The smell of marijuana drifted in the breeze. On a recent Sunday afternoon, a California entrepreneur held a brunch at her home in Los Angeles. About 40 invited guests munched on food, drank mimosas, and mingled inside and outside the single-story house.
What made the Sunday scene truly unusual was the presence of a doctor, who was available to evaluate the invited guests in a private room at a discount rate – and then sign off on recommendations that allow them to legally obtain marijuana.
Michael MontgomeryBongs, joints and medical marijuana are kept out on a table during a "doctor's party."
The scene brought together two under-regulated and under-reported aspects of California’s medical marijuana business: the growth and role of delivery services and the role of the doctors who provide patient recommendations for the industry.
The California businesswoman who hosted the brunch is the owner of a medical marijuana delivery service. An energetic and business-savvy entrepreneur, she acknowledged that for years, she ran an underground pot business, selling and delivering marijuana to about 500 clients throughout the Los Angeles area.
Now, under California’s medical marijuana laws, she is working diligently to transform her business into a legal one and convert her clientele from black-market buyers to legal medical marijuana patients.
“Why not jump on the bandwagon and get legal?” she explained in an interview with California Watch.
Two reporters from California Watch were given extraordinary access to her operation on the condition that neither the owner nor the delivery service is identified. The reporters were able to attend the “doctor’s party” brunch and were allowed to ride along on her rounds one afternoon. Some of the details about that brunch were published in a California Watch story that ran in more than a dozen news outlets across the state. But some interesting details didn't make it into the final version.
At the brunch, the delivery service owner greeted each person at the front door and explained the system. Each prospective patient checked in at a desk in the living room where a doctor’s assistant issued a medical questionnaire, collected a $100 fee (vs. $175 to visit the same doctor’s office), answered preliminary questions, and gave an estimated waiting time to see the doctor.
As the wait stretched to an hour or more, the guests were shepherded by the hostess outside to the backyard. There, long tables held bagels and lox, fresh fruit and mouth-watering chili to be washed down with mimosas, cold beer and bottled water. At the back of the property was a free-standing garage converted into a single-room living area, complete with a bathroom, TV and Wi-Fi.
This waiting area, which the owner fondly calls her “debauchery room,” is arranged to aid the sales process through product sampling. A card table displayed thick, perfectly-rolled joints, divided by marijuana strain. Two bongs – one of them almost two-feet high – were set up alongside bowlfuls of trimmed, high-quality buds. Marijuana-infused edibles, including blueberry crumble bars and assorted cookies were laid out.
Pointing to the perfectly rolled joints, the host explained, “The ones in the dark berries (rolling paper) are Indica, the peach ones are Sativa. (Sativa is generally considered a more uplifting and cerebral high; while Indica is regarded as more a physical body high). “Whatever you want, help yourself,” the host told her guests. “So sit, relax, fill out the paperwork, get your name on the list, then come and party.”
Michael MontgomeryA look into an LA delivery service's case. Each colored bag contains a different strain of marijuana.
Indeed, it is a party atmosphere – this Sunday, a playoff game provided backdrop while the crowd got high, drank, ate and discussed the fluid state of Los Angeles’ medical marijuana regulatory status.
At one point, the owner dropped in and gave a sales pitch camouflaged as an open discussion of the medical marijuana situation. The first aspects covered were practical and general in scope: an update on the city council’s progress on storefront dispensary regulations (which had not been finalized at this point), and the probable effects on the industry. She then covered the benefits of signing up with her delivery service: all organic products, a discounted doctor’s recommendation and, addressing the most frequent concern, patients would not be placed on any government list unless they also registered in California’s ID card program.
The owner utilizes her marketing background to generate a high rate of new patient sign-ups. Many are persuaded by the low-key, rational sales pitch delivered in a conducive setting. Plus, new collective members are given a free introductory 1/8-ounce of marijuana (a $60 retail value) in appreciation.
“If you went to the doctor’s office it would be $175 and you’d sit there for hours. I give you a deal because he gives me a flat rate and you’re part of my private collective when you leave,” the owner told her guests.
“They’re going to be taking down the dispensaries,” the host warned. “A lot of them (dispensaries) have a gangster vibe, weed that’s mass produced, chemically infused.” By contrast, the owner said, “I get from organic farmers that hand-tend their gardens.”
On this Sunday, the guests ranged in age from 20 to 60, with slightly more men than women, and appeared to include mostly professionals, plus a few stereotypical-looking stoners. Overall, people were open and friendly, the atmosphere upbeat and pleasant, with little sense of paranoia.
A master list ensured that patients were seen in sequence. The owner or a doctor’s assistant (there were two) called the patient’s name and escorted him or her to see the doctor. Many, if not most, of the patients were high upon arrival.
In a small bedroom office, the silver-haired doctor sat at a desk wearing a white lab coat over business-casual clothing. His manner was professional, and after a brief introduction, he took the patient’s blood pressure, according to one party attendee who obtained a medical marijuana recommendation from the doctor.
According to an interview with this patient, the doctor reviewed his medical questionnaire, which was fairly standard in size and scope for an initial doctor’s visit. It covered the patient’s medical history, medications taken, and the specific condition(s) that led to seeking a medical marijuana recommendation. The doctor’s questions concentrated primarily on the latter issue.
For this patient, the issue was chronic back pain. When the patient revealed he was already self-medicating this condition with marijuana, and was merely seeking a legal pathway to buy and possess the drug, the doctor’s attitude appeared to go through a subtle change, the patient said. He recalled that the doctor appeared to relax slightly, and while never assuming a complicit attitude, seemed relieved that a detailed explanation of marijuana’s medicinal benefits was unnecessary.
Instead, the doctor discussed other lifestyle considerations, specifically the benefits of diet, exercise and hydration in conjunction with medical marijuana use.
The doctor’s final step was to sign a physician’s statement form confirming the patient was under his “care and supervision for the medical use of cannabis.”
At this point, the delivery service owner reappeared to encourage the new patient to sign the paperwork required to join her collective.
It’s no revelation when a doctor writes a patient a medical marijuana recommendation in California. The state’s guidelines for permissible conditions are so expansive and vaguely worded that doctors have nearly total discretion and rejections are rare.
Asked whether any of her clients had been turned down, the owner said, “No, that doesn’t happen.”
As the party was winding down, the topic of California’s November ballot initiative to legalize marijuana came up. While the owner is a proponent of total legalization, medical marijuana delivery services will clearly be affected if it passes.
“It will affect my business. If you only have to be 21 and don’t have to have a doctor’s recommendation to go get it, you just go to your favorite bar. It’d be a novelty at first.
“But still, there are a lot of people who want to be anonymous. They probably don’t want to be seen going to a bar and buying marijuana.
“So I will, of course, always hope that my delivery service will continue, but I might have to do something; I’m thinking now of what my future will hold and I’m thinking about the great opportunities, but I’m going to be up against the tobacco companies. So I’m just trying to think 10 steps ahead of that when and if it happens.”