How to Buy Marijuana Legally in California (Update)

On November 2, California voters rejected a bill to legalize marijuana. However, the subject is far from closed. Although California voters rejected full legalization, a majority of voters under the age of 30 did vote in favor of legalization. Because this was a midterm election, far fewer younger voters took part than did in the 2008 election.
Because a bill was introduced in the State Assembly to legalize marijuana and treat it like alcohol, the State Board of Equalization, California’s version of the IRS, ran an economic analysis and concluded that legalization would bring in $1.4 billion a year in tax revenue. In a state where basic services are being slashed because of lack of funds, this is a figure not to be ignored.
In 1996, California voters approved the use of medical marijuana. There are now more than 900 medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles alone, although the Los Angeles City Council has threatened to shut down most (but not all) of them.
Many people have criticized the concept of medical marijuana as nothing more than a cover to allow healthy Californians to buy marijuana. They’re right.
Before going on, I do want to acknowledge that there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana. My own brother-in-law, when he was in the final stages of terminal cancer, was prescribed the drug to deal with his lack of appetite and his anxiety about his impending death. I saw that it did what it was supposed to do. However, most people who buy legal marijuana in California are really not ill. The current state of affairs is a transitional stage on the way to inevitable full legalization.
Obtaining a Prescription
The first step is the hardest and, for many people, the most intimidating.
To obtain a prescription, you have to be able to prove that you are a legal resident of California. A driver’s license will do the trick. Start by going to and find a dispensary near you.
After choosing a dispensary, knock on their door, explain that you do not yet have a prescription and ask if there is an appropriate doctor nearby. More likely than not, there is, sometimes even in the same building.
Doctors usually charge between $100 and $200 for a marijuana-related consultation. The doctor will ask you to fill out a form that includes a long list of possible symptoms. If you are a member of the Baby Boom Generation, you probably won’t even have to lie.
If you are approved, the doctor will give you a card or a sheet of paper identifying you as a holder of a prescription for cannabis products. Actually, doctors do not issue “prescriptions” as such, but rather “recommendations.” Still, it is easier to refer to the certificates as prescriptions.
Government-Approved Marijuana IDs
If you are a serious patient in need of marijuana, it is possible to apply for a county-issued medical marijuana ID card. Such cards are approved for patients with AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, arthritis, anorexia, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and a few other diseases and conditions. Your doctor will have to supply a copy of your medical records and you will have to pay an additional fee.
First Visit
When you enter a dispensary, a clerk will make a telephone call to verify your prescription. Once it is approved, the clerk will make a copy of your prescription and your driver’s license. The next time you visit this particular dispensary, you will only be required to show your driver’s license.
You will then be led to a sales room containing a variety of cannabis products. Depending on the dispensary, you might find marijuana chocolate bars, marijuana teas and sodas, marijuana butter, marijuana ice cream and marijuana hot sauce and salad dressing. It is also possible to purchase hashish, pre-rolled cigarettes, seeds and seedlings. (A prescription allows you to grow plants for personal use.)
Most customers (a.k.a. “patients”) want to buy straight herb to be smoked. Most dispensaries charge $15-25 for a gram and $45-65 for an eighth of an ounce, and they offer a wide variety of brands. Don’t forget that sales tax will be added to the list price.
There are two kinds of cannabis: sativa (more cerebral) and indica (more physical). All dispensaries encourage you to smell different brands and some allow you to examine the goods under a magnifying glass. First-time visitors are usually offered a gift, such as a lighter, a discount, a rolled joint or some shake (loose marijuana that has fallen off the buds).
Warning #1: Potency
You may have heard some scary tales about today’s marijuana being more powerful than standard Mexican drug cartel marijuana. This is true. One should exercise caution when smoking medical marijuana and start will small doses. This warning applies even more seriously to edibles and drinkables, which are easy to overconsume. Pay close attention to the dose recommended on the label or by the sales clerk.
Warning #2: Legal Issues
The legal status of marijuana is still ambiguous. On October 19, 2009, the Obama administration issued a game-changing memo to United States Attorneys around the country to stop using their limited resources prosecuting users and providers who are in compliance with state law. Nonetheless, until marijuana is fully legal, local district attorneys still have the option of cracking down on dispensaries. For example, Republican Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who was narrowly defeated in his bid to become state attorney general, has declared that any dispensary that is operating on a for-profit basis is illegal, and he intends to shut them all down. Considering that he deals with a sheriff’s department that, in a typical week, records 6 murders, 12 rapes, 310 burglaries, 117 robberies and 210 cases of aggravated assault, it is unclear how much support for his anti-dispensary effort Cooley will earn from the citizens who voted him into office.
Warning #3: Health Dangers
Smoking marijuana, like smoking tobacco, is bad for your lungs. It is also not wise to drive while under the influence of marijuana, even though it is probably not as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. In fact, even if you have a prescription for marijuana, it is illegal to drive while under the influence.
Types of Dispensaries
Neighborhood Shops
The most common kind of dispensary is a small local one that, were it selling groceries rather than cannabis, would be known as a “mom-and-pop store.” These service a neighborhood clientele and offer an adequate variety of products. Patients must have their prescription cleared before being allowed into the sales area. It is these neighborhood stores that are most likely to be shut down in Los Angeles.
Vapor Rooms
A step up from the neighborhood stores are establishments that also provide a Vapor Room, in which “patients” can take their “medicine.” Simple vapor rooms may include couches, soft chairs, a television, magazines, and a video game system. Normal snacks are also available for purchase. More advanced vapor rooms also provide smoking apparatuses.
Delivery Services
People who are too famous, too busy or too shy to visit a dispensary in person have the option of contacting a cannabis delivery service. Delivery services are also useful for people who really are taking marijuana for a medical condition. The procedure is not unlike ordering pizza, although in the case of marijuana deliveries it is possible to view a variety of merchandise before choosing what you want to buy. Customers order their goods online or on the phone and then a delivery person comes to the door. As with the shops, it is necessary to show your prescription and ID the first time, after which you will only have to show your ID. As with pizzas, it’s nice to give a tip.
The Open Storefront (a.k.a. The Future)
In Los Angeles, as an example, there is a three-store chain of dispensaries called The Farmacy. Unlike the neighborhood shops, The Farmacy’s doors are open to the street and anyone is welcome to go inside and browse. The Farmacy also sells non-cannabis products, including cosmetics, Chinese herbal medicines and vitamin supplements. However, the staff will not discuss the cannabis products with you unless you present your prescription.
The Path to Legalization
In October 2010, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill reducing possession of one ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. This means that adult Californians caught with marijuana will be fined a maximum of $100 and the violation will not go on their record as a crime.
Whether it occurs because of legislative action or at the ballot box, it is only a matter of time before marijuana is legalized in California and treated like alcohol. When this happens, there will probably be a clash with the federal government over the issue of states’ rights. At this point, it is unclear how this will play out, particularly as more and more states also pursue legalization and taxation of cannabis.
-Sidney Finster

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