A Hazy Future – Part 2
Part 2: The Medicine
Thursday, June 16, 2011
To get to Judy Song’s home, you must wend your way through Carmel Valley, whose hillsides, as Richard Rosen recalls, were the site of massive marijuana grow operations in the early ‘80s.
Song calls this her “healing retreat,” her home-cum-wellness-center where she works as a massage therapist. The warm and wizened 71-year-old woman embraces me and welcomes me into her abode, filled with art, music and mermaids in every imaginable medium. (“I am one, you know,” she says matter-of-factly, adding, “I’m also one-quarter Sioux.”)
Out on the deck, she reveals a modest grow: five small marijuana plants, with a sixth just starting to sprout.
“When they’re ready, I want to move them next to my tomatoes,” she tells me, gesturing to the right as we walk to the main attraction: a 12-foot-tall tepee where, in keeping with her Native American roots, she conducts sweat lodge ceremonies.
Inside the tepee, Song shares her experiences with marijuana, which she says she’s smoked for nearly 50 years to help her cope with crippling anxiety.
“It has helped promote my well-being,” Song says as she smokes a joint. She calls marijuana “a sweet plant from God” that provides a natural and safe alternative to pharmaceuticals. She’s a card-carrying medical marijuana patient, and used to go as far as San Jose to procure her pot.
“More people need to be able to access marijuana closer to them without going through shenanigans to get it,” she says.
Now, she uses the weed delivery service Ethnobotanica (one of four mobile delivery operations serving Monterey County, according to weedmaps.com), and has Indica nuggets and pot brownies delivered to her home monthly.
“They’re very professional, and they hold the line,” Song says. “If you’re not registered to be a patient, you just can’t get any from them, period.”
Ryan Booker, Ethnobotanica’s CEO and general manager, backs this up.
“We run a healthy company, and we run it above board,” Booker says. He started Ethnobotanica in 2008 when the economy went sour and he needed more income.
He’d been a green grower and caregiver for medical marijuana patients since 2003, and is a patient himself. Starting a business that allowed those patients without easy access a way to get their bud (or brownies) was a way for Booker to contribute to what he and many others view as holistic health care.
His instincts were good: Today, Ethnobotanica has 19 employees who assemble customer orders and provide home delivery in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo Counties.
Booker says roughly one-third of Ethnobotanica’s 1,600 members are from Monterey County, which it just started serving last year.
Song, one of Ethnobotanica’s older members, got her state card from Dr. Malka, who’s based in Santa Cruz but twice a week comes down to Compassionate Health Options’ Monterey office, which just opened in March. It’s a haul for Malka, but since many of her patients were coming up from Monterey to see her, she figured she’d come to them. She estimates she’s seen about 200 patients at the Monterey office.
“I’d been hearing for many years that there was a need for a doctor in the area,” she says. “I don’t believe there are many doctors here who do medical marijuana evaluations.” (Since the California Medical Board does not require licensed doctors to specify whether they prescribe medical marijuana, it’s impossible to get exact figures.)
She faults a lack of familiarity with the guidelines established for doctors in the Compassionate Use Act and Senate Bill 420 (no joke), passed in 2003.
“Many doctors to this day don’t know that they can cleanly do this work,” Malka says. “Most feel that they’re risking their licenses in prescribing medical marijuana.”
That fear drives some doctors to eschew medicinal marijuana, even for those patients who show a need for it. “I see patients like one I saw last Saturday: an older woman who’d never used marijuana before but had gotten cancer, done research, and saw that marijuana could ease some of her symptoms,” Malka says. “She did that by herself, without her doctor suggesting it.”
And, perhaps, in spite of her doctor discouraging it.
“We’ve all been raised with this stigma, that marijuana is a drug of abuse,” Malka says.
Song agrees. “We’ve been conditioned to stay in the background, hide in the woodwork,” she says. “But I’m ready to come forward with the whole picture.”
She’s not alone.
~ ~ ~
“I’m trying to get more people to be legal about their marijuana use, while building a community of like-minded people,” says Lisa Davis, the chatty receptionist at Compassionate Health Solutions. A thirty-something single mother of three and born and raised in Monterey, Davis is in the early stages of starting up a medical marijuana collective in her hometown.
“I want to pave the way for a better reputation for medical marijuana [in Monterey]. Honestly, the MyCaregiver scandal left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths,” Davis says. “Marijuana is still somewhat of a hush-hush, taboo thing around here. But we’re starting to see patients who are more conservative, older, career-type people. They’re nervous at first, but we want to make them feel comfortable.”
It seems to be working.
“A neighbor came in here the other day, and her husband works for the government, so that tells you something!” she says with a laugh.
She doubts law enforcement will dash her plan. But criminal defense attorney Andrew Liu, who spent 10 years as a prosecutor in the Bronx and then served as an assistant district attorney in Monterey County, is less trusting.
“They shoot first and ask questions later,” says Liu, who’s barely moved into his new Salinas office when we speak in April. His statement is based on experience—namely, his defense in 2009 of two young women, both medical marijuana patients, who were arrested when more than four pounds of marijuana was found in their car.
The DA’s office charged them with multiple felonies, including possession and illegal transportation of marijuana, despite the fact that both had state-issued medical marijuana cards. The court dismissed the case after hearing copious evidence that both discredited the arresting officer’s testimony and clarified that, because of a 2008 California Supreme Court ruling, the women could possess as much marijuana as they needed to manage their illnesses.
“It was dozens of hours of work on the defense side,” Liu says. “And that’s after the police officer made a traffic stop, did an investigation at the scene, went through the booking process and wrote up the report. All that time, that officer’s not out there dealing with gang violence.”
Critics believe not enough questions are asked in the prosecution process.
“The DA’s office and law enforcement have a symbiotic relationship: They need each other,” Rosen says. “Not only does the DA want the help of police in maintaining order, but the DA is an elected political position, and the endorsement of the police is important.”
Monterey County Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon disagrees.
“The implication that we’re too cozy with the police would mean that we did something we shouldn’t have done, but there’s scrutiny at every level of the legal process,” he says. “We don’t file every case we get; In fact, we reject a fairly significant number.”
The exact number is unknown, he adds, since the office doesn’t track cases by type. But generally, cases involving possession or cultivation of marijuana as the primary offense are trending downward.
“Law enforcement agencies have their own chiefs, and are governed by their own city officials, but I’ve always said that if a person has a recommendation from their doctor, police should try to make people prove it in court,” Brannon says. “If at their arraignment they showed proof, the case would probably be dismissed.”
Those cases are infrequent, Brannon says, but he suspects that the abuse of marijuana under the auspices of medicine is rampant.
“Most folks using marijuana do not have a serious illness,” Brannon says. “We don’t get involved with that, but I will say that there’s a lot of money to be made here. [Dispensaries] are incredibly lucrative.”
Like so many facets of medical marijuana in California, however, this claim is impossible to prove. There’s no state agency that regulates or audits dispensaries or delivery services, and no medical marijuana purveyor will admit to turning a profit. That would technically be illegal under California statutes.
“We don’t make a profit,” Ethnobotanica’s Booker insists. “Our money goes toward taxes, which are our biggest expense, followed by payroll and health care for our employees.” He’s happy to share stats on membership and his own salary ($6,000 a month), but keeps mum about his company’s gross sales and physical location.
“I know how law enforcement will read that,” Booker says of his sales figures. “They’ll target us.” It wouldn’t be the first time. Ethnobotanica was raided by Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s officers in 2009 after Booker was pulled over (“An anonymous tip, they told me,” he says) while heading toward his company’s headquarters. The cops found pot and paraphernalia, along with a stack of doctors’ recommendations, in his car.
The case was thrown out, but Booker’s been secretive ever since. He wishes he didn’t have to be: “Regulation would be more productive than prohibition.”
Caldwell, the sheriff’s detective, says he believes there are people who have a legitimate use for medical marijuana. “But there’s a larger population that just wants to get high and use marijuana as a portal to make money,” he adds.
He lumps less reputable “pot doctors” in with dispensary owners on this charge. “Some doctors are a bit of a farce. I’ve seen doctors not even lay a hand on patients but give them a prescription. The doc makes money hand over fist.”
Malka doesn’t dispute there are plenty of fly-by-night doctors, but insists her multi-decade career as an herbal doctor, including five years prescribing medical marijuana, has never been about the money.
“The work I’m involved in is giving advice on how to safely use marijuana to a larger amount of people. It’s about access, not profit,” Malka says. She charges $125 for a visit.
Next: The Money…