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High times for medicinal marijuana

In California, marijuana is supposed to be prescribed only to people suffering from life-threatening conditions but David Willis finds the reality is quite different.

Rolling a marijuana joint
About 250,000 Californians carry prescriptions for marijuana

A Google search revealed plenty of options.

I had typed in medicinal marijuana + Los Angeles and within seconds there was practically smoke coming out of the back of my computer.

Among the seemingly endless stream of entries was a place advertised as a "medicinal clinic" where "qualified patients" could obtain a doctor's recommendation allowing them the legal use of marijuana. They offered a $25 discount for new patients. I called and made an appointment for the next day.

The clinic was in a stucco-fronted brick building opposite a roast beef sandwich shop in a sweaty suburb of Los Angeles known as the San Fernando Valley.

Panic attacks

One of the walls was taken up with a Salvador Dali poster showing swans merged with elephants: perfect for those who needed a hallucinogenic fix before they got their prescription.

A man behind the counter took my money ($100 for a consultation) and handed me a questionnaire. One section dealt with my medical condition.

According to the rules you have to be virtually at death's door, suffering from cancer, Aids or multiple sclerosis or in chronic pain in order to qualify. The best I could come up with was anxiety. I am the anxious type after all.

Protest at Drug Enforcement Agency raids on medical marijuana clinics in Los Angeles on 27 May 2008
Protests were held after the owners of six medicinal marijuana dispensaries were arrested in May

Soon, the doctor appeared - a softly-spoken Vietnamese man.

He wore a white lab coat and scrubs and led me into a spartan room where he proceeded to take my pulse and blood pressure before asking precisely how long I had been anxious.

"Several years," I told him.

"Do you suffer panic attacks?" "Not really."

The doctor wrote panic attacks in his notebook. We spent a few minutes shooting the breeze about Asian cuisine and he signed a prescription for medicinal marijuana, valid for a year.

And that was it. Done and dusted in less than 10 minutes.

Aladdin's Cave

My friend Will was waiting for me when I got outside.

A concert oboist who once performed with Pavarotti, he had developed a deep affection for the herb during his time on the road, yet managed to conceal it from his fellow musicians even after once losing concentration in the middle of the Messiah and playing all the notes in the wrong order.

There was another episode - during a performance of Stravinsky - in which he became convinced he was Petrushka but that incident he blames on rogue hash brownies.

"You see, I told you," Will beamed. "This place is like Amsterdam."

Will was keen to show me where he goes to buy his cannabis. It was a short drive from the doctor's office and recently voted dispensary of the year by one of the pot smokers' magazines (the most famous of which is, incidentally, called High Times).

Man smoking a marijuana cigarette
With more than 200 dispensaries now operating legitimately the street dealers are all but obsolete and the state is happy because it collects the taxes

It was a nondescript building next to a Thai restaurant which contained cosy couches and a big picture of the Mona Lisa on the wall with that inscrutable grin and a fat joint in her right hand. Who said pot smokers do not have a sense of humour?

Will and I were buzzed through a metal gate by an attendant, who himself looked slightly buzzed, and ushered into a small room which could pass as an Aladdin's Cave of narcotics.

Beneath a glass-topped counter were dozens of different varieties of weed laid out in plastic pots, and alongside them an arsenal of drug-taking paraphernalia including pipes and infusion implements, all in iridescent colours.

The different varieties of dope were listed on a white board. They bore exotic names such as Maui Mist, Blue Dream and my personal favourite, Super Train Wreck.

Vending machines

My prescription did not place a limit on the amount of marijuana I could buy a day and I asked the man with the trippy smile behind the counter what he recommended for anxiety. He pointed me in the direction of one called Purple Kush.

"How much should I take?" The naivety of the question seemed to catch my moon-faced pot sommelier off guard. "I guess start with two or three puffs and see how you go..."

Bud of a marijuana plant
Medicinal marijuana is outlawed by the US federal government

The benefits of medicinal marijuana to the seriously ill have been widely chronicled. People with conditions such as cancer, arthritis and Aids say the drug helps make their symptoms bearable.

With more than 200 dispensaries now operating legitimately, the street dealers are all but obsolete and the state is happy because it collects the taxes.

Yet with some dispensaries installing vending machines in order to deal with out-of-hours customers you have to wonder if the situation is in danger of becoming a farce.

Getting on for 250,000 Californians are said to carry prescriptions for medicinal marijuana, and who knows how many of them - like me - suffer from little more than the occasional bout of self-doubt.

I did not buy any weed and I am thinking that one day I will frame my prescription and put it on the wall. In the meantime - to paraphrase Bill Clinton - if I smoke, I certainly won't inhale.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 June, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Marijuana vending machines in US
28 Jan 08 |  Americas
US upholds medical marijuana ban
15 Mar 07 |  Americas


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