Dr. Dina: The 4/20 411 on Medical Marijuana and Media Myths

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Marijuana has been a plot device in film and television ever since the 1936 debut of "Reefer Madness" and on up through every Cheech and Chong film of the 70s.

Most recently, pot was the driving force between the multi-season Showtime series, Weeds, from Jenji Kohan. The series starred Mary-Louise Parker as the fictional Nancy Botwin, a suburban soccer mom and widow who turns to selling weed to make ends meet after the death of her husband. The adventures quickly escape suburbia and into the realm of Mexican drug cartels and DEA agents.

As fictional as Nancy Botwin is, the woman she was modeled on, known as Dr. Dina, is as real as they come. An outspoken advocate for medical marijuana as well as a force of nature, Dr. Dina spoke with The Trades to deliver "the straight dope," so to speak, on the American love/hate affair with weed.

Why is this an important issue to you, and how did that come about?

I have a very, very easy answer for you. When I was twelve years old, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. And I watched her shrivel up and die from this horrible disease that she could not be saved from. And then I watched it happen to another family member, and then another family member -- different kinds of cancer. And as a child, I thought, "I wish I could come up with a solution to fix this problem."

It wasn't until years later I met a friend of mine who had been diagnosed with cancer in his stomach. I had heard on the news that medical marijuana may be helping people, and I really didn't believe it. But my friend called me up one day and said, "Dina, I really need help. I just lost my job, I lost my health insurance. I went to the doctor and found out I'm dying of cancer. I don't think I can handle the treatment, I'm throwing up all the time."

I went to his house, and a friend of mine had given me a joint to bring him. And when I got to his house, his wife, who he had just married and is Swedish, actually got in the car and drove down the street because she was too afraid to be in the house while he smoked because she was afraid she'd be deported if the police showed up.

After smoking this joint -- he was sitting in his kitchen holding a crock pot in his lap, and he was throwing up into this crock pot -- he smoked it, and he stopped throwing up. And he looked at me and said, "This is the first time I've gone for twenty minutes without throwing up." And then he took his chemo pill, and he still didn't throw up. Then he finished the joint and called his wife, and said, "Honey, can you make me something to eat?"

I watched this -- he couldn't even catch his breath, it was horrible, and after smoking the pot he was able to hold his food down and hold his medicine down.

He called me the next day and said, "Can I get another joint?" I said, "Listen, I'm not a drug dealer, so we've got to figure something out." I went online and found a doctor in San Francisco that was willing to write a letter of recommendation for medical marijuana. So I drove him all the way up there, throwing up in my car, and we saw this doctor, got his note, and he was able to go to a dispensary in san Francisco and pick up his medicine. Literally, this saved his life. He is completely in remission now. When I look back, I think, "If only I'd had that for my grandma, if I'd only had that for my uncle, if I'd only had that for my cousin, they'd still be here right now." And that has always been my motivation.

We hear a lot about the medical usage -- and to those who aren't familiar with these benefits, it lends itself to jokes like the people who only take nips of alcohol for "medicinal reasons." How hard is it, though, to get a prescription for medical marijuana?

I think it depends on what state you're in. Each state has different laws. In California, you have to have a serious previously diagnosed condition that causes you pain. Now, doctors can't see pain; they have to trust you. In California, that means you can go to a doctor and complain about a recurring problem. Then you have a record, and you go to a different doctor, a medical marijuana doctor, and he sees it. As long as another doctor prescribes you Vicodin or Darvocet or Soma, you're qualified to take cannabis instead.

One of your publicity shots shows you behind the counter of a dispensary. Do you currently run a dispensary?

I don't run a dispensary. I'm a consultant for several dispensaries all over California, Oregon and Colorado, and I'm just starting to work in Washington. That picture -- that is actually the first legal store in Southern California that I helped.

What kind of hurdles do you run up against, legal and otherwise? Obviously law enforcement is going to be looking very closely at things.

It's interesting. California, just last year, saved a hundred million dollars just on not taking people to jail who had medical marijuana cards. So when you look at it from that perspective, law enforcement for the most part in the big cities that are tolerable to medical marijuana, they get it. They appreciate it. Especially in West Hollywood where I do a lot of my work, I help educate law enforcement. They're wonderful. If anything, an officer will go into a dispensary and ask how they can get this person who's a little crazy -- maybe they should be getting a medical marijuana card, because it might help them. It's really been an amazing thing.

Now, the biggest issue has been the Federal government -- the DEA and the IRS are the two agencies that are really anti-"medical marijuana" for two reasons. Number one, marijuana is a Schedule One drug, so it's scheduled with heroin and really, really frightening drugs it should not be scheduled with. But because of that, they're saying that there's no medicinal value. When you have no medicinal value -- which we know is not the truth -- they can then shut down any business that provides marijuana. They're not going to go after the end user, but they're going to go after the dispensary.

The other thing is, there's a tax code called 280e. This is how they got Al Capone. You cannot write off any expenses from sales of illegal goods. So as long as marijuana is Schedule One, technically these dispensaries can't deduct their rent, they can't write off their employee payroll, they can't write off the cost of goods. So it makes it very difficult for these businesses to even make any money. A lot of people think, "Oh, these dispensary owners, they're making millions of dollars!" If anything, it's the opposite. They're losing all this money. They're putting their neck on the line for a bunch of sick people to give them safe access to some medication, and they have the IRS jumping on them, the DEA jumping on them. So it's really scary.

What about the criminal side of the marijuana industry as it is right now? Legalization cuts into their black market prices, and they can't be happy about that.

What's really interesting -- and if you look at what's happening in California -- medical marijuana became legal in California in 1996. So we've been doing this for a very long time. We're coming up on twenty years. What's happened is that the cost of goods has dropped dramatically because there are growers all over the place. They're all growing, everybody wants to help the dispensaries. So basically it's wiping out the black market. And that's the great part. That's exactly what we want. You don't have Mexico bringing in all these drugs into California because it's cheaper just to get it in California from an authorized dealer.

There's always going to be unscrupulous people. That's for any business. And unfortunately, so long as you have a business that lives in a gray area, you're going to have to deal with that. I have several clients of mine that have dealt with patients that grow for them -- and they might drop off, "Here's half a pound extra over our quantity that we're allowed to have, we'd like to donate it to the collective and have you guys reimburse us for the growing costs." Well, the collective might say, "Okay, we don't have the money today. We'll give it to you next week." And maybe it takes them nine days, but on the seventh day that person is going to show up and try to break something or threaten you. That's how it used to be, when the business first started.

But now it's become so legitimate, it's the other way around. You'll actually get sued in court if you don't pay a vendor; they'll take you to court over a pound, or over a half a pound. They don't care, they're legal. Essentially, it takes away the crime, which is amazing.

Even with the crime element going away, there's still a decades-old stigma attached to marijuana usage. Has marijuana earned this stigma?

No. No. What's really interesting, if you look at the history of our country, when America was first being built there were two crops that we grew and traded with the Indians: tobacco and cannabis. Those were our two big crops, that's what built the country. The Declaration of Independence was printed on hemp. It's just paper -- hemp paper. They weren't getting high by writing on the Declaration of Independence.

This was a major crop. Then when you look in the 1920s, and get "Reefer Madness" and you look at who funded "Reefer Madness" -- talking about the "devil's harvest" and the "devil drug" and it will make you crazy and you're going to play piano like a lunatic for three hours -- that was DuPont. The DuPont family had major interests, because they were doing plastics and papers and fibers -- and all that could be thrown out by hemp.

So you have special interest groups. Look at private prisons. There are private prisons all over the country that are making billions of dollars off of throwing young, mostly African-American, kids in jail for having a little bit of pot. That's the equivalent of sending someone to jail for a bottle of whiskey. What a waste of time.

What about the claims of marijuana being a gateway drug?

I don't think marijuana is any more of a gateway drug than milk or Advil, to be perfectly honest. I think that if you are going to keep it illegal, that kid's going to an illegal person to buy it, and that illegal person might have mushrooms. He might have crack. He might have cocaine. Because he's an illegal drug dealer! But as soon as you take that away, and you make it legal... Nobody, the medical marijuana people, wants to buy pot in Southern California from a drug dealer. Nobody would stand on the corner. They would just go to the store and get their pick of sixty different kinds. Why would they go to a drug dealer and have one kind?

So the gateway drug is keeping it illegal. That's the whole theory of the gateway drug, it's just ridiculous. I personally use cannabis to help me with my appetite and to help me with back pain from a car accident I was in. I don't use it every day, I use it when I need to. I have never tried other drugs. I've never wanted to try other drugs. And in all fairness, I've tried marijuana before I had a medical bill; back in 1993 was the first time I tried it, because I was nauseous and my friend said, "This might help you." So I don't feel that that was a gateway drug, because it never led me to anywhere else.

Do you feel that marijuana should be legal beyond medical use? Say for recreational use, the way alcohol is?

Absolutely. Personally, I don't drink alcohol. I've been drunk a few times, and I'm blown away by the level of impairment you can have from alcohol versus the level of impairment of marijuana. Smoking weed, you don't get impaired like you do from drinking alcohol. With alcohol, I'm going to be on the floor vomiting all over myself, I can't stand, I can't walk, I could never drive. I couldn't even hold a conversation with someone. But with marijuana, I'm in control. So, to me, if someone wants to go after work and have a drink, it's no different from wanting to go and have a smoke. And I don't think that makes them a criminal.

I'm at an age where a lot of my girlfriends have kids. And I look at them at the end of the night, and they're exhausted. They're worn out. And a lot of them, they resort to taking Zapain or drinking half a bottle of wine every night. And I'm thinking to myself, "What if something happened and you had to drive your kid to the hospital in the middle of the night? How are you going to be able to do that?" If I smoked a little bit of pot, I would be clear-headed and I'd know what to do. But if I drank, I'd probably be passed out and not even know my kid wasn't breathing.

What's especially scary to me is when you look at the deaths of these children 25 and under, every single day there are on average thirty-five kids under 25 that die from prescription drugs in this country. Every single day you're getting at least thirty-five kids dead, gone, parents never going to see them again. Why? Because they took a couple pills. You would never get that with marijuana. I have a cousin who is an addict and has been in rehab probably six times. He lives in Texas, and every day I think -- Gosh, if I could just get his parents to move him to California, the only drug he's going to do is pot. He's not going to kill himself. He'd be able to hold a job, he'd be able to function, he'd be able to have friends. Instead, he's smoking spice, which is this over-the-counter fake marijuana they're selling in liquor stores all over the country, and these kids are having strokes.

You're often heralded as the "real" Nancy Botwin, a reference to the character from the Weeds series, which was in part supposed to be based around elements of your life. But I don't see that you were a consultant or producer or even met with the creators. What happened there?

I was not a consultant on the show. Actually, it was a complete surprise to me. I was working on a script with a friend of mine, and I had a couple patients when I was working at the doctor's office. They came in, and I was showing them the idea for the script and one said, "Oh, we're working on a concept too, for another TV show." And this person said, "Let's hang out, I want to get to know you." And they got to know me, I took them around, I let them spend a lot of time with me. And they really got to know my life and were really fascinated -- and then they just disappeared. And I thought, wow, I thought we were going to do something?

About a year later, I noticed a huge billboard on Sunset Boulevard with a woman who looked sort of like me, surrounded by pot plants, [for a show] called Weeds. And I thought it was a joke. I thought Snoop Dogg rented this billboard and put this picture up as a prank. I didn't know what it was. So I called Snoop, and I said, "Did you buy a billboard?" And he said, "What, are you crazy? You know how much a billboard costs?" Then he said, "I think there's a TV show. They actually called me, and I'm supposed to film a scene."

Later on the show came out and I was watching it, and I was blown away. I first started watching it because it was too close to home. It turns out one of the consultants on the show was the guy who was hanging out with me every single day.

So it was less "based on" your life and more "stolen from" your life.

Yes. Stolen. I'm not litigious, and honestly I wanted to sue them really badly when I watched the show, because it's very different. First of all, I don't have kids. I was engaged to a Jewish guy living in Calabasas; I'm Jewish. The city of "Agrestic" is Calabasas, California. It is dead-on Calabasas -- they show my old house in the opening scene! It was just too close to home. Everything about it was so similar. I have a godbrother named Andrew [Nancy Botwin's brother-in-law is named Andy]. Everything was just so crazy! I wanted to sue them, but then I realized: if I sue them, I'm putting myself out there for the Federal Government. And I was freaked out! So I was like, you know what? I don't want to do this. I don't want the Federal Government to know who I am. I'm really secretive -- even though I'm not doing anything illegal.

I'm not breaking the law because I don't own a dispensary, I'm just a consultant. However, the Federal Government sees it how they want to see it. And that's really scary. I know people who are going to jail for ten years for selling marijuana to sick people.

About two years ago, I went to a collective to basically check the place out and make sure it was a client that I wanted to take on. While I was there, I noticed on the cameras someone smashing the front window. And then I saw there was about twenty guys in all black -- like SWAT gear -- with AK-47s and "DEA" on their back, crashing through all the walls, screaming, pointing guns at everybody... It was like a massive takeover like you would see in a movie: "Get down! Get down!"

My first reaction was -- because this is not my business -- I went, "Hold on! Is this how you talk to your mother?" And the guy put the gun right to my face, and goes, "Get the fuck on the ground, bitch!" And I went, "Oh, okay. It's going to be like that." And I got down on the ground, and the first thing I said was, "I want to see your warrant." Because I know the laws. I know my rights. "I want to see a warrant. You guys cannot smash your way into a business without knocking and announcing." That's what a warrant is -- it's a knock-and-announce warrant. If you have a warrant, you have to come in. If we don't let you in, then you smash the door. But you can't just smash through all these doors and scare the shit out of really sick people in wheelchairs. There was a lady in a wheelchair, she said, "I can't get on the ground, I'm a paraplegic!" They said, "Bitch, get on the ground!" and they're knocking her out of the chair. And these are the people we pay with our taxpayer money. I was blown away -- and I'm actually very conservative, my politics are very conservative; which is interesting, considering what I do. And I just kept asking, "Where's the warrant?" "It'll be here later."

The warrant didn't come for five hours. so they broke the law. They come in and smash everything without even having a warrant. They take everything. And I was very nice to them. I was like, "Listen, I know you're doing your job, but I don't work here. You need to release the patients. Let everybody go -- keep me, I'll tell you whatever you want to know, because I don't know anything but I'm more than happy to explain to you the law."

And once they realized that they were not at risk of harm, that there were no illegal weapons, there were no guns, there were no other drugs except cannabis, that's when they calmed down. But they still took everything. They still treated everybody like a criminal. Nobody was arrested, but we were all in handcuffs and it was not a fun experience. I mean, here I am, a nice Jewish girl from the San Fernando Valley and the first thing I thought was, "Oh my, my parents are going to be so proud of me! My first time in handcuffs!" And, of course, I did ask the guys to make sure the next time they saw me to have furry ones, because I prefer those.