Patient Med-Aid: For Those Sick Enough to Smoke

A peek inside Orange County's most exclusive medical-marijuana club, one no one wants to join

Patient Med-Aid: For Those Sick Enough to Smoke

To reach the warehouse, you have to drive down an unmarked alleyway in an industrial neighborhood of Anaheim—it's the third one past the stop sign—and then navigate past several other businesses, even a Dumpster. It's an unlikely spot for a picnic, but on a recent weekday afternoon, the massive metal door is rolled up to reveal about two dozen people lounging on sofas in the back or sitting in chairs beneath a canvas tent looming over the pavement. They dine on potato salad and barbecued chicken fresh off a pair of gas grills.

The free meal is just one of the benefits available to members of Orange County's most exclusive medical-marijuana club: Patient Med-Aid, based in Anaheim and with only about 20 members. Another benefit: free marijuana. Many cannabis collectives provide the occasional buy-one-get-one special or advertise a free eighth for first-time customers, but Patient Med-Aid is unique in that all the marijuana it provides to members is free, meaning it sells absolutely no marijuana at all.

There's a catch, however. To be a member of Patient Med-Aid, you must be either disabled or seriously ill, with the paperwork to prove it. The club doesn't have any members who fit the stereotype of the typical medical-marijuana patient: young, twentysomething males wearing skateboard attire and carrying doctor's notes for unspecified backaches, anxiety or insomnia. Instead, most of the folks at this picnic are middle-aged or older, many of them in wheelchairs, limping, or looking emaciated from cancer and/or other illnesses raging through their bodies. Patient Med-Aid is, in other words, the last type of marijuana club you'd ever want to join.

Hanging With Martin Modiano at an undisclosed location
John Gilhooley
Hanging With Martin Modiano at an undisclosed location
Charlie Parra on medical marijuana: “If I can’t get it here, I’ll get it from somewhere”
John Gilhooley
Charlie Parra on medical marijuana: “If I can’t get it here, I’ll get it from somewhere”

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The person who invited me to the Patient Med-Aid picnic was Marla James, director of the Orange County chapter of Americans for Safe Access, the nation's leading medical-marijuana organization. James typifies Patient Med-Aid's membership, although not in a lucky way. In December 1999, she contracted flesh-eating bacteria from someone carrying the influenza virus. "I was around somebody who had the flu," she explains. "Because I am a type-1 diabetic, my immune system was lower, and the only way to remove the bacteria was to remove parts of my body."

After cutting away muscles and tissue from James' lower abdomen, doctors released her from the hospital and prescribed her 180 milligrams of Oxycontin per day, with all the Vicodin she could stomach in between doses. "I had no quality of life and asked my doctor to get me off the stuff," she recalls. "He said, 'Why would you want to be in pain?' and I fired him and went to another doctor who very slowly and painfully got me off Oxycontin. Medical marijuana helped me do that; it helped with the nausea and pain of the withdrawal."

Four years ago, the bad luck that already plagued James struck again when she suffered a broken ankle. After her body rejected the titanium screws in her leg, causing an infection, doctors amputated it. James says medical marijuana also helps treat the so-called phantom pain she and other amputees often experience, in which their brains mysteriously register sensations from their missing limbs. "When you lose a leg, you get phantom pain and phantom itches, which is worse because you can't itch it," she says. "I'm just a wreck all over."

By the time she lost her leg, James had already become one of Orange County's most energetic medical-marijuana activists, helping to found a local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)—it's now one of the largest and most active branches of the pro-legalization group in the country. While she supports marijuana legalization, James insists, her true mission is advocating for the marijuana rights of other low-income, severely ill or disabled California residents, who, she points out, were the intended beneficiaries of Proposition 215, the landmark 1996 ballot proposal that made California the first state to allow sick people to smoke pot.

Although she has worked tirelessly for this cause, as well as for the right of residents to form collectives to grow and distribute cannabis, it wasn't until she joined Patient Med-Aid that James could actually go to a grow-house and help trim the plants in return for a monthly gift of high-grade medical marijuana.

That happened about six months ago, when she met the group's founder and first patient, Martin Modiano, at a NORML/ASA meeting. Modiano explained that he knew sick people throughout Orange County who couldn't afford to buy their own medical marijuana. Meanwhile, just about every city in the county was kicking out the collectives—suing them out of existence for violating citywide bans, issuing hefty code enforcement fines, or simply calling in the feds to raid them and threaten landlords with seizure of their properties.

Modiano told James he had a plan to fix this problem, one that is remarkable in its simplicity yet apparently unique in Orange County, and maybe the rest of California: find growers who are willing to provide free cannabis to people who need it and can't afford it, and put the patients together with the growers.

"There is no money changing hands. There is no dispensary," James explains. "The patients work together directly with the growers, so we've cut out the middleman. This is what Prop. 215 intended. It's exactly what medical marijuana is really meant to be."

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