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Photo by Jonathan VogelLake Forest isn't the sort of place you normally go looking for revolutionaries. Dr. Philip A. Denney's practice is smack in the middle of a numbing, affectless expanse of gated, landscaped subdivisions, chain store shopping "plazas," steel-and-glass office complexes with "executive suites" for lease. The office itself, blocks from the 5 freeway, is in an utterly nondescript one-story gray building. Nothing on the door but the names of Denney and his partner, Dr. Robert E. Sullivan—when you've just set up shop as the only physicians for 200 miles in three directions who specialize in providing medical recommendations for marijuana use, you don't want to court any more trouble than your mere existence already guarantees.
Inside are four equally plain-wrap rooms. The carpet is blue, the walls flat white, the reception desk the kind you buy at Office Depot and assemble at home. No magazines. Two patients wait for appointments, middle-aged white guys, dressed casually but well, clutching medical records. Each will soon go through a basic exam and evaluation—height, weight, blood pressure, medical history. . . . You could yawn with the ordinariness of it all, except that in the world of medical cannabis, nothing is ordinary.
"I do this work because morally it's the right thing," says Denney. He's 55, a USC medical school graduate, with silver hair and beard—slap 50 pounds around his middle and he'd make a credible Santa Claus. "Cannabis has been used medically for thousands of years. For 60 years, our government has been lying to us about it, and patients are being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. It's unconscionable."
After years as a Northern California family practitioner and ER doc, Denney went into a cannabis-approval practice in 1999 because "I was intrigued by the politics and science—mostly the science." Cannabis, unpatented, easily grown, a people's remedy if ever there was one, has been shown in studies to reduce eye pressure in glaucoma patients, ease chemotherapy induced nausea, improve appetite, relieve some multiple sclerosis symptoms, and relieve pain. Nobody's yet reported a death from overdose. Eventually, struck by the number of patients who were traveling hundreds of miles to see him, he recruited his former colleague, Sullivan, and headed south.
Cannabis-approval medicine works like this: Patients come in, "every ethnicity, professionals, blue collar workers," says Denney. "I've seen police officers. I had a judge sit in my chair." The vast majority suffer from some kind of chronic pain, neurological problems like migraine, and gastrointestinal disorders that they've successfully treated with pot on their own for years. The doctor examines, discusses, writes an approval for continued use. (Or not: "Those are the ones in chains and tattoos who say, 'I need marijuana because . . . um . . . oh, yeah, I can't sleep.'") As a scene, it's straightforward and humdrum. As work, it's simultaneously cutting edge, radical, humanitarian and professionally suicidal.
It's been almost eight years since California voters approved medical use of marijuana with a doctor's approval; in October, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that doctors had the right to advise sick patients of the benefits of pot; in December that same year, the 9th Circuit held that medical users who grew their own couldn't be prosecuted. But under federal law, marijuana use for any reason remains illegal—weed's a Class I substance, just like heroin and crack—and despite the court decisions, patient-users are still being busted and doctors still investigated by the California Medical Board. (Denney's two Southern California predecessors were put out of business.)
Denney's stayed out of trouble through 8,000 approvals because "I practice good medicine," he says. "I perform thorough exams. I review records and document my findings. Law enforcement, including the medical board, are like jackals. They go after the weak."
Still, there's a surreal side to what he does. He can recommend that patients use cannabis, but not tell them where to get it. He can offer legal cover, but in real life, the police may still show up at the door. Some of his patients are longtime user/advocate/activists. Andy Kinnon, 41, who's already spoken to several reporters, lays it out almost proudly: "I choose to use cannabis! I smoke it, I eat it, I vaporize it." But most are like the two men in the waiting room, who quietly take their turns then scurry out without talking to anyone, including each other—upstanding workadaddies and soccer moms who know what works for them but whose kids get lectured in school on the evils of drugs, and who're well aware of the stakes in going public.
"They're not interested in being radical," says Denney. "They just want a piece of paper saying they're not criminals."
With minimal advertising, Denney's and Sullivan's practice went from five patients the first week to 45 the second. The top-out number is anyone's guess, but Denney himself, who commutes to his Northern California home, may not be around to see it. "I've already gotten calls from local doctors," he says, and it's his hope someone will step forward and take over the business. A British pharmaceutical company is about to release a cannabis-based prescription drug, and just last week, Denney's alma mater, USC med school, featured a half-day program devoted to clinical cannabis use. The long-demonized weed may be edging toward respectability. In Lake Forest, that's good news.
"In a perfect world, I won't be doing this," Phil Denney says. "In a perfect world, patients will get medical cannabis approvals written by a family doctors, and I'll be home in my garden, growing tomatoes."