Treat marijuana like wine

Filling a prescription for most Napans simply requires a trip to one of the city’s many drug- or grocery-store pharmacies.

But for one segment of Napa’s sick, getting needed medication requires a much greater effort.

Patients who use medical cannabis to treat their ailments say they have few local options when it comes to filling doctor-issued recommendations. Napa County has no authorized pot dispensaries.


Most said they drive an hour or more each or every other week to get their medication out of county. It’s a hassle they said they wouldn’t face if they chose traditional types of medication.

“Instead of it being convenient, we have to get in our cars and go all the way down to Vallejo — or farther,” said 59-year-old Bill Iverson, a Napa resident who has been in a wheelchair since he broke his neck in a car crash 12 years ago. He uses medical marijuana for pain management, he said.

“Some of the dispensaries are in bad parts of town and we’re disabled, we’re an easy mark for people. … It’s not right that we have to go through all these hoops to get the medication,” Iverson said.

Iverson and other medical cannabis users have been trying to get city permission to open a marijuana dispensary in Napa. The City Council passed an ordinance in 2010 allowing at least one dispensary to open inside the city limits.

Over the following year, city staff sorted through dispensary applications, eventually choosing Harmony Patients’ Center of Napa, Inc. — Iverson’s group — as its tentative choice.

In the face of a court ruling that overturned another city’s marijuana ordinance that was similar to Napa’s law, the city put its pot plans on hold in October. In November, the council extended a moratorium on dispensaries to last through October 2012 to give staff time to sort through the legal questions surrounding the fact that California allows medicinal marijuana, while the federal government prohibits any use.

To date, none of the cities in Napa County allow dispensaries, so Napa patients who have permission to use the drug must travel elsewhere to buy it.

To avoid potentially dangerous situations, some Napa patients said they avoid Vallejo and acquire their marijuana even farther from the valley.

Tom Brown, a disabled veteran, started using medical cannabis five years ago, several years after he was honorably discharged from the Army after being injured when a 600-pound tent fell on him.

“My wife said maybe I should try this because nothing was working,” Brown said. “I went, ‘I don’t think so.’ I was still very much in the military mindset.”

Brown gave the idea a second thought and did some research before deciding to try marijuana. He has gone to several dispensaries in Vallejo and other nearby cities and settled on one in Sebastopol in Sonoma County.

“They’ve got a person on the outside who checks your I.D., a person on the inside who checks your I.D.,” he said. “The chairs are clean, the carpets are clean, people are dressed for business. … It doesn’t smell like people are smoking marijuana in there because they’re not.”

The trip, which he makes about once a month, takes him about three hours round-trip, he said.

“The places in Vallejo are seedy; I don’t trust them,” he said, adding that he hasn’t visited all of the dispensaries in the city, but wasn’t impressed by the ones he has seen.

Steven Stratford, a veteran of the United States Air Force, said he uses marijuana to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, something he also attends a support group for, while regularly seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist.

“I do take it for pain, it’s just emotional pain,” Stratford said.

Stratford, who lives in American Canyon, said he fills his prescription in Vallejo because it is close to his home. Stratford had to search for a legitimate dispensary that he is comfortable with and believes operates within California law.


“You have to go in and check it out,” he said. “If you walk in the door and the room is filled with marijuana smoke, it’s a fly-by- night kind of place.”

On Wednesday night, the Crime Suppression Unit of the Vallejo Police Department served a search warrant on a dispensary in that city, ultimately shutting it down and arresting the club’s operator, according to the Vallejo Times-Herald on Thursday.

“Some people use it properly, some people abuse it. You’re going to have that in everything,” Stratford said. “I’m glad they’re trying to do what they can to alleviate ones that are not legitimate.”

Tyler, a 21-year-old Napa resident who did not want to give his last name in fear he might lose his job, said he too searched for a quality dispensary. He goes to one in Santa Rosa about twice a month because the cannabis is tested and the dispensary seems to be operating above the fray, he said.

“It takes a good three or four hours out of my day, especially with traffic,” said Tyler, who explained he uses the medication for anxiety and insomnia.

Tyler, who lives with his parents, said he uses the drug for legitimate purposes and tries to be respectful in their home. Rather than smoking or eating the drug, Tyler said he usually takes it through a device called a vaporizer, which doesn’t let off smoke.


“(My parents) would rather me do this than take a bunch of prescriptions,” he said, referring to the cocktail of more-traditional prescription medications that gave him little relief.

“I was getting so loopy, I didn’t feel like myself,” Tyler said. “I was feeling like a zombie (on the traditional anxiety medications).”

None of the people who volunteered to be interviewed about their experiences with medical cannabis said they bought their supply on the street.

American Canyon resident Cheryl Batoon, 52, agreed that if traditional medications cause side effects, cannabis might be a reasonable alternative for some. She started taking the drug for the first time two years ago to alleviate severe, lifelong asthma.

“Cannabis is a miracle plant that I never really knew much about until I was 50 years old,” she said.

She tried the drug after she lost her job and health insurance and was no longer able to afford her asthma inhalers and medications, she said.

“To this day, I haven’t had an asthma attack and haven’t used any asthma inhalers or any medications,” she said.

She started smoking marijuana daily, but now needs it only every other day or a couple times a week, she said. She usually buys low-grade marijuana, setting her back about $40 a month, a bill that’s lower than the price of her former asthma medications.

Batoon said there can be a stigma that comes with marijuana use. “People seem to be fearful of the euphoric feeling you get with marijuana,” she said. But “you get that when you drink wine.”

Iverson said opinions of medical cannabis are changing, but he fears that some people will have to live through a horrible life experience before they approve of this approach.

He had a friend who was adamantly opposed to medical marijuana until his father fell ill with cancer. Then his friend was able to see its benefits, Iverson said.

Batoon said she’s not interested in getting high, only taking a minimal amount of the drug. Others joined her in trying to dispel the complaints of critics who see marijuana as a gateway drug or discount it as a legitimate medication.

“At one time, I was taking 11 different prescriptions. … It’s hard on your liver and your body,” Iverson said. Now, while taking marijuana, Iverson takes only two or three traditional medications. “I constantly have pain,” he said. “(Marijuana) just makes it easier to live with. … It made it easier for me to live in my own skin.”