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"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."
Inside the warehouse after the barbecue, Modiano shows me a picture of himself that was taken in the 1980s. In the snapshot, he's tan and muscular with a bushy surfer's haircut, lying on his stomach in a swimsuit next to a pool. Another photograph of him taken just three years ago shows a much older man, still tan and muscular, but much more wiry and gray. Today, not a scrap of fat exists on his emaciated body, and his face is lined with deep cracks.
Still, he's in remarkable shape for someone who was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS 12 years ago, a diagnosis that came so late he already weighed only 118 pounds and nearly died during the first year of his treatment. Modiano figures he contracted AIDS thanks to his wild lifestyle during the '70s and '80s, when he traveled a lot and slept with a lot of women. He doesn't like talking about those days much. "In previous lives, I didn't have a drug problem because I had all the drugs I could want" is about all he would say.
After finding out he was sick, Modiano retreated to his father's house and prepared to die. A friend intervened, insisting Modiano move into his house in Dana Point so he could better take care of his dying pal. "He baby-sat me for six months or a year," Modiano says. "I was throwing up, I had to wear Depends because I could not control my bowels, and I looked like I came out of Auschwitz prison camp."
Eventually, the medication caught up with him, and the outlook became better. To treat the nausea of the illness and the antiviral cocktail doctors had prescribed, Modiano smoked marijuana every day. "I smoked pot incessantly," he says. It also helped fight his deep sense of despair. "To wake up as a heterosexual man with AIDS, you can imagine the depression I felt from the stupidity that had such a drastic impact on my life," he says. "Because I'm not part of the target population—gay or using needles—it was a weird thing to happen, and I didn't have anybody I could relate to. I could not relate to that community."
But gradually, after realizing that he wasn't ever going to live without AIDS, Modiano became more involved in Southern California's AIDS community, surrounding himself with people just as sick or even sicker than he. "There are 60,000 AIDS patients in LA, 10,000 in OC, and I don't even want to guess how many cancer patients," he says. "These people don't wake up like you do as a healthy person. They struggle just for their basic existence. Just getting out of bed and making it to the bathroom without throwing up all over the place is, like, a great day, let alone getting dressed and walking or taking public transportation to go get food. I have to live in this world. I have chosen to be part of the pain and suffering that goes on, and the vast majority of humanity never sees this."
About three years ago, Modiano visited the AIDS Services Foundation Orange County, located in Irvine near the John Wayne Airport. At the time, he worked as a consultant for a few different medical-marijuana dispensaries in Anaheim, and he figured the foundation was probably the best place to locate low-income patients who could benefit from free cannabis. So he put up a flier advertising free marijuana for people with AIDS and began gathering names. Then he borrowed a van from one of the collectives and used it for deliveries to his new friends. "I didn't know if it was legal or not," he says. "It's such a gray area. I had a van, and my friend was growing medical marijuana. I started hanging out with AIDS patients and evaluating the needs of 50 patients."
Modiano also used the van for such prosaic purposes as taking them places they no longer went. "I've taken several small groups of patients out to the beach," Modiano says. "And some of them I've taught how to kayak. Some of them have this attitude that they can't do this or that because they're sick, and half of them really aren't healthy enough to schlep to the beach, but the ones that can, it changes their whole outlook."
That first year in 2009, dispensaries were just starting to take off in Southern California. There was big money in growing marijuana for storefront operations that were popping up like weeds throughout Orange County. But after a few years, his friend no longer saw the value in providing free cannabis to Modiano's HIV-positive friends. "He decided he didn't need to have medical patients and just wanted to sell medication," Modiano recalls. "He kicked me out of the building. Luckily, other people saw what I was capable of doing and said, 'We want you and will put you in a new building,' and that is where I am now."