Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Tale of Two Dispensaries

I recently enrolled in a free online course called "Marijuana prevention in a legalized environment" taught by a friend of mine at SDSU.  This relates to my work in the sense that we're talking about drug and "medicine" diversion, drug policies, and this class has a lot to do with the timing of California Prop. 19.  It's all connected, just trust me.

I've had the opportunity as a student reporter through my campus daily to do quite a bit of informal "ethnographic" research, talking to dispensary owners, "recommending" doctors, patients, and observing their general operations. Overall, I cannot emphasize enough how loose and diverse these establishments are—it truly is the Wild West out here.

Here are two cases to demonstrate the spectrum of the legal experience in California. (DISCLAIMER: These are all completely factual vignettes, and probably to be published in an upcoming issue of "The Daily Bruin" in some form. I did this for journalistic inquiry and research purposes, with permission from the owners of the two dispensaries profiled below, and hopefully my editors at the Bruin*).

Dispensary A is a few blocks away from campus, it is clean, open, and looks like any other holistic medicine shop (like the vitamin section of Whole Foods), security is visible, and non-patients are allowed in to buy other herbs, supplements, non-medicated ice cream (as opposed to the medicated kind that they also serve, along with teas, cookies, and lollipops, all splayed out in the kind of pastry case you'll see at any Starbucks). They accept major credit cards. There is a 10% "student discount" to cater to the local campus community. The owner is polite and a relative veteran of the industry, but unless you're a patient, she'll ask you not to approach the counter with their "menus" behind which there are jars of weed on display. The staff wear white coats and are polite and friendly, the check in process is civil (must have ID and valid recommendation for the first time, subsequent visits only ID is necessary). There is a loyalty card policy where they give you a stamp for each 1/8 oz., and after 10 stamps you get a free 1/8 oz. All patients must sign an agreement saying they will not "medicate" within 1000 feet of the premises, and that their medication is for sole personal use (they cannot divert). Thus store rules dictate that patients cannot use their cell phones in the store, and if they step outside to use the phone or step away from the counter mid-transaction, they will not be allowed to make any purchases until the next day. Each patient is limited to 1 oz. per day, and from testimonial from patients (interviewed over 1000 feet away and several minutes later), the medicine is very good for a fair price, though some admitted their plans to share or sell to friends.

Dispensary B is in a chic neighborhood in East LA. Interestingly, it is less than 100 feet from another dispensary that has had to shut its doors recently to acquire new permits mandated by LA County. Dispensary B had a "grandfather" permit acquired years ago, just before the number of dispensaries in LA County shot to over 500 before city and county officials scrambled to curb the disconcerting proliferation of quasi-legitimate businesses. Despite new county-mandated policies that prevent Dispensary B from being open until midnight as they used to, they are still open for business. It's not much to look at from the outside, but the telltale giant green "+" painted mural on the building's front lets customers know that yes, this is a marijuana dispensary. A metal screen door and second door behind it are often unlocked, but when locked, patients hit the doorbell and wave to the security camera to be buzzed in. Sometimes non-patients loiter outside to ask patrons if they can buy for them like underage teens so often do for alcohol at liquor stores. The lobby is unattended, but a buzzer will summon an employee to a counter behind thick plastic bank-glass. Patients slide their IDs and documentation through a secure pass-through, the process is the same as in other dispensaries (no phones, no medicating within 1000 feet, signed agreement the first time, only ID needed afterward), but some patients who forget theirs are still allowed to purchase "just this once" the clerks reprimand. Patients are then buzzed through a first door into a small hallway—there's nothing in the hallway except for a few Bob Marley posters and another door on the far end. The door must shut completely before the second door can be buzzed open. There's already a fragrant smell. Once through the second security door, it's dark, there are some TV's and couches with young adults playing console video games or watching TV. It's unclear if these are employees, patients, or friends of the owners, but it is likely that everybody is very medicated. The staff are friendly, if not casual. There are cases of paraphernalia (pipes, bongs, papers, grinders, etc.) and of course, jars of marijuana. A white-erase board in the back lets you know what's available and how much it costs. Also visible in the cases are two tazer-guns that imply security, should the remote-access double-doors fail. They do not accept credit cards, but there is an ATM in the room (out of order at this particular time). It all has a dorm-room/head-shop feel, very different from Dispensary A. Patients who make purchases are rewarded on a point system, but on occasion, even employees struggle with the point-math. After a certain amount of points are accrued, patients get to spin a wheel and receive a prize**. It is literally like a small, homemade wheel-of-fortune with a spinner and sections labeled "free kush joint" or "free gram." Unlike dispensary A, they let patients handle the medicine by touching or smelling it. They even allow 1 free sample per visit, which entails an employee loading up a generous portion of any chosen medicine into a water pipe for consumption right there in the store***. Nobody seems concerned with the contradiction that all patients are required to sign an agreement forbidding medical use within 1000 feet of the premises. Many patients elect to use their 1 free sample per visit, and all speak to the high quality of the medicine they purchase.

These two profiles speak to the variability of some medical marijuana dispensaries. My overall impression is that laws and statutes are interpreted and enforced differently but the effect is the same: marijuana is very easy to purchase safely with the requisite medical credentials. I don't think it's any secret that many patients buy for the purpose of redistribution. Both Dispensary A and B have a 1-oz. per day limit, and frankly, that's a lot of weed. According to Disp. A's "menus" and Disp. B's "price board" the average price for 1/8 is around $45-$50 with price brakes on larger quantities. Reselling or diverting medication is an obvious consequence. What makes the current medical marijuana model more prone to diversion than other prescription drugs is the lack of any clearinghouse or infrastructure to prevent a patient from purchasing their 1 oz. daily limit from dispensary A, B, C, D, etc. all in a single day. Pharmacies have safeguards in place to prevent this—you cannot get Vicodin at Longs and then pick up Oxycontin cupcakes at a CVS with the same prescription slip. With weed there is no slip, it's a membership club that even comes with a card (or certificate, usually).  And according to advertisements in the LA Weekly (or SJ Metro up here in NorCal), the prices to join the club are plummeting—I can look at an LA weekly from a year and a half ago and see ads for $80 and $100 for a doctors appointment fee and valid recommendation (no charge if not diagnosable, they say, no risk!), but last week I found a business card at a coffee shop advertising them for $35 dollars.  Clearly there is a market there and more willing doctors are becoming available, driving prices down (supply and demand, son!).

The owners of both dispensary A and B have other locations for their own respective franchises that they do check, but there is often no checking between different medical marijuana establishments, making illicit mass diversion of marijuana an easier and more instantly profitable prospect than other abusable prescription drugs.  I'm not trying to give anybody ideas, I'm just sayin'.  This loophole may, and hopefully will change very soon.

* Who are probably going to be like, 19 years old. 

**According to the owner, their policies have since changed and now a $1 "donation" + X amount of points entitles a spin of the wheel. This change was made to adhere to new county statutes, apparently, but speaks to the broader, almost comical degree of semantic obfuscation with the weed industry where "recommendations" exist but "prescriptions" are taboo, and where a "purchase" is different than a "donation in exchange for goods."  I blame lawyers.

*** The free-sample policy has since been suspended. Officially, the owner said this policy never existed, but unofficially, I suspect heightened scrutiny and new county statutes prompted the change. An exception was made for an April 20th event in the store (I did not attend).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Oh, mom ...

There will be plenty of future occasions for research-related blog entries, but it’s time for a life-related entry.  The question I get most often from friends who are familiar with my current situation: “does it suck living at home?”
Answer: no, it definitely does NOT suck living at home.
Sometimes it’s a little weird or crazy-nostalgic, and it can feel like some places have changed a lot while others are all-too-familiar.  Working at my high school has something to do with this.  My mom has a lot to do with this.
How can I describe my mom for those not familiar?  There’s no single character in the history of fiction that aptly describes her.  Every recombination of TV or literary archetypes sounds like a cartoon.  She resides on the border between California and Oklahoma, with tremendous naïveté, innocence, sincerity, and humor.  It can be 105 degrees and she’ll still be cold, and she will still eat frozen yogurt 18 times per week.  She has a doctorate from Stanford in computer science and works at NASA but somehow has the computer fluency of a Kalahari bushman.
Maybe I should just go to the stories:
-     When I went to college, she confiscated a device in my closet that she dubbed “the marijuana machine.”  (It was a bong).
-     After the advent of DVD technology, she asked me how to rewind it so she could return it to Blockbuster.
-     Our unofficial high school senior class t-shrits adorned the slogan “Bud, Bitches, and Brew” featuring a well-endowed siren sitting on a keg with a blunt (yes, it was crass, but subversion was the point back then).  To which she asked “Ross, I don’t get it, Bud is a kind of brew. It doesn’t make sense.”
-     I want to say it was 2005-ish: “Ross, do we have any USB? Everybody at work is talking about USB. I need to get some USB, do we have that?” [My head falls into my hands as I worry about our national space program] “It’s for the computer.”  I know mom.
Those are some of the better.  Both her and my step-dad Roger are fully settled creatures of habit on the brink of retirement.  So I give them immense credit for putting up with me moving back for a year as I’m on the brink of 30.  Sure, there are social … disadvantages, but back to the question of it sucking?
Again no, it absolutely does not suck.  In fact, it’s awesome.  I submit:
-     I’ve attended a half-dozen Giants games, and I can watch the rest anywhere (and not JUST when they’re playing the Dodgers).  In Santa Monica’s S.F. Saloon, they don’t even get all the Giants games.
-     Do you know how much time you waste cooking and doing laundry for yourself?  My math may be wrong, but I’m going to say hundreds of hours per week.  Oh, is that mean letting my mom do laundry?  No, and probably, respectively.  I think she likes doing mom-stuff again after an 8-year hiatus and I’ll be honest, I don’t think she does much at her job—may as well keep her occupied with something she’s good at.  Am I lazy?  Well, right now they’re gone RV’ing Yellowstone for 2 weeks and my laundry situation is getting desperate—I’m on reserve socks and underwear.  Maybe the cat knows her secrets.
-     I’ve taken Palo Alto for granted for too long.  It’s really not a bad place to land.
I’ll write soon about becoming a substitute teacher at Palo Alto High School, boy is that a big dose of weird and a small dose of paycheck.  But for now, after many requests, my mom’s greatest hits, 2010 edition:
-     Here’s an example of 1000% weirdness.  Right of the bat, maybe day 3 of being back, we’re cruising on El Camino and I’m commenting on new housing construction on the Stanford campus.  She says in complete sweet earnestness “that’s where you were conceived, my dear.”  Ugh.  If I was behind the wheel, I might have had to swerve into a dumpster just to give my brain something else to process.
-     Until 2 weeks ago, I had never seen “Risky Business” (as in, the Tom Cruise movie).  I always assumed it was about dancing around in skivvies, not running a brothel while your parents are gone.  I retroactively retract every time I said I’m going “risky business style” when my roommates went out of town.  I didn’t mean that.  Except the once (sorry Conrad).  Anyway, I’m sharing a Netflix queue with my mom, she sees I’m halfway through the movie and gets excited. “Oh have you seen the subway scene yet?  That’s a classic scene.  You’ll like that.  What a great movie.”  I hadn’t.  I finally get there and I find out that it’s the dirtiest scene in the whole movie, where Tom Cruise is totally getting it on with Rebecca de Mornay in a Chicago subway while a hobo watches.  Nasty!  … I’m disturbed, not by the scene so much, but by the recommendation.  I confront my mom about this: “oh, but the cuts to the homeless man were so funny.”   Sure mom.  Sure.
-     Sorry, I’m still vomiting a little bit over #1.
-     She doesn’t know who Glenn Beck is.  I discovered this while watching The Daily Show with her.  Actually, I’m not ashamed of this one, I’m kind of impressed.  Like when Baxter ate the whole wheel of cheese.
-     My computer has no space, I need a new one.  In the meanwhile, I can’t play Starcraft 2 at all (maybe a good thing).  But she offered her NASA computer for me to install and play it when she isn’t using it.  Let me explain the NASA computer: everything on her screen goes through NASA for security.  I don’t know if there’s some dude sitting in a big room of screens like in the Matrix, but I’ll pretend that’s exactly what happens.  I like to think there are one of two things that said government employee is thinking while I rock through Starcraft 2:
1.   “That’s odd.  Let’s see … [checking security clearance] … ah, I can see that Jan Aikins has two sons and a stepson, 25, 27, and 29, one of them probably installed Starcraft. … or …
2.   … Jan Aikins is fucking awesome at Starcraft.
-     Her grandmaternal clock goes off weekly.  Some indirect quip about how fun it would be to have granddaughters.  Actually, she’s quite direct.  I’ve learned how to hit the snooze button on this alarm, but I’ve so far failed to unplug it.  I can only make so many sarcastic remarks about my all-male litter of illegitimate bastard children before cutting humor turns to misplaced optimism.
All in all though, things are good.  I'm enjoying it here a lot more than I thought.  A surprising amount of friends are around or have materialized through Facebook, etc.  I also have a dad running around somewhere being wily and irascible.  More highlights to come.
Working on: A presentation at UCLA Ashe center at the end of the month, a presentation in D.C. in October.  Data checking, coding.  I’m thinking about getting a new computer that can run Atlas TI qualitative data management software.  Does anybody know anything about this?