Elusive medical marijuana in Ventura county
Officials say dispensaries instigate crime, but patients hope attitudes will change in the future
By Butch Warner 07/24/2008
Selby Melville’s excellent adventure
Selby Melville is receiving radiation and chemotherapy treatment for metastasized pancreatic cancer. The side effects of this treatment include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and weight loss.
Melville has tried most of the “legitimate” remedies for his nausea, including Magace, a steroid, and Marinol, which is actually synthetic THC, the component of marijuana that gets you high.
But nothing has really worked.
Melville, who is 56, has read that real reefer might provide the relief he needs. As a child of the 60’s, he is personally familiar with the “the munchies,” the strong craving for food that pot smokers experience. The forecast for Melville’s long-term recovery is poor, so with a “what-the-hell” attitude he decides to try to procure some medical marijuana, which is legal in California.
Melville goes to his computer and types “medical marijuana Ventura” into a Google search box, and he does get some “hits,” but none actually pan out. Melville tries Potlocator.com (http://www.potlocator.com/) and gets this message: “There are no stores within 20 nautical miles from this address: Ventura California.”
Melville, in a last-ditch effort to secure some relief, goes to the Medical Cannabis Caregivers association at www.mccdirectory.org. There are no listings for sellers, delivery or caregivers in Ventura County, with one exception: Claudia Jensen, M.D., at 8 N. Fir Street in Ventura. Melville left a message, but Dr. Jensen did not respond.
After hours of Googling, searching and phoning, Melville grasps the dismal truth — You can’t get medical marijuana in Ventura County.
Medical marijuana and Ventura County
In 1996, California passed the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215), which decriminalized medical marijuana; since then, 12 states have enacted similar laws. A federal appellate court has ruled that the federal government cannot punish — or even investigate — physicians for discussing or recommending the medical use of marijuana with patients.
So at first glance, it appears that medical marijuana is legal in Ventura County until the feds get involved. So why can’t Melville get his marijuana here?
One reason is that the feds are still at odds with the states in a lot of areas. As a result of the court rulings of United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative in 2001 and Gonzales v. Raich in 2005, and the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the federal government does not permit marijuana to be used medically. The Drug Enforcement Agency has taken an active stance against medical marijuana and often raids marijuana dispensaries.
Another reason is that Ventura County, along with a few other California counties, won’t allow marijuana dispensaries and makes it hard for doctors to prescribe.
Two Sheriff’s Department employees were contacted about why Ventura County won’t allow medical marijuana; both said to speak with Cap. Daryl West, head of Sheriff’s Narcotics Division. West has not returned calls before publication deadline.
Employees at Ventura County District Attorney’s Office refused to discuss any specifics except to say that their job was to enforce any state law, just like L.A. or any other county. They said to contact Assistant District Attorney Mike Schwartz, a department honcho. Mr. Schwartz was not available.
County officials had stonewalled any questions regarding medical marijuana.
The stonewalling ended with Richard LaPerriere who, among other things, is in charge of Alcohol and Drugs in the City of Ventura.
LaPerriere’s perspective is non-legal, nonjudgmental and non-moralistic — he speaks strictly from the “treatment” perspective. When his office receives a request for medical marijuana, he says they insist on a conference with the prescribing physician and discussing each case individually. According to Mr. LaPerriere, after the conference, the physician withdraws the request “nine times out of 10.” In the one out of 10 cases in which the physician persists and succeeds, the physician is allowed to write the prescription. But even if your doctor’s prescription is approved, you won’t find any marijuana dispensaries in Ventura County. Ventura County is one of 10 or 12 counties in California that don’t accept applications for registration (for users, growers and sellers) in the Medical Marijuana Program of the California Department of Health Services. Ventura County has not even implemented the ID card program.
This program facilitates the registration of qualified patients and their caregivers through a statewide identification card system.
Why is Ventura County so opposed to medical marijuana? Checking with officials from Oxnard led to some interesting conclusions.
A staff report from Oxnard cited “increased crime” in cities with dispensaries.
“At this juncture, there are too many negative impacts” in allowing dispensaries, Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites said.
“(Medical) marijuana often finds its way to people who are not legitimate patients,” Oxnard Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Bennett contended. Bennett was elected superior court judge in June and will fill that position when the current judge retires at year’s end.
Melville’s excellent adventure (Part 2)
To obtain a prescription for marijuana in California Melville must go to a clinic like the Marijuana Medicine Evaluation Center in Lawndale, which is actually in the South Bay. Melville calls to make an appointment, and is told that the exam will cost $150, which includes a free ID card usually costing $50, and “free 24-hour verification,” which means that once Melville qualifies, the center will vouch that he is a legal patient should Melville be pulled over by a cop.
The doctor there is Dr. Kien Tran, who inspects documentation and probes the patient about his condition requiring marijuana. (The law allows physicians to recommend marijuana for the treatment of “cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”)
When Melville says he has cancer and nausea, he is told that that will suffice. The doctor conducts a cursory physical examination and checks pulse and blood pressure. The whole exam takes about ten minutes.
Then Melville is handed a prescription for marijuana — good for one year, with no refill limits.
The next step is to find a dispensary where Melville can actually get the weed.
Although there are no marijuana dispensaries in Ventura County, a quick web check in San Fernando Valley (using Pot Locator.com) turned up several.
Potlocator.com also listed three dispensaries in Santa Barbara including Nature’s Path Care (NPC) at 414 E Haley St., Santa Barbara Collective (SBC) at 234 E. Haley St. and Santa Barbara Patients Group (SBPG) at 3114 State St.
In the San Fernando Valley, Studio City Caregivers, 3625 Cahuenga Blvd., offered eighth-ounce specials: Indica strains, including “Outdoor Pot of Gold” ($35), OG Banana ($45) or OG Herouna ($45). Cannabis Sativa strains included Sweet Tooth ($40), Sour Diesel ($45) and Orange Crush ($45).
Melville is impressed, but he tried another shop for comparison’s sake.
He makes his way down Ventura Boulevard to The Greenhouse on Sepulveda Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. The store is guarded by a security cop who asks customers for their card.
The Greenhouse is owned by JB, who requested to be referred to only by his initials, and is as cordial and likable as a man can be. He appears to be someone who cares about his customers. The Greenhouse offers specials, like Snow Cap, Trainwreck, Kief, Sativa Oil, Chocolate Truffle and Cookies.
JB explains that different strains cure different ailments. For Melville’s appetite loss associated with chemotherapy, he recommends the Indica strains, which “definitely give you the munchies.” If Melville has pain, JB explains, both Indica and Sativa are good.
Melville says he is curious about the medical part of this whole deal. He suspects that a lot of people purchase weed at The Greenhouse just to get high.
“Well, yes, a lot of people buy medical marijuana for stress reduction, since the lessening of pain that pot provides actually comes from its ability to reduce stress,” JB said.
Melville says he appreciates JB’s honesty, since he had never actually thought of weed as a painkiller.
When asked where he gets his amazing supply of weed, JB said that he “usually buy(s) it from members of the co-op.”
When asked where his customers come from, he explains that “all of my referrals come from doctors.”
Melville was struck by how normal (no pun intended) it all seemed. His experience with buying pot in the ‘60s and ‘70s was as an illegal, undercover activity. Part of the buzz, in fact, was that it was illegal.
The Greenhouse has more the feeling of a mom-and-pop bakery than an opium den, although it does have a Vapor Lounge, “where patients can medicate but not smoke. We use a Volcano vaporizer, which is much healthier,” according to JB.
After visiting a couple of other shops, Melville says he feels good about his choice as he returns to Ventura with a vial of pungent Indica for $50. If it does what it’s supposed to do, he will come back for more.
Is marijuana good or bad?
Many people seem to mellow out on marijuana, and many even report significant creative and spiritual experiences. Still others “freak out” every time they smoke it, and there seems to be no way of predicting who will have good or bad experiences.
Some experts argue that bipolar, or manic-depressive, people should avoid pot at all costs. Some users report that marijuana is a great social lubricant, while others isolate and ruminate on useless trivia.
It’s pretty clear that pot is not good for everyone. It may harm the immune system. It may damage the brain, or interfere with fertility. It definitely impairs driving ability, and if you’ve ever listened to a conversation among stoned people, you’d realize that it makes you dull, sluggish, forgetful and silly.
Medically, weed can relieve nausea with its “munchies” effect. It can reduce stress. It’s undeniably useful for some AIDS patients, those with glaucoma and those receiving radiation or chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
Weed can also increase stress, dull initiative, and turn a bright kid into a slacker. And no reasonable person could conclude that drawing marijuana into one’s lungs is a good thing.
Marijuana is like any other drug. (And please don’t counter with that ridiculous argument that because it grows wild, it’s not a drug and it can’t be bad. Poppies, which are processed into heroin, grow wild. Poison ivy grows wild, too.)
Pot has serious side effects, and the decision to use it, for treatment or whatever, should involve the same balancing test as the one required for any other decision: Do the therapeutic effects of the drug outweigh its harmful effects? The answer to this question may not always be “yes.”
Is marijuana addictive?
To answer this question, one must define addiction. While some people feel that any activity, like sleeping, could be addictive, most addiction specialists tend to agree that the definition of addiction goes something like this: Addiction is an unhealthy relationship with a person, place or thing that continues despite negative consequences.
Using this definition, activities like breathing, sleeping, eating, exercise and 12-step meetings don’t qualify as addictive until one does them to the exclusion of everything else or they begin to produce mental or physical harm.
“The problem is not addictive drugs, it’s addictive people,” said Dr. Eugene Levison, a psychiatrist in Odessa, Texas.
Marijuana, like alcohol, seems to be addictive only to certain people. Some people are able to smoke marijuana occasionally and not think about it in the interim, while others become obsessed with it to the exclusion of all activities.
Whether you believe marijuana is addictive or not, there is a 12-step group for marijuana addicts called Marijuana Anonymous (MA), and every treatment center in this writer’s experience considers marijuana habituation to be a legitimate treatment issue.
Is marijuana a “gateway” drug?
Once again, to answer this question one has to define the term.
The gateway drug theory is the theory that the use of marijuana will cause subsequent use of harder, more dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine.
There are few chemical similarities between marijuana and other drugs of abuse.
“While the gateway theory has enjoyed popular acceptance, scientists have always had their doubts,” said Andrew Morral, Ph.D., a Researcher for the RAND Corporation. “Our study shows that these doubts are justified. The people who are predisposed to use drugs and have the opportunity to use drugs are more likely than others to use both marijuana and harder drugs. Marijuana typically comes first because it is more available.”
That statement is also true of alcohol and cigarettes.
One interesting question posed by an addiction specialist, “If marijuana were somehow eradicated, would another drug (possibly heroin or cocaine, but more likely prescription pills) become the new gateway drug? Would the use of heroin, cocaine and prescription pills increase for young experimenters? I think it’s clear the answer is yes.”
Mary Jane caught in between
Proponents claim that marijuana is a safe and effective for treating the symptoms and helping in the adverse effects of treatment for dozens of conditions, such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, pain, migraines, glaucoma, and epilepsy. Proponents say that thousands of yearly deaths from legal prescription drugs could be prevented if medical marijuana were legal.
Cocaine, morphine and methamphetamine may all be legally administered to patients — so why not marijuana, which has a far lower rate of dependency and on which no one has ever overdosed?
Opponents say there’s no need for medical marijuana, that safer drugs are available.
Criminal attorney Alison Triessl, CEO of Pasadena Recovery Center, a dual-diagnosis Treatment Center, said, “I do not support medical marijuana. It often ends up in the wrong hands and many young lives are obstructed as a result.”
Others say California’s 400-plus dispensaries are responsible for crime problems.
Lisa Schwarz of the Ventura County Alliance of Medical Marijuana Users disagreed, saying that less than 5 percent of the state’s 400-plus dispensaries are responsible for crime problems.
“The problem,” she said, “is that many are run by lifetime pot growers whose only interest is profit, not patients.”
Schwarz advocates taxing marijuana and using the money for increased law enforcement.
But still the fight goes on for those who find the herb invaluable to sustain their health during times of crisis and those who see pot only as a nuisance upon society. In which position the pendulum will finally stop is still to be answered, but at least, for now, Melville can smoke his prescribed marijuana to help his body cope with the debilitating effects
Special thanks to Tom Williams for his invaluable assistance in writing and researching this article.
The author is an Addiction Specialist and Psychotherapist, a member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (A.S.A.M.), the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (C.A.A.D.A.C.) and N.A.A.D.A.C. (The Association for Addiction Professionals).
The name Selby Melville is a pseudonym for an actual cancer patient who requested to remain anonymous.