Laguna Woods seniors begin to accept medical marijuana

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In south Orange County’s Laguna Woods, there’s a growing acceptance of medical marijuana. There’s also a growing movement to open a dispensary to serve the seniors who live in the Leisure World retirement community.

KPCC’s Debra Baer has part two of her story about seniors and medical marijuana.

Debra Baer: About 200 people have shown up for a panel discussion in Laguna Woods. The south Orange County city is home to Laguna Woods Village, the retirement community formerly known as Leisure World, where the average age is 78. The panel includes a retired doctor and a former nurse talking about the benefits of medical marijuana.

The crowd listens closely. Some struggle with constant pain, from cancer or arthritis or any number of chronic diseases. The nurse, Margo Bouer, who’s 73, lives in Laguna Woods and uses marijuana to smooth out waves of nausea brought on by multiple sclerosis.

Margo Bouer (speaking to group): 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!

Jim Gray: What is going on in Laguna Woods is critically important.

Baer: Retired judge James Gray is also on the medical marijuana panel at Laguna Woods. For years, Gray sentenced the same drug abusers time and again in his Orange County courtroom. Now, he speaks out in favor of federal approval of medical marijuana and the decriminalization of other illegal drugs.

Gray: Because no one in their right mind, the federal government or anywhere else, will believe that people in Laguna Woods were using medical marijuana for any other reason than a legitimate one.

Baer: As more seniors get doctors’ recommendations to use the herb, the problem of where to get it becomes more pressing. Laguna Woods passed the necessary ordinance to regulate cannabis dispensaries a year ago. But city attorney Leslie Keane says there still aren’t any dispensaries for the retirees here.

Leslie Keane: We’ve gotten close a couple of times but property owners at the end have always backed out and said they didn’t really want to have that type of a business in their property.

Baer: So the seniors are forming their own nonprofit medical marijuana collective. It’s called Laguna Woods for Medical Cannabis. A small group of them has been meeting to study their options under the law, and to brainstorm.

Man: We could give them these little plants that they could put on their balcony that won’t take much room at all and they would be able to have medicine available in like 60 days.
Woman: You mean most plants just get huge?
Man: Oh, they get really big. Depends on where you grow them, inside or outside. What type.
Bouer: That sounds cool.

Baer: While some dispensaries charge as much as $600 an ounce, the seniors say they want their collective to charge only enough to cover their costs. The Orange County District Attorney’s office wouldn’t comment on the legalities of collectives other than to say that it reviews cases based solely on state law, which permits doctor-recommended use of cannabis and allows patients to legally acquire it or even grow it themselves. Assistant D.A. Walt Schwarm supervises the major narcotics unit.

Walt Schwarm: I’m not trying to dodge your question. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing. I don’t know if what they’re doing in terms of forming whatever they’re forming complies with the statutes under the Compassionate Use Act or the medical marijuana program. What they ought to do is probably talk to a lawyer.

Baer: The seniors are getting legal advice for their collective. Despite their best efforts to follow the letter of California’s law, they’re still taking a risk, says Don Duncan. He’s the director for Americans for Safe Access.

Don Duncan: The federal government typically doesn’t target medical cannabis patients. But if one or more of these patients want to join together into a collective or cooperative, there is a substantial legal risk in providing that service to the community, and we think that risk is diminishing with the new administration and new attorney general. But until the federal law changes there’s always a chance that somebody could be arrested or indicted.

Bouer: I’ll be a test case. What are they going to do, throw me in jail? A 73-year-old person with MS?

Baer: If that happens, retired nurse Margo Bouer is likely to have a lot of elderly supporters. Her group recently held a community meeting to announce the collective. More than 70 people turned out.