Laguna Woods seniors step toward embracing medical marijuana

A man smokes a cigarette of marijuana.
A man smokes a cigarette of marijuana. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It’s been 13 years since California voters approved “medical marijuana,” but we’re a long way from treating cannabis as medicine. Cities and counties still struggle to make sure dispensaries run more like pharmacies than pot shops.

It’s different in south Orange County’s Laguna Woods, where you’ll find the Leisure World retirement community. A growing number of seniors there want marijuana for its medicinal value only, and they’re moving carefully to set up a dispensary.

KPCC’s Debra Baer reports.

Debra Baer: For decades, Leisure World’s resort lifestyle has attracted retirees to its swimming pools and golf greens, tennis courts and dance halls. Margo Bouer’s passion is synchronized swimming.

Margo Bouer: The water’s magnificent. I’m me in the water. This is what keeps me alive!

Baer: The 73-year-old is one of the younger members of the Aquadettes. The women perform synchronized choreographed routines for the retirement community. Today they’re rehearsing a new production.

Coach: For the beginning, Mickey, you had your feet clear up on Margo’s knee. All the feet have to be on top of each other. It got all out of whack!

Baer: Margo Bouer is a retired nurse. She and her husband moved from Chicago to Laguna Woods, the city that’s home to Leisure World. For Margo, swimming means relief from Multiple Sclerosis.

In the water, she doesn’t shake or lose her balance, need a walker or worry about her latest symptom from MS.

Bouer: Suddenly I’d have a wave of nausea and from that wave, I’d vomit and I’d vomit from the tip of my toes all the way up, and I had no clue as to what was going on.

Baer: It got so bad she had to stop eating.

Bouer: If I had a gun right now, would I use it? That’s what came to mind. That’s how desperate I felt.

Baer: A neighbor invited her to a meeting about medical marijuana. It was a stretch for a former psychiatric nurse whose generation was conditioned to think that cannabis was little more than a gateway to harder drugs.

Bouer: I had nothing to lose; I’m close to dying anyhow.

Baer: After the meeting a woman offered help, a woman she calls her “angel.”

Bouer: She gave me that little pipe. That night, I’m sitting out on my balcony. That wave of nausea came. I lit that pipe and I just held it in my mouth afraid to even inhale, but I held it in my mouth, blew it out – like that. I was so preoccupied; now what’s happened? Well, what happened is that nothing happened except that I wasn’t nauseated.

Baer: Bouer got a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana. She says she takes about two puffs a night to control her MS symptoms.

Bill Schwied: Its safety factor is high. No one dies from overdose of marijuana.

Baer: That’s Bill Schwied, the neighbor who encouraged Bouer to find out about cannabis. The 88-year-old doctor is retired from a career in both private practice and public health. Schwied says he’s never used cannabis medicinally, but he recommends it.

Schwied: The only risk involved is the legal risk, which is very frightening to many doctors and patients.

Baer: California was the first state to approve the medical use of marijuana. Twelve others followed. But the federal government still classifies the plant, along with cocaine and heroin, as an illegal Schedule 1, controlled substance with no accepted medical use. Until a few months ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration regularly raided medical marijuana dispensaries.

Schwied: The research so far is very convincing, very stunning. Doctors haven’t read it; they don’t want to read it. The DEA discourages research and we just need more of it to learn more about it. I don’t think it cures everything, but it’s one approach in medicine that the medical profession has kind of ignored.

Baer: Bill Schwied, the retired doctor, and the former nurse Margo Bouer have become vocal advocates, appearing publicly at forums and community meetings.

Bouer: For the first time the nausea dissipated. I sat there and waited for it, and I felt relaxed, and I thought, “Well, it’ll probably return during the night.” But guess what? I slept like a log!

Baer: More than 200 seniors turned out for this panel discussion on medical marijuana. No one spoke against it.

Woman: Can you recommend a doctor?

Baer: Finding a doctor is easy. Finding a place to buy medical marijuana in Laguna Woods is tough. At least, it is now. But some of the people at that panel discussion plan to solve that problem. They want to open Leisure World’s first medical marijuana dispensary.

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