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.
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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.”
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.”
This August, Modiano found the warehouse where Patient Med-Aid now operates. By that point, however, the federal government's crackdown on medical marijuana had caught up with Anaheim. The city first banned marijuana dispensaries back in 2007, but the law was challenged by a lawsuit filed by patients, and as the case worked its way through the system, dozens of dispensaries moved in. In January 2012, without taking public comment, the City Council ruled to extend a moratorium on new pot clubs for another year.
Then, Anaheim's elected officials did exactly what many of their counterparts in other cities throughout California—Lake Forest and Costa Mesa being two prominent Orange County examples—had already done in recent months: it simply called in the DEA and invited the feds to threaten landlords and raid clubs. The feds accepted that invitation on Aug. 21; the U.S. attorney's office filed lawsuits against six dispensaries in Anaheim and sent warning letters to more than 60 clubs throughout the city and neighboring La Habra. The cease-and-desist notices warned that properties would be seized and raids would be conducted on anyone who didn't shut down within 30 days.
One of those letters went to the landlord of the warehouse where Modiano had been operating Patient Med-Aid. Modiano insists that at no point did he use the warehouse for storing or distributing marijuana. Instead, he stores furniture, wheelchairs and other donated items for members there, and he uses the space to host events such as the picnic I attended. However, he did allow patients to smoke their own personal stashes of marijuana on the premises, which he assumes might have led to complaints that put him on the city and DEA's shit list.
In any case, Patient Med-Aid found itself quickly evicted. “Anaheim is a tourist place,” Modiano reasons. “Anaheim is very protective of its investments and very protective of Disneyland. They had 120 dispensaries in close proximity to Disneyland, exposing the tourists in the hotels to all this marijuana, and of course, Anaheim wants to shut them down. So they called in the DEA, and the DEA sent letters to every dispensary they could identify, and they accidentally identified this as a dispensary, which it never has been.”
On Sept. 28, just two days before Modiano was supposed to be gone from the premises, the landlord relented and told Modiano that if he really wasn't selling pot and could convince the city to give him a business permit, he could stay. “I went over to City Hall at 2 p.m. and got a license to warehouse and distribute donated items, which is what I do,” Modiano says.
The next day, Modiano and several other disabled Patient Med-Aid members sued Anaheim, arguing that the city's ban on pot clubs violates the California Persons with Disabilities Act. Matthew Pappas, the lawyer who filed the suit, has a daughter, Victoria, who is a member of Patient Med-Aid. She smokes marijuana to manage pain from a severe assault last year for which she had to undergo brain surgery. Victoria says the pot relieves the tremendous headaches she still suffers. “It's crazy that I don't have worse complications. Medicinal marijuana makes the headache go away and helps me to sleep, so I can feel good again.”
* * *
After the picnickers finish their meals, I interview several members of Patient Med-Aid in a small office down a hall from the main warehouse room. The first, an African-American woman, is reluctant to talk, and prefers her name not be used for the story. She tells me I can identify her as a “58-year-old sick woman—very sick” who lives in Anaheim. She was diagnosed with HIV seven years ago.
“I suffer from neuropathy, depression, arthritis, a lot of pain, and marijuana is the only thing that helps that pain,” she relates. “The side effects from the medication . . . I can't do it. I almost died.” She says she used to get marijuana from a few different dispensaries in Anaheim, but she found it too expensive. “If you have money, sure, no problem,” she says. “But you can't always afford it, and you always have pain.”
She's relieved Modiano wasn't evicted, but with the DEA continuing to crack down, she says, she worries about how long Patient Med-Aid will be able to continue. “This collective is different than most programs,” the woman says. “I hope this program can stay and grow and develop into something, into what he wants it to be.”
The next person I speak to also wishes to remain anonymous. He's the 64-year-old Dana Point resident who, a dozen years ago, rescued Modiano and nursed him back to health when his friend was first diagnosed with AIDS. A tall, wide-shouldered man with thinning white hair and a cheerful smile, he tells me he gets the honor of belonging to Patient Med-Aid for the unfortunate reason that he suffers from prostate cancer.
“I got it seven years ago. That's when I got my surgery. I have this big incision right here,” he says, pointing below his belt. “They opened me up; I was out for eight hours. They didn't get all of it, so I had radiation treatment. It was 30 visits. I had to take the train down to San Diego every day, Monday through Friday, for six weeks. That wasn't a fun thing to go through. Radiation about kicked my ass.”
Because he served in the U.S. Army in South Vietnam during 1968 and '69, during a period of heavy spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange, Uncle Sam pays his medical bills. After going into remission, the cancer returned six months ago, so he remains on hormone therapy and radiation treatment. He also smokes marijuana to treat his chronic pain and get a good night's sleep. “I'm really glad Marty's doing this because it helps a lot of people that have no money,” he says. “I don't have the means to cultivate. Where I live, it'd be stolen. So this is my outlet to get my pot. I'll smoke a joint in the evening, and I'm done. I'm happy.”
Another veteran among Patient Med-Aid's ranks is Kevin Butcher, who joined the U.S. Army when he turned 18 and served in the Persian Gulf War as an explosives specialist with the 82nd Airborne Division. He didn't see combat, but he witnessed its immediate aftermath as a truck driver in a convoy about 4,000 meters behind the lead tanks that invaded Iraq from Saudi Arabia. He says he'll never forget what he saw in those few days.
“I was told to follow the tracks in front of me,” Butcher recalls. At times, he could barely see the truck ahead of him because of the smoke from burning oil wells. “They told us it was like smoking two packs of cigarettes because of all the smoke in the air, and oil was actually splattering on my windshield.” Then there was the carnage of Saddam Hussein's vanquished Iraqi Republican Guard. “There were hundreds of burning tanks, burning bodies, death everywhere,'” he says. “It was open desert, the middle of nowhere, blowing everything up in front of us. Whatever they destroyed, we'd see. That's basically what gave me PTSD.”
After leaving the Army in 1992—Butcher says he was kicked out for smoking pot—he found construction work in Arizona, where he grew up. Over the years, he grew increasingly embittered about his time in the military. He wasn't aware of his mounting depression, but his wife was. When the U.S. invaded Iraq again in 2003, Butcher says, he sank deeper into an emotional black hole. It didn't help that a decade laying floor tiles had given him chronic back pain. “I was hurting every day,” he says. “I couldn't work anymore.
Following a battery of tests, Butcher says, the Veteran's Administration diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2006, saying he was 70 percent disabled because of his experience in the war. For his back injuries, the VA prescribed powerful opiates such as Loratab and hydrocodone, to which he swiftly became addicted. He attempted suicide twice before realizing he didn't want to die and didn't want to keep taking the painkillers.
Instead, Butcher smokes marijuana, which he credits with saving his life. “It helps me with my chronic pain that I have every day and the depression and got me off the pain medication,” he says. “I haven't told the VA because I'm worried what will happen to my disability, but the next time I go in, if it comes up, I'll tell them.”
Of all the Patient Med-Aid members I interviewed, Charlie Parra seemed the least worried about having his name used for the story. “It wouldn't make much difference,” he says. “I'm dying. I have stage-four cancer. It's in my lungs, my bones; it's already metastasized.”
The 67-year-old Pico Rivera resident is missing his hair; speaks in a soft, weak voice; and has to be rolled around in a wheelchair by his son, who sat quietly during the interview. Three years ago, doctors diagnosed Parra with pancreatic cancer. He'd been suffering from back pain for months, but he didn't want to miss work to get it checked out. By the time he finally did visit a doctor, he was told he would be dead by the end of the year.
“And here I am,” Parra says. “I'd like to go back and kick that doctor's ass today if I had enough energy, but I don't.” Thanks to chemotherapy, Parra is still alive, but it's clear he's in tremendous pain and doesn't expect to live much longer. He says his doctor recommended medical marijuana to help him eat because the chemotherapy and pain pills had destroyed his appetite and sense of taste. At a pot club in Santa Fe Springs, he saw a flier advertising free marijuana for cancer patients, which is how he met Modiano.
“Weed is not for everybody,” Parra says. “I don't think all these kids should be getting scrips. It's outrageous. But they should let the sick people have medical marijuana. If I can't get it here, I'll get it from somewhere. I don't know how much time I have left. I just want to live a little more comfortably. I don't know how much more time Marty has, either, because he's pretty sick, too. But who knows? Maybe somebody else can [stand] up behind him and keep it going.”
* * *
As with the life expectancies of Parra and Modiano, the future of Patient Med-Aid is tenuous to say the least. At the top of the list of potential concerns is the question of further law-enforcement action, either by local police, county sheriffs or federal drug agents. But Christopher Glew, a defense attorney who regularly works with marijuana dispensaries throughout California (and is an online columnist for the Weekly), says that Patient Med-Aid is probably the last club the state of California or DEA would intentionally target.
“If someone went after them, and they're doing what they say they're doing and providing this medicine for free, the backlash of them being prosecuted would be pretty substantial,” Glew says. “Can you imagine that case? That's the kind of case you want as a lawyer.”
For his part, Modiano claims he's not worried about the feds because the only thing the DEA will find if it raids his warehouse will be donated equipment—and maybe some sick people sitting around eating grilled chicken. He says he hopes to raise enough money from the growers he's working with to add more patients to the group's membership, four of whom died recently.
Modiano also hopes to buy a van so he can deliver cannabis to patients. Currently, members must go to different dispensaries to obtain their allotment of free marijuana. For security reasons, Modiano declined to state which dispensaries those are, and he wouldn't put me in touch with any of the growers who are helping Patient Med-Aid.
“I don't want to go to jail,” he concludes. “I want to be protected, and I want my growers to be protected, too. They shouldn't have to go to jail for helping sick people. We're just trying to give some free medicine to some patients before they all drop dead.”
If you think you qualify to join Patient Med-Aid, you can call Marla James at (714) 455-9946.
This article appeared in print as “Sick Enough to Smoke: A peek inside Orange County's most exclusive medical-marijuana club, one no one wants to join.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).