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12 Plants or 8 Ounces


(page 1 of 2)

That’s how much pot you can legally possess—if you own a medical marijuana card. Our investigation illustrates how easy it is for San Diegans to get their hands on these cannabis cards.

WITH TANGERINE sunsets, vibrant fiestas and enviably moderate climate, San Diego proudly owns a national reputation for idyllic living. We are, in most instances, laid back and laissez-faire nearly to a fault. Like they say in Jamaica—“No problem, mon.” Which brings us to Proposition 215, the ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California.

Since that 1996 vote, San Diego has struggled to keep the marijuana movement under wraps. Seven years after California voters approved the statewide initiative, San Diego County adopted guidelines regulating the use of medical marijuana. Immediately, the crackdowns began. In 2005, federal agents executed search warrants on 29 local marijuana dispensaries, causing 16 of them to close. In July of the following year, officials raided 13 of the county’s remaining marijuana dispensaries. That sting operation led to the subsequent medical board investigation of four doctors who allegedly sold medical-marijuana recommendations to healthy individuals.

In the aftermath of the latest marijuana purge, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis proudly announced, “The party is over.” During my investigation, however, it appeared the party never ended. While San Diego’s hemp revolution may have gone underground, it was simply to establish deeper roots.

I scheduled an appointment with Alternative Care Consultants (ACC), one of San Diego’s most reputable medical marijuana clinics. According to Proposition 215, physicians are legally permitted to recommend—but not prescribe—marijuana to patients who suffer from legitimate ailments. Recommendations may be granted after a patient is properly examined or can prove a condition exists.

I made my way to Suite 314 of the San Diego medical facility. Naïve to the world of reefer, my preconceived ideas didn’t prepare me for the professionalism of the setting. Behind the counter sat an African-American woman wearing a white lab coat with a pen tucked behind her ear. Sliding open a glass window, she asked that I thoroughly read ACC rules before proceeding further. My eyes scanned the list, which included “No cell phones,” “No cameras” and “Please do not ask the doctor where to purchase marijuana.”

As I filled out my paperwork, the front door opened, and immediately I recognized a fellow surfer from Solana Beach. I buried my head behind the clipboard. Taking out a wad of cash, he asked for renewal of his expired medical card. Smiling, the receptionist asked, “Do you have proof that your health condition continues to persist?” Pointing toward his back, he detailed the aches and pains that ran throughout his body.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “The doctor must review your current medical records before issuing you a new card.”

Defeated, he limped out of the office. Apparently, the only person who could either grant or deny the recommendation for medical marijuana was ACC’s Dr. Harvey Pollack.

During my 90-minute wait, I skimmed through the Marijuana Survival Guide. It stated, “Marijuana can reduce anxiety and depression”—while another paragraph warned, “Long-term effects include mood disturbances, depression and apathy.” These contradictory statements seemed to undermine the medical-marijuana argument.

As I waited, I noticed a water cooler next to a basket of tea bags, cookies and lollipops. Ten other patients sat around me, also waiting for the coveted medical card. Entrancing us was the sound of Woody Harrelson narrating Ron Mann’s documentary, Grass. The movie includes footage of JFK smoking a joint by the White House swimming pool. Reefer, weed, Mary Jane, tea, hash—no matter what Harrelson called it, it all seemed so right in this herb-loving environment.

In one corner stood a glass tower filled with books such as Marijuana Cooking and The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower’s Bible. The tower also contained smoking paraphernalia such as the Vapor Air One 5.0. Purchased for $150, the cannabis vaporizer allows “three people to inhale three separate vaporizer hits with just one herb disc.”

The patient beside me had a 4-year-old son. Like a mini-Tarzan, the wild child swung from long strands of earth beads that hung in the doorway. His antics drew only subtle notice from glassy-eyed patients. They barely looked up when he began throwing magazines and Dixie cups past their drooping heads.

Finally, the dazed father was called into the examination room. Immediately the door flew back open, and Dr. Pollack exited with the kicking boy in his arms, saying, “Can I please get a babysitter here? I cannot have this child in the examination room.” For the next 30 minutes, the secretary did all she could to pacify the raging child.

Eventually, it was my turn in the office. A black medical bag sat prominently on Dr. Pollack’s desk, and the walls were lined with plaques and diplomas, verifying his years of education. Although I was not presently in pain, I explained that I had been hospitalized several times over the past year. He plucked at my array of prescription bottles as I explained I wanted to avoid harsh drugs due to their side effects.

Dr. Pollack nodded, writing down the names of my prescribed medications. During the course of my 45-minute visit, he questioned my medical history and proceeded with a brief examination.

“I have no problem recommending cannabis for your condition,” Dr. Pollack says. “My main concern now is getting to the bottom of your condition. I’m worried that you have been in and out of the hospital so many times. We need to find you a reliable doctor.”

Glancing at the clock, I wondered if I had fed enough quarters into my parking meter. Noticing my gaze, Dr. Pollack apologized for taking up so much of my time. After recommending several specialists, he said, “Many doctors in my same field grant medical cards to anybody who walks in the door. For me, it’s about doing what is right for the patient. I want to be able to sleep at night.”

After stamping the Physician’s Statement, Dr. Pollack shook my hand and asked that I stay in contact regarding the status of my health condition. I had received more one-on-one medical attention from Dr. Pollack than I had during all my past visits to emergency rooms. Clearly, he and his ACC staff were operating well within the bounds of legitimacy.

Before I left the building, my photograph was taken. Upon payment of the $160 fee, I was handed a Medical Marijuana Patient Verification Card, valid for one year. According to the state guidelines of Proposition 420, this card allows the holder to possess 8 ounces of dried marijuana and maintain six mature or 12 immature marijuana plants.

As the newest member of the marijuana alliance, I was favorably impressed by Dr. Pollack’s professionalism and thoroughness. Was it possible other physicians might be less scrupulous?

ACCORDING TO DAMON MOSLER, chief of the narcotics division of the San Diego County district attorney’s office, several licensed physicians fail to conduct exams before recommending marijuana. He also revealed the names of those physicians most commonly reported in connection with code violations. One of these, Dr. Robert Sterner, reportedly prescribed marijuana to the dog of an undercover police officer in October 2007. The medical board is seeking to revoke his license for gross negligence.

Another physician named by the narcotics division is Dr. Alfonso Jimenez. With locations throughout Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange County and Hawaii, Jimenez is head of Medical Marijuana of San Diego.

Since I had already obtained a medical-marijuana card, I called upon a friend, Greg Hall (not his real name), to assist on the undercover assignment. Hall drove to a chiropractic office in Dana Point where Jimenez temporarily does business. In contrast to my 45-minute examination with Dr. Pollack, Hall’s visit with Dr. Jimenez took less than 15 minutes.

“I did not have any medical documentation, prescription bottles or pain of any kind,” says Hall. “Dr. Jimenez took me to his computer, and we filled out a form online. The process was simple. I initialed a few documents and told him that I suffer from back pain. After paying the $175 fee, I was issued a six-month medical-marijuana card. He even gave me a lighter and told me where to buy some herb. When I told him alcoholism and depression run in my family, he recommended a specific drug to help ease the pain.”

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