possible in this good time.”
Reyes acknowledges that he’s about as close to a poster child as the medical-marijuana movement has got.
“I am that legitimate patient that everyone’s looking for that supposedly doesn’t exist,” he says, lowering his eyes and taking a breath. Then he looks up and says through a tired but easy smile, “I’m right here. I haven’t been hiding. I’ve been right out in the open. Here I am.”