But as long as marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, researchers face enormous hurdles in winning approval to conduct research. "It's a real catch-22," says Diane Hoffmann, an expert on medical marijuana laws at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. "Because marijuana is a Schedule I drug, it's very difficult to do the research required to move it to Schedule II."
Conflicting state and federal laws, meanwhile, have created a legal landscape fraught with uncertainties. Despite laws in some states making medicinal marijuana legal, cultivating and using marijuana remains a federal offense. In 2009, the Justice Department announced that federal resources would not be used to enforce the law against medicinal marijuana. "But that's a matter of enforcement," says Hoffmann. "It doesn't change the law." The federal government can always reverse course and begin cracking down, she points out, even in states that have legalized marijuana.
"I don't like to be on pain pills. I don't like what they do to me. I don't like how I feel. I was given some pot, and it really helped me."
'Just like ordering a pizza'
Already, a number of medical marijuana distribution services operate out of Oakland, delivering medical cannabis to nearby towns and cities, including Walnut Creek and Vallejo. "It's just like ordering a pizza for delivery, except it's marijuana," says Gilbert Doubet, 69, a Rossmoor resident, who estimates that five different delivery services regularly visit the retirement community.
Surprisingly, even some pot users have mixed feelings.
One 65-year-old resident of Rossmoor, who smoked marijuana in the 1970s says, "I gave it up when I became a mother." When she began to suffer chronic pain after shoulder surgery, she tried it again. "I don't like to be on pain pills. I don't like what they do to me. I don't like how I feel. I was given some pot, and it really helped me," she says.
Still, this pot user would rather her grandchildren didn't smoke marijuana. "I don't like the idea of them being caught up in that culture."
Erika Whiteway, 56, another Rossmoor resident, also tried marijuana when she was young but didn't like it. "It made me paranoid," she says. She tried it again, years later, to ease pain after knee replacement surgery, and it proved much more effective, with fewer side effects, than prescription painkillers. Recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she now smokes marijuana occasionally to relieve muscle spasms caused by the disease. "It's been very helpful to me," she says. "And it's so much less harmful than other medications."
Indeed, she recently took up recreational boxing. Says Whiteway: "That's how much better I feel."
Peter Jaret writes about medicine and health policy from his home in northern California.