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California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana more than a dozen years ago. Many backers of that measure would not recognize what medical marijuana has become today. For one thing, it's no longer just about providing relief to sick people. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: In some parts of L.A., medical marijuana is more common than McDonalds or Starbucks. Places where you can buy a Big Mac or a double tall mocha latte are outnumbered by pot stores at least two-to-one.

All that's required to purchase the marijuana is a recommendation from a doctor, a new iPhone app will even help you find the nearest dispensary. And if you're strolling down the Venice Beach boardwalk, the pot will find you.

Unidentified Man: Medical marijuana evaluation station right here.

GONZALES: This barker can hook you up with a physician who will evaluate your aches and pains.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) medical marijuana.

GONZALES: Doctors don't actually write prescriptions for marijuana. They give written recommendations, supposedly after doing an exam. But how thorough are they? Just ask Ron Haas.

Mr. RON HAAS (Film and Television Editor): I can't really say that it was a real medical exam. As much as I'd like to, I can't say that. It wasn't.

GONZALES: He's a 38-year-old film and television editor in Los Angeles. Haas went to see a doctor for the sole purpose of getting medical marijuana.

Mr. HAAS: I sat down and they said, what's wrong? I said, I have chronic back pain, chronic ankle pain, chronic knee pain, chronic hips, wrists, elbows, everything. And he said, what are you using to treat? And I said marijuana. And he laughed and said, no, no, what kind? Sativa, indica, blends? And I said, I have no idea. And he said, you will.

GONZALES: It's not what most California voters had in mind when they approved Prop 215, the medical marijuana law. Back then, it was billed as compassionate relief for people with serious illnesses, like cancer, HIV-AIDS, or glaucoma. People like Angel Raich.

Ms. ANGEL RAICH: I had scoliosis, I had endometriosis, I had, you know, fibromyalgia, I had a lot. And in '99, I found out I had a brain tumor.

GONZALES: Raich is allergic to most pharmaceutical drugs so she uses marijuana to counteract nausea and stimulate her appetite.

Ms. RAICH: The fact of the matter is, is that medical cannabis does help. It's a natural plant. I'm very grateful for it. It's a miracle to me.

GONZALES: But critics say for every person like Angel Raich, there are many more who use the medical marijuana law as a cover to buy recreational pot.

Mr. RON BROOKS (Federal Drug Agent): I think 215 was a complete sham. I think this was a hoax.

GONZALES: Ron Brooks is a federal drug agent in San Francisco.

Mr. BROOKS: And I would encourage any citizen to do this: stand near a dispensary and watch who goes in. And tell me how many people look sick and dying. How many people look like they are suffering from catastrophic illness, and how many kids are standing around the corner where people buy marijuana inside the dispensary — and resell it to the kids outside for a profit.

GONZALES: Those dispensaries have been multiplying ever since federal agents stopped raiding them earlier this year. Busting the storefronts is no longer a priority for the Justice Department, even though selling pot remains a federal crime. And local governments have been slow to regulate the dispensaries on their own.

Mr. SCOTT IMLER (Methodist Minister): What we have is de-facto legalization.

GONZALES: Say Scott Imler, a marijuana advocate and Methodist minister from West Hollywood. He co-authored Prop 215. But Imler says he never envisioned that medicinal pot would turn into a business open to virtually anyone.

Mr. IMLER: If people are okay with that, then I guess there's no problem. If people have a problem with that, then we need to revisit how this is being done and scale it back to being a medical issue.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Good afternoon, Patient ID Center.

GONZALES: At this storefront in Oakland, many of the people who call for a medical marijuana card have a genuine ailment, just not the same ailments as before.

Mr. JEFF JONES: When we first started, we were 65 percent HIV. Most of our population of members was HIV-positive. Where now that same population of 65 to 70 percent is probably chronic pain - people using this for pain relief.

GONZALES: These days, operator Jeff Jones says most of his customers have a chronic ache or pain, and they smoke pot to get relief. As for it being available to anyone who wants it, Jones says not yet, but…

Mr. JONES: Cannabis is probably easier to buy legally today than it has ever been in America, at least here in California.

GONZALES: And it could get even easier. A recent field poll shows that a majority of Californians favor legalizing pot. In California's time of economic pain, some say there's no better cure than taxing the weed.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: Oh, we have complete coverage of this story. When it comes to easing pain, residents of one retirement community in southern California say marijuana may be the answer, and they're trying to form their own pot collective. We'll hear their story later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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