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12 Feb 2015

Know Your Neighbors: The Coachella Valley's Cannabis Culture

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I began smoking marijuana in the 1960s, when my memory says it was cheaper, purer and more fun.

Of course, we know what pot does to one’s memory.

Pot-smokers tend to know other pot-smokers, so even when you move to a new area, you manage to find each other. When I returned to the Coachella Valley in 2007, after seven years away to attend law school in San Diego, I had a local friend who, likewise, had a friend. I sometimes cadged from a pal in Los Angeles. In spite of the difficulty of getting pot, I resisted even thinking about getting a “license.” Then I talked to someone who had one—and I realized I was being silly. (Besides, I don’t plan on ever running for public office again.)

This is not a rah-rah endorsement of smoking pot. It’s not natural for lungs, and it can impair driving. Like liquor or voting, it should be restricted by age. It can lead to harder drugs in those who have a propensity toward addiction—but such people will find what they’re looking for regardless, whether it’s via glue or aerosols.

While I can understand wanting to zone pot stores—much like “adult” bookstores and bars are not allowed near schools or churches—many people fear that dispensaries will bring criminal behavior, and they use that to justify taking a stand against pot outlets in their locale.

Let’s establish some reality here: Legalization reduces youth-crime rates, since simple possession is then considered a misdemeanor, similar in severity to a speeding ticket. Fears about a link between adult crime and cannabis use are overblown. A study done by the University of Texas at Dallas found that “legalization of medical marijuana is not an indicator of increased crime. It actually may be related to reductions in certain types of violent crime … namely homicide and assault."  If you know pot-smokers, you know this is true. Statistics also show that traffic deaths go down with legalization, as do with alcohol purchases. 

California was the first state to allow medical marijuana use in 1996. Currently, a total of 23 states, plus D.C. and Guam, allow legalized use of medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington passed ballot measures legalizing recreational use in 2012. Alaska and Oregon voters also approved recreational use in laws slated to become effective this year. A D.C. ballot initiative legalizing marijuana was overwhelmingly approved by voters, but is still subject to congressional review, since D.C. is run by Congress.

It may be true that almost anyone can justify a “medical” reason to use cannabis products—but how do you measure the relief experienced by those undergoing chemotherapy, or someone whose lowered anxiety level may prevent a stroke?

I began my journey into local cannabis culture by calling a local doctor, who was referred by a friend. He’s a formerly retired M.D. who wanted to get out of the house and needed the money. His routine is comprehensive; he documents everything you say in response to very specific questions about your health, and he makes sure that the state rules are followed to the letter. He is personable, supportive, nonjudgmental and professional.

After a 30-minute consultation, I received my officially stamped document that allows access to a dispensary—and proves to a policeman that I’m not criminally in possession, at least not by California rules. Cannabis is still listed federally under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I drug—considered “highly addictive and having no medical value.” 

By the way, when’s the last time a doctor spent 30 minutes with you?

As I was leaving the doc’s office, I asked if he knew where I could get local help for purchases. “Oh, sure,” he said. “There are business cards out on the counter.” I grabbed three and zeroed in on the one that delivers.

Having pot products delivered is way cool. When I called for my first delivery, I was asked to show my license, and then a display of about 20 cannabis varieties was unveiled, each labeled with a creative name: Purple Crack, Girl Scout Cookies, Blue Kush, Martian Green. (I have no idea what the names mean or who chooses them, but they are definitely inventive.) My delivery guy even brought me laced chocolate for Easter!

Once I decided to visit a dispensary in Palm Springs, I walked into a large waiting room, decently furnished, with three other waiting people. I walked up to the window and gave them my picture ID and my pot license. Those items were copied and returned to me, and I was asked to wait.

As I sat down, a man who was also waiting said, “You’re not by any chance the lady on the radio, are you?”

“Yes,” I said. “How did you know that?”

“I recognized your voice—I listen to your show.” What a place to be recognized as a local celebrity!

When my name was called, I was admitted through a locked door into a small anteroom, where I waited while a beefy guy locked the first door and then unlocked a second door, leading into a large room with a long counter behind which three other people were waiting on other customers.

The array of products available was astounding, including food items. Imagine—pot butter! I asked questions and got detailed answers about whether strains were indica, sativa or blends. Prices vary somewhat, but are not outrageous when compared to buying in the underground marketplace. The employees were courteous and helpful, and the atmosphere among the customers was cordial and friendly. “Oh, that one’s good!” said another customer, trying to be helpful. The other customers were far from seedy—quite the contrary. They were neatly dressed, of varying ages, and basically looked just like any of my neighbors.

If you oppose legalization, or resist the idea of medical marijuana, you are way behind the times. We’re no longer in the dark ages of Reefer Madness, the 1936 movie made to frighten people about the “evil weed,” in which drug-dealers lead innocent teenagers toward hopeless addiction, suicide, hallucinations and madness.

By comparison, the third-leading cause of death in the U.S is legal access to alcohol, responsible for over 75,000 deaths yearly. Alcohol destroys families, foments violence and costs society greatly in public health and safety.

I’ve never known anyone on pot who got violent. Did some of my friends get lazy? Some were pretty laid back anyway, but they were also lawyers, business executives and good parents. Pot made us laugh, nosh, groove and generally live in the moment. Pot also alleviates nausea, stimulates appetite and diminishes symptoms of anxiety that accompany many medical conditions. Of course we need restrictions and oversight, but marijuana is not something to fear.

The Coachella Valley has a thriving cannabis culture, including your law-abiding neighbors—like my 91-year old friend whose granddaughter gives her pot brownies to control cancer symptoms. The times, they are a-changin’. 

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