Val Thomas says she suffers from severe arthritis, a cracked pelvis and has had multiple joint replacements. She has never tried medical marijuana but would like to, except there’s a ban on dispensaries in the city. Her pelvis has made it too difficult to drive, but even if she could (or if she could get a ride), she knows dispensaries are close by in Los Angeles, but she wouldn’t know what questions to ask the people working at one.
“It’s very shortsighted,” the 78-year-old said of the city’s policy. “As you get older, it’s a lot more difficult to get around. If marijuana is an alternative, it should be examined. … I’m not interested in running down to Van Nuys Boulevard and hopping in with some 21-year-old who really doesn’t understand where I’m coming from and hands me something off the shelf. I would prefer working with someone that does understand the type of problems I have and that many of us have up here.”
As the population ages and conditions associated with aging continue to increase, more people will be hurting and seeking pain relief. Many fear opioids because of their addictive and possibly deadly qualities – a Harvard Medical School study published in October found 115 people die daily from opioid overdoses in this country – and are curious about the possible positive effects cannabis could have for them.
Barbara Cochran, 82, knows some of these benefits. She was diagnosed with lymphoma seven years ago and underwent chemotherapy, which caused tremendous stomach and chest pain and nausea. She took hydrocodone for the pain until her son, Scott Stearns, who operates the American Original Collective dispensary in Rosamond, saw the pills, threw them in the trash and insisted she try cannabidiol (CBD) pills.
“My pain was gone in less than two days,” Cochran said.
She said the chemo also zapped her of her appetite, so she tried tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient that gives people the “high” feeling. It got her eating again.
Cochran has hosted “The Senior Hour,” a Wednesday-morning radio show on KHTS with Dr. Gene Dorio devoted to senior living, for many years. The pair often extoll the virtues of medicinal marijuana.
“I’ve always felt cannabis can be very useful for medical treatment and for those who have a pain-management problem,” said Dorio, who specializes in geriatrics and internal medicine. “My patients have been on opioids and I have been able to switch them to cannabis, and it’s just as effective as opioids.”
Now cancer-free, Cochran still takes two drops of CBD oil daily, either on her toast or in her coffee. “It’s like a vitamin for me,” she said. “I haven’t been sick since then. I never get a cold. I strongly believe (CBD) has a lot to do with it.”
Two city councilmembers said they have no problem with their older constituents using cannabis and having it delivered to them. But inadvertently or not, the city and county have placed obstacles on seniors getting access to such treatments. The Board of Supervisors in 2017 unanimously banned cultivation, manufacturing, processing, transportation and retail sale of medical and nonmedical marijuana in any unincorporated county territory until a comprehensive regulatory plan is in place. Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Santa Clarita, introduced the measure. Barger spokesman Tony Bell emailed this week to say the ban remains in effect.
“It’s unacceptable that L.A. County hasn’t lifted the ban,” Stearns said.
Barger’s move came two weeks after the city unanimously banned cannabis beyond six indoor plants per residence. Then the city council unanimously extended the ban in March 2018. Councilmember Bob Kellar made the motion.
“Having been a 25-year member of the Los Angels Police Department, and seeing the unbelievable destruction of lives as a result of drugs, I, Bob Kellar, will never support anything having to do with drugs as long as I can follow the law,” Kellar said this week.
It is this mindset that bothers Stearns and Thomas. Thomas said Kellar’s view is “at least 20 years out of date.” Stearns said many of his clients are veterans, elderly, in wheelchairs, and suffer from arthritis and nausea. He wonders how a city can be so opposed to helping these people.
“It’s not fair to not have access,” he said. “I’d come in there with a couple of my veterans and a couple of my cancer patients and just hopefully make them feel like sh**.”
And yet, Thomas, Dorio and Stearns are not in favor of casual marijuana use and want strict regulations. Dorio, like Kellar, believes the stuff is a gateway drug, although he stresses that applies to young people. Stearns said, “You don’t need gangsters from MS-13 running a pot shop in your town.” Thomas said she isn’t interested in “getting high.”
“The people about whom most of the council is concerned are the people who can easily drive over the hill, pick up their stash and come back,” she said. “People who are older, who suffer from arthritis or pains of other types, are extremely limited in what they can get.”
The state has always seemed to have an uneven relationship with cannabis. It was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996. Twenty years earlier, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that reduced marijuana possession to a misdemeanor. And the voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016, which legalized recreational cannabis starting Jan. 1, 2018.
But the voters also rejected recreational legalization in 2010, and the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (other Schedule 1 drugs include LSD, heroin, ecstasy and Quaalude; cocaine, PCP, Vicodin, oxycodone and methamphetamine are Schedule 2 drugs; anabolic steroids are Schedule 3). While the 2018 farm bill removed hemp from Schedule 1, the other forms remain.
Dorio would like to see marijuana reclassified as a Schedule 2 drug, and there have been several unsuccessful attempts since 1972 to change its Schedule 1 classification, most recently in 2017. Councilmembers Bill Miranda and Cameron Smyth said a reclassification might change their minds about having cannabis inside the city.
But first, Miranda said he would want to ensure marijuana is kept out of teens and young people’s hands.
“I’m a brother of an overdose person,” he said. “You have to be very, very careful to make marijuana available to young people.”
Smyth said he’s concerned that cannabis is still predominately a cash business, which to him increases the likelihood of criminal activity. According to the American Bankers Association, because possessing, distributing or selling marijuana remains illegal under federal law, money that can be traced back to state marijuana operations could be considered money laundering and expose a bank to significant legal, operational and regulatory risks.
Smyth believes a reclassification would allow banks to get involved, meaning credit comes into play, meaning less criminal possibilities such as fraud.
“Certainly, the time has come for the federal government to have a serious discussion,” Smyth said.
Yet Smyth and Miranda said they don’t support any brick-and-mortar cannabis shops in the city but have no problem with delivery services.
Unfortunately, Stearns said, there is no money and increased danger in delivery, so he doesn’t.
As intractable as Kellar seems, he said there is one possible way he could consider allowing cannabis inside the city: if compounding pharmacies handled it, which is something Thomas also said she favors. Miranda, again, said he would have to see how young people’s access would be limited. Smyth would want to see if compounding pharmacies could get around “the cash component” before he agreed to lift any cannabis ban.
Neither of the two local compounding pharmacies the Gazette called, The Druggist Pharmacy and Lyons Pharmacy & Compounding Lab, are involved with cannabis, although it’s not illegal.
For now, nothing will change. People can get cannabis, but they have to leave the city to do it.
“It would be nice if we grew up and joined the real world,” Thomas said.
If the county ever lifts its ban, Stearns believes a dispensary will open in the valley but outside the city limits.
And it will be he who opens it.