A few weeks ago, I mentioned to a friend I was working on a story about medical marijuana usage among seniors and the challenges they face using it in assisted living facilities for real, debilitating ailments.
In turn, she mentioned to me that she was thinking of going to get a recommendation from a doctor to begin using cannabis for debilitating migraine headaches she'd had for some time. I jumped at the chance to accompany her.
In the course of my reporting, I had attended cannabis club meetings for seniors in Orange County, driven to Oakland to visit the largest marijuana dispensary in the United States and attended classes with those who were looking to start their own collective, but I hadn't gone to see the process of getting a doctor's referral for myself.
Last Wednesday, we drove off together to a strip mall in a nondescript part of L.A., where in between a mechanic, deli and barber shop, sat the office of a medical marijuana doctor. The green cross— used as a symbol for marijuana dispensaries and evaluations — in the parking lot signified that we were in the right place.
She was nervous, and so was I. Despite its legal status in California and more than a dozen other states, it still felt on some level, wrong. I attribute that to the brilliant indoctrination I received, along with many other school-age children of the time in programs like D.A.R.E and similar forces on a grander scale.
With looming anxiety, we made our way up to the second-floor office, where we were greeted by a receptionist who handed her paperwork to fill out. Nothing really gave away that this was indeed, a medical office specializing in marijuana referrals. It was neat, boring and beige.
After my friend was called to go in, I hung around outside, watching more patients fill the empty seats around me. They were a diverse bunch, both in age and ethnic backgrounds.
After about 10 minutes, she emerged, signed recommendation in hand.
"So, how was it?" I cautiously asked.
"Surprisingly simple," she answered.
Before I could finish asking questions, we were driving to a dispensary to put the referral to use. The first thing you notice about a dispensary is the overwhelming smell of marijuana permeating from its crevices. The smell is potent but gets less distracting the more you're around it.
Again, I sat — this time on a couch — as my friend picked her strains of choice. A nice, long chat with the security guard ensued. In the same amount of time it took to fill a prescription, I had learned about his family history, the legacy of the store we were in, different cannabis varieties and the sudden increase in energy his elderly neighbor had had upon smoking a joint one day.
When she came out with her purchases, discreetly placed in a brown paper bag, we exchanged pleasantries with the staff and made it back to the car just as our 20-minute meter had ran out.
The one overwhelming way I would describe the entire experience, even as someone who just tagged along was: normal — a normal visit to a doctor who then gave a recommendation, a normal prescription pick-up with some added small talk, a normal drive back home about the exchange between the doctor and her.
Despite the problems surrounding this budding industry when it comes to regulation and access, my months of research speaking to seniors and recent romp has given me a sense that this "Federally-classified Schedule 1 Drug" is going to be more openly and wholly thought of as something else in the future: medicine.
--LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at email@example.com.