The boisterous crowd of residents who gathered for a recent potluck at Laguna Woods Village senior community in Southern California weren't there to talk about their latest cruise or how cute their grandchildren are.
Carrying dishes of potato salad, tamales, southern fried chicken and cookies, they came to talk about something rarely mentioned at senior potlucks: Pot.
Lonnie Painter suffers from osteoarthritis. He leads a medical marijuana collective. — Photo by Daryl Peveto/LUCEO
"I've been able to cut back on prescription painkillers by 50 to 60 percent."
"We've already got a medical marijuana collective for people with prescriptions from their doctors," says Lonnie Painter, 64, who has lived in Laguna Woods Village for 11 years. "Now we're trying to set up a medical marijuana club so people who are interested can learn more about the medicinal benefits of marijuana." Painter, a retired restaurant owner, smokes marijuana to ease the chronic pain of osteoarthritis. "I've been able to cut back on prescription painkillers by 50 to 60 percent," he says.
Another resident at the potluck, Margo Bouer, 75, a retired psychiatric nurse, uses marijuana to relieve nausea and vomiting from advanced multiple sclerosis, which has damaged her gastrointestinal tract. "I was sick, vomiting spontaneously. Nothing helped," she says. "It was so bad that I'd actually begun to think about suicide." A doctor suggested medicinal marijuana. It worked like a charm. "The nausea went away," says Bouer. "I started eating again. I got my energy and control back. It basically made life worth living again."
The residents of Laguna Woods Village first made headlines a year ago, when they opened their own medical marijuana dispensary. Since then, champions of pot both there and across the country have learned firsthand how contentious the issue can be.
Just saying no
Although California's Compassionate Use Act, passed in 1996, allows people with a prescription to use and cultivate medicinal marijuana, Laguna Woods Village is trying to bar marijuana plants from its community garden. The retirement community has a marijuana dispensary, but not in the form of a bricks-and-mortar storefront. Instead, residents get together in one another's homes to distribute prescribed amounts of the weed. Their source? They either grow it themselves or get it from out-of-town dispensaries or from friends.
"More and more municipalities are moving to ban cultivation or prohibit or limit dispensaries, despite state law that makes medical marijuana legal," says Jonathan Adler, 69, a retired lawyer who helped set up the marijuana dispensary at Laguna Woods Village. Adler thinks that's wrong: "We're talking about elected officials on public safety and zoning committees who are taking it into their own hands to prevent legal access to medicinal marijuana."
A longtime advocate for legalizing marijuana, he discovered its medicinal benefits firsthand after being diagnosed with cancer. Marijuana helped relieve vomiting and nausea after chemotherapy treatments, he said. It also helped restore his appetite.
In Walnut Creek — home to a large retirement community called Rossmoor — city officials this year shut down a marijuana dispensary, despite protests from some older residents. But the nearby city of Oakland, just east of San Francisco, recently voted to allow large-scale cultivation within its city limits. "This is going to grow as an industry," Oakland City Council member Jean Quan said during the debate.
A vote on the issue
Nowhere is the contentious divide more striking than in California, where voters next week will decide the fate of a referendum to legalize general marijuana use. On this same November Election Day, residents in South Dakota and Arizona will vote on whether to legalize medical marijuana. In Oregon, where medical marijuana is already legal, there is a proposition to license farmers to grow pot for medical use.