I’m having a vision. Don’t worry, 14,300 others are having it too. Santa Marijuana appears to us. She appears not in a coffee stain or the wood grain on a door, but right out in the open at the San Jose Convention Center. This is Hemp Con, the “Medical Marijuana Mega Show.” The devout are numerous and diverse. Santa Marijuana has disciples in lab coats, she has disciples in hot pants, she has disciples in button-downs printed with buds and leaves. She is here to aid what ails us, physically, emotionally, financially. She is a harbinger of hope to some, a dark demon to others. She inspires passion and, indeed, love. She drives a multi-billion dollar economic vehicle. Burn her, vaporize her, she comes back for more.
“You know why the politicians are against it?” Asks legendary pot advocate Ed Rosenthal, “‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most popular of them all? Isn’t it me?’ No, it’s pot you asshole!” Rosenthal, born in the Bronx in 1944, had a High Times column in the 80’s and 90’s, he’s branded his own organic pesticide called Zero Tolerance, Tommy Chong wrote the foreword to his Marijuana Growers Handbook. He wears a ponytail, socks and Birkenstocks, and a lab coat emblazoned with nugs over a button down printed with more nugs. He’s the St. Peter of pot.
But which one? It’s like a makeshift medical park in here, cash only. I choose San Jose 420 Evaluations because they were the doctor’s office that handed me a flyer as I left the parking structure. I fill out “insomnia and PMS” when asked about my qualifying conditions. I check “no” in the box that asks whether or not I have any medical records with me today to prove that I’ve been treated for these conditions in the past. I begin to wonder if I will qualify. I’ll have to pay the $50 regardless. I initial the box that says so. I take a seat on the futon set up beside the booth and check the time that prospective patients spend behind the screen consulting with the doctor. It averages about three minutes. I wonder if these numbers are included in the estimated fourteen billion dollars a year that the medical marijuana industry pumps into California’s economy. I’m pretty sure the Catholic Church isn’t bringing that in these days.
My newly-minted prescription and drivers license are checked and my hand is stamped with a thumbs up, granting permission to pass by the red sign that emphatically states,“NO SELLING DISTRIBUTION OF CANNABIS PRODUCTS.” I will eventually leave with two grams of bud as a premium for buying a $30 tote bag, be gifted five ganja-laced lollipops in exchange for a $20 donation, and receive a small pot brownie free for entering a raffle. Nothing was sold to me, but I’ll leave with a nice stash of ganja goodies and less cash, regardless. This is the gray market.
Inside the Prop 215 area, I peruse the booths that feature Santa M in all her many manifestations: Blue Dream, Green Crack, Cheese, Alaskan Thunder Fuck.
It’s at the Fortune Wellness booth that I get my chocolaty medible from a girl in a crocheted tam and giant origami earrings. “Careful,” she warns, dispensing the California Eucharist, “It’s pretty potent.” Across from her serene, Zen-themed booth is the All Bay dispensary featuring a young girl in black hot pants with, “All Bay…All Day” tagging her trunk in puffy green paint. She wears Rasta flag scrunch socks. I overhear, “Members of the AARP ought to be able to smoke pot. We’re old enough. We’re responsible enough.”
There’s a place for everyone at this bountiful table.
If Prop 19, California’s initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use, passes this November, the RAND Drug Policy Research Center projects an 80% price drop. If that happens, projected tax revenue numbers become pipe dreams, and only those who produce mass quantities will be able to stay in business. This will mean a lot of small, rural California communities who depend on the gray market marijuana middle class are going to have to think fast. Currently, they’re counting on the connoisseurs. There’s room for both Two Buck Chuck and Helen Turley to co-exist in wine, that other, less profitable California industry, and so, the hope is, it will go with weed.
I ask a couple of connoisseur-grade young professionals who are taking it all in from in front of the Humboldt Brewing Company’s Hemp Ale cart. They wear stylie glasses, and have graduated from Oaksterdam, a school in Oakland for those looking to get into the Cannabusiness. He says, “We work for two large Silicon Valley companies where they don’t drug test, they don’t ask.” He adds, “The crowd at these events is always less than you’d hope for. For culture to change there needs to be a shift in perspective of who the cannabis user is. And I think we exemplify a typical cannabis user even though we don’t really match the crowd today, per se. It’s a mixed crowd, but the more of a ‘thuggish element’ exists at these things, the worse of a name cannabis gets. I mean there are so many people in corporate America that smoke, but they’re not willing to come out here because obviously, it can easily tarnish their reputation and can even be a career limiting move in many ways. Which is why you see the demographic skews to a certain–the baller, or the hippie.”
“What’s your condition?” I ask his girlfriend.
“Anxiety and insomnia.” She says, “Basically, corporate America is my condition.”
I seek out those wearing the “thuggish element” uniform: back-facing baseball cap, graffiti-style street art on the t-shirt, chain around the neck. The young guy I talk to classifies himself as “Urban.”
“Weed ain’t just for smoke. I could be the poster child (for medical marijuana) ‘cause I was totally against it, raised with like law enforcement parents all around and everything. I was against anyone who was even a pot smoker.”
“What changed your mind?” I ask.
“Being forced to have all this pain. I’ve had this,” he gestures to a thick scar creeping down his arm from his left armpit, “I’ve had this for four years, all these surgeries and it’s still ongoing and taking too many Vicodins. You don’t know what’s in a Vicodin. I’d rather have something that comes out of the ground that has way less adverse health effects than take some synthetically engineered pill.”
I don’t think this guy qualifies as a thug, so I ask the one security guard who would talk to me about the “thuggish element” and how Hemp Con compares to other events he’s worked. “It’s not like a concert or something where people are drinking a lot of alcohol. Obviously, being out here opens your eyes up to a lot of things. A lot of people, they don’t see the big picture. I mean, look at these people, they’re just regular people.”
A djembe throbs. I pass two retired guys in monk’s robes discussing seeds, before approaching a duo promoting their cannabis-infused lotion, Doc Green’s. “My name is Elie Green, but people just call me Sticky.” Sticky says: “My goal is to make cannabis products that don’t get people high. I want your grandmothers.” He pops out of his seat with frothy fervor, “I want your great-grandmothers, I want your mothers. I want your grandfathers. I want the conservative grandfathers on the golf courses in Monterey, who have arthritis and are walking around the golf course.” When asked about the arguments Granny might have against trying their lotion, he replies: “This is a gateway drug, for sure. It opens the doorway for people to go back to herbal healing.”
I ask about the Hebrew letters on the bottle. Sticky’s quiet sidekick answers, “That means in the name of Heaven, with the help of Heaven. The plant is an amazing healer. There’s a very strong ethic in Jewish law that when you have the ability to heal someone, if you have the ability to provide pain relief, it becomes incumbent upon you to do it. We make sure that we get our cannabis product from really conscious people who aren’t using harsh chemicals, and that are doing this for the right reasons.”
But what are the right reasons? Are there right reasons to violate Federal law in favor of Jewish law, or your own basic sense of what’s good? Is the worship of Santa Marijuana a First Amendment issue for more than just the Rastafari?
I ask some Taiwanese men who loiter displaced, listening to one of the speakers. One of them shrugs and agrees to talk to me about what kind of inroads Santa M is making in their country.
“It is punishable by death.”
“And yet throughout Asia, aren’t more cigarettes smoked than anywhere else in the world?” I ask.
“That’s true. And now a lot of places are following what United States is doing too. A lot of places are now banning cigarette smoking as well.”
California was the first state to successfully ban smoking in public places. Now, California could be the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. As California goes, so goes the globe? If so, maybe the US will have a viable export. There are few things we are still best in the world at, and growing dank-ass nugs is one of them. Maybe we can eventually address that trade deficit. Go ahead China, take a load off!
I ask one of the many men here wearing a shirt printed with a pattern of ganja plants, “Have you ever worn an aspirin shirt?” And he looks at me like the question is as stupefying as it sounds.
“Or, like, an Excedrin shirt?”
“What is it about this medicine that makes you feel like not only taking but also…”
“Celebrating it? This is actually a hemp shirt, not necessarily cannabis medicine. I’m a glaucoma patient so I appreciate the 25% reduction in eye pressure. It’s helped me sleep, it’s relieved my asthma. It makes Twinkies taste like crème brulee. I like—” he says, then corrects himself, “I love the herb.”
That’s a tall order for any other prescription medication to fill, especially the Frenching of the Twinkie. Santa M, like most females (the medical-grade marijuana plants are all female), is quite the multi-tasker.
I ask a man leaning on a cane and wearing a Panama Jack hat what he uses medical marijuana for, “Actually a couple of things. One is, I just need something to relax. Stress is—with my income dropping and dropping again, uh, it’s been a little bit stressful. My mother dying last year, my nuclear family is gone. I’m the last one. Also, I have a problem with sciatica.”
In front of the Hydroponics Unlimited table, gamely bouncing girlflesh quivers, presumably putting the ‘fertile’ in fertilizer. Scuttling past is a somewhat overwhelmed lady who I would guess is a soccer mom but for the leaf embroidered on her gleaming white hoodie. She is Kelly Shaeffer fromPlant Providers Plus, a delivery service based in San Jose that she owns with her brother. “I had a business in landscape design for ten years which fell out with the economy, so, I turned his hobby into a business and we’re doing very well. We’re helping a lot of people, a lot of patients. It’s very rewarding.” I ask what she thinks about Prop 19, “The drop in prices—that would affect my business greatly. Letting the big guys come in, the pharmaceutical companies. They would take over our industry.”
California’s unemployment rate has been in the double digits since January of 2009. The Cannabusiness is one of the only sections of the world’s eighth largest economy to see explosive growth. This has been cause for alarm in places like Los Angeles, where over 400 dispensaries were recently shut down. It’s also been seen as an opportunity for government price gouging, as in the case of Oakland’s recent ruling to charge $211,000 for a permit to cultivate in an industrial setting. Most of the cannabis small business owners I’ve talked to are just that, small business owners of the sort who are supposed to be rebuilding our economy. David Holmes, founder of a website called Cannagen, which allows patients to search for not just dispensaries, but particular strains in their neighborhood, says of Prop 19, “If Oakland’s the model, then I’m against it.”
Henry Hemp wears a giant foam cannabis leaf headdress and is decked out in a red, yellow, and green jersey with 420 in giant numbers. Silk pot leaf leis are wound around his wrists and draped under his chin. “Somewhere two years ago I put on this hat and I’m inspired because it creates positive energy. BAM! Right off the bat! Positive energy! I’ll never meet those people across the street, but they’re smiling, they’re clapping, they don’t even know why. They don’t even know what I represent. Most of them think I represent marijuana and I actually represent hemp. Henry Hemp represents the male energy in the plant: food, fabric, fuel, fiber. I can clothe your child, I can feed your child, put a roof over your child’s head—all with this amazing plant, which is hemp. We can stop darkening the oceans with oil, stop cutting down trees. We can really save our planet with hemp.”
Every bit as much the young guy with a ganja vision as Henry Hemp is twenty-year-old Evan from New Jersey, who is manning the Prop 19 booth. He is politically active around medical marijuana in his home state, and is in California through November for the big show. Like so many people at Hemp Con, Evan’s passion is underscored by sincerity–love, even, as opposed to the righteous anger that often arises around other political issues. “It’s a community.” He says, “I think the plant makes the community. I think people smoke pot and they realize things, and it puts things in perspective, and I just think if this gets bigger, like it seems like it’s going to, it’s going to open minds. That’s marijuana. That’s not going away. I wouldn’t be fighting for this if it were.”
No matter what happens with Prop 19 this November, Santa Marijuana is here to stay. Humans and cannabis have been coevolving for thousands of years, and not even the war on drugs could convince her to throw up the white flag. In fact, with adversity, she’s grown stronger—in both potency and number of users. The question now, it seems to me, is who will write the next chapters of our mutual story? Will it stay with the people? Or go to the priests?