Is There Still a Space for Medical Cannabis in Los Angeles?

As many dispensaries are making the switch to recreational cannabis, patients, advocates, and cannabis users across California are asking: Is there still a space for medical cannabis?

Last week, the count of L.A.’s first ever, (albeit provisional) commercial cannabis licenses jumped over 100. That means more than 100 retailers are well on their way to sell “adult use” or recreational cannabis. Some are brightly-lit, all-glass storefronts, like the new MedMen shop in downtown where you can select your weed off an iPad. Some, like CCA in Silverlake, is more showroom-style, where you can still find your flower among tightly sealed jars and large glass display cases.

Either way you go, all you need is an ID being older than 21 years old these days to get your weed in many of L.A.’s first — almost — licensed shops.

The foundation of L.A.’s current cannabis economy is for its medicinal uses,  and this burning question of where this part of the weed industry will go was given new weight in the last weeks with the death of prominent cannabis activist Dennis Peron at age 71. He was often referred to as the “father of medical cannabis movement.” Peron provided cannabis to those dying of AIDS in the 1980s and opened the country’s first cannabis dispensary.

What many in the industry also fail to acknowledge is that many people didn’t vote for us to have freedom, they voted for it to be taxed and regulated as a sin tax…

He helped write and pass both the first local ordinance recognized the medical value of cannabis in San Francisco and Proposition 215 (1996), which legalized medical marijuana in California. Nonetheless, Peron faced repeated prosecutions for his work.

When researching medical cannabis in Los Angeles, almost all roads will guide you to Felicia Carbajal. She is a long-time medical cannabis patient and also one of the most active advocates in the city. She has worked locally for in the San Fernando Valley and helped form the SFV Cannabis Coalition this year.

Moving Medicine

Felicia Carbajal came to cannabis as part of LGBTQ communities hard hit by the HIV/AIDS crisis. But she was doing so far away from San Francisco’s Castro District, where Peron worked.

Felicia Carbajal

“I grew up in the Central Valley, raised by my mom who grew up in the projects,” she told me during an interview “I literally fell into cannabis work,” she explained. “It was: Can you bring some weed to our friend — and oh, by the way — did you know that our friend is HIV positive, and needs this medicine?” Carbajal understood her friend’s “conservative, fundamentalist background” experience all too well.

She soon became a regular in the networks running medical marijuana to HIV/AIDS patients living in L.A. — and she continued this work in Mexico later. Scott Tracy Imler, a colleague of Peron’s who helped him write Proposition 215, spoke at the SFV Cannabis Coalition’s first public event in Northridge in January. “An entire generation of the gay community disappeared during the AIDS crisis,” Imler mourned.

But, Imler continued, cannabis helped patients manage “the nausea, the vomiting, and the wasting caused by AIDS” and to deal with the first generation of HIV/AIDS medication. With cannabis, patients could do simple things like “come to the dinner table.” To maintain access, activists had to take on police, the Food and Drug Administration, and all kinds of stigma.

Dr. Brandi Cross described how research restrictions and stigma have made it hard to get real information on what cannabis really does.

A self-described “young anarchist queer,” Carbajal was willing to take all that on. She explained moving medicine was made easier by the fact that she “presented white,” even though she is Latina. “I would get pulled over, with a pound of weed in my backpack. I’d feel that adrenaline rush and just laugh, and say, ‘Oh, officer,’ and drive away.”

A Changing  Science

Carbajal became involved in building a medical marijuana collective herself after 2010.  As a patient, she also began to benefit herself from expanding medical marijuana knowledge, like low-dose THC and the first generation of Cannabidol, (CBD)-intensive medicine.

SFV Cannabis Coalition’s panel “How to Talk to your Parents About Cannabis” Event. Photo courtesy of Clara Mejía Orta

Parents of terminally ill children or those with seizures started showing up to her business. “I didn’t expect to meet mothers with sick kids who needed answers,” Carbajal explained. Medical advocates began developing CBD-heavy products like “Charlotte’s Web,” a tailor-made strain of cannabis for kids with seizures.

But even with the activism from the LGBTQ community, anti-drug war advocates, and parents of often-terminally ill children, medical science (and the law) was slow to catch up. At the SFV Cannabis Coalition event, Dr. Brandi Cross described how research restrictions and stigma have made it hard to get real information on what cannabis really does. Science is only beginning to explore, she explained, the endocannabinoid system, a set of molecules throughout the human body that cannabis molecules interact with.

To figure out why we are still seeing the stigma, Cross traces the issue to its roots: “We have to start looking at why the laws are made,” Cross explained. She points to racism in the U.S. as historically shaping criminalization of cannabis consumption and how it still affects the industry to this day. “Racism is one of those things that dehumanizes everyone together, and that’s what we have seen with cannabis science.”

Life After Legalization

Carbajal believes cannabis regulations after Proposition 64 are still being set up in ways rooted in stigma and discrimination.

A lot of those ‘LA indoor’ labels at the shops and collectives that dot major streets like Roscoe and Sepulveda you are most likely being grown just a few miles away.

“What many in the industry also fail to acknowledge is that many people didn’t vote for us to have freedom, they voted for it to be taxed and regulated as a sin tax,” she noted. “What that tells me is: Wow, so many don’t really believe this is medicine.”

Cannabis taxes have been adding up in the last year: Los Angeles has set recreational taxes at 10 percent and medical cannabis at 5 percent, and the state. This doesn’t include the taxes on growing, manufacturing, and testing. Medical patients can get the reduced tax rate only if they register with California’s Department of Public Health to get a Medical Marijuana ID card for $100 – which Carbajal says ends up being as expensive as the taxes.

And cannabis isn’t covered by insurance.

Over 70 cities and counties in California have also banned cannabis dispensaries and stores altogether.

For Carbajal, the fight for medical cannabis access is especially fierce in the San Fernando Valley. The 818 is one of the centers of cannabis production in L.A. What used to be warehouses filled with aerospace parts are now decked in hydroponic systems and rows of cannabis flowers. A lot of those “LA indoor” labels at the shops and collectives that dot major streets like Roscoe and Sepulveda you are most likely being grown just a few miles away.

However, Valley public officials have been far from receptive. Area city Councilmembers Nury Martinez and Mitchell Englander, for example, boast on their websites their partnerships with LAPD shutting down “unauthorized” or “illegal” shops.

These disconnects, Carbajal said, continue to push medicine out of reach of patients — and hurt communities of color. “We are the San Fernando Valley — 40 percent of Los Angeles — let’s flex a little political power,” she said. “Let’s show our elected officials who have been complacent that they are far removed from their constituents.”

Carbajal teamed up with Valley progressive political activist Marlin Medrano to form the SFV Cannabis Coalition. Their events, like their February 12th “How to Talk to Your Parents About Cannabis,” are focused strongly on the real experiences of cannabis patients, workers, advocates, and more. The Coalition’s mission is to help people come out of the “green closet.”

“It’s time to go beyond leading with how much money we can make in the state, or the profits,” she explained. “The public is most interested in our experiences. So it’s time to start sharing them.”

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