Peace, Love, & Understanding Dispensaries

What would legalised cannabis look like? Sheilagh Foley recalls her days in San Francisco before and after legalisation of marijuana

I lived in San Francisco, back when Tech was King and ‘pan-demic’ was a type of hipster pastry. The smell of wafting marijuana was as frequent and institutionalised as the ferry to Alcatraz. The city’s chilled out population didn’t mind too much, probably because we were passively high at all times. Peace out, dude! In California at least, the unofficial acceptance of the wicked weed had paved its path to normalization. In our comfortable social circles, people talked here and there of opting for edible marijuana over alcohol to take the edge off a long day, or to give a buzz on a night out. No hangover, less cost/mess/guilt, was the main refrain.

It was well under way in California as a medically endorsed natural anti-emetic for those suffering with nausea from chemo. I recall friends bringing elderly parents with cancer to medical marijuana dispensaries to get some bodacious bonbons, some jammin’ jellies, some crackin’ cookies. Nobody spoke like that. It was all quite matter-of-fact – another product that could help the cancer victim cope.

I think it had some mixed success in helping my friend’s parents with their cancer nausea. The exact dosage, frequency and timing were probably not extensively investigated by any side. If memory serves, the adult children all took the trip with their parents – a shared drug experience I’m sure they never imagined in their youth.

The dispensaries I cycled past in San Francisco on my way to work, were in dingy places, often down back streets. A big burly bouncer would hang outside, usually a dark store front with a large green marijuana weed symbol in the background. I had a younger friend who obtained a doctor’s prescription for medical marijuana with great ease. Her intent was recreational use, her excuse to the doctor was an indescribable unstoppable pain (I think that’s called ‘life’). Maybe I need a prescription!

Nearing the end of my time living in San Francisco, marijuana was legalized for recreational use. I remember going to a party where a very friendly lady, very high up (no pun) in a very big company, talked to me at great length about CBD versus THC. CBD, I learned, was cannabidiol, a compound found in marijuana, it had no psychoactive properties but was believed to have medicinal benefits. She told me this as she rubbed a CBD balm she kept in her purse onto my hands. It was San Francisco, I’d been to weirder parties.

THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, she explained, (as she scrolled through her phone checking for world events that might spark a call from her office), caused the high, the psychedelia, the euphoria, the good stuff. She enjoyed THC at weekends but had become a bit wary of some of her colleagues using it as a daily upper/downer. ‘It keeps me focused’ said one of her colleagues, while another justified the opposite ‘It gives my mind a break’. An interesting admission to your boss during your work hours #onlyinsanfrancisco

I returned to visit San Francisco last year and the dank headshops of old were gone, the dispensaries were explosions of colour, bright yellows and pinks, welcoming people in. I honestly thought the new dispensary on the corner was part of the Body Shop franchise selling skincare and bath bombs. Then I realized that although the doors were open, the windows were still covered, and instead of the burly bouncer, there was a government-mandated security guard, aka, the greeter.

Dispensaries are widespread in California. We took a road trip along the coast and almost every small town seemed to now have a dispensary, alongside its Mom & Pop shops. Nowadays, given its State legality, it seems the majority of my middle-aged friends in California would pop a gummy once in a while (or at least, have given it a go). No-one is daily micro-dosing, to my knowledge, just folks looking for a more mellow vibe than the loud, crashing, patio-furniture falling, mother-in-law insulting, flatulence farce that an alcohol-steered evening can evoke.

That said, nobody ever had a great sing-song or an impromptu ceilí after eating Brad’s special brownies.

As I ambled up to a dispensary in San Francisco, my head was cocked and one eyeball was already across the line, just ‘having a look’. The doorman immediately asked for my ID. I am 45 and I look 45. I laughed, he laughed. I took a step forward. He stood up to his full height. We agreed if I wanted to enter it would be wise to comply with the law and provide a passport ID.

Once inside, my curiosity had turned to impulse buying. It wasn’t my first rodeo – I had gone to college in the 1990s after all. Unfortunate rounds of cancer in my 20s had left me abstemious, I hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol in years. The only drugs on my rotation were placating my heart after chemo and radiation damaged it. I was probably the wrong person to start messing around with controlled substances, or was I the exact right person? No, I was probably the wrong person.

Apparently the American government was letting me decide; me and ‘Kylie’, a smiley 19-year-old with more tattoos than skin, who took me aside for my ‘consultation’.

Kylie listened to my medical history of multiple cancers and heart failure with nods of “Sure, sure, sure, wait-what, OK, sure, sure, sure.” I then explained I was hoping for help with my chronic pain and trouble sleeping. She asked if I wanted to smoke it, vape it, eat it, drink it, rub it, lick it, stick it, prick it, dab it, wear it or burn it?

Em, I tried to look contemplative as I checked for exits and wondered if I had told anyone where I was. I never felt more like a middle-aged Mum trying to be cool. I think I’ll eat it, I advised Kylie, I’ll eat it and I’ll drink it, and maybe the rub thing. I was now speaking in a whisper.

Kylie was on to her next question “What kind of high are you looking for?” I used my hand to indicate a level of wandering elevation I deemed appropriate for my station in life. She said she assumed I wanted to avoid couch-lock, paranoia, and the munchies. I replied – Did somebody tell you about the paranoia? She looked confused at my joke, her tattoos twisting into a question mark, “Wait-what?”, was her stock reply. “I know, right?” became mine – equally confusing.

Did I go through with the purchase? We’ll never know. Certainly my daughter will never know.

I will point out buying marijuana in a dispensary is not possible on a credit card, as it is still considered illegal in America on a Federal level. It’s a cash only biz (you are also expected to tip your budtender).

Dispensaries don’t just sell products with THC, the psychoactive ingredient that has been proven to help with anxiety, nausea, pain, depression, PTSD, MS, glaucoma, Parkinson’s, etc. They also sell CBD, which does not alter your mental state, known to help with autoimmune disease and inflammation.

In my opinion, marijuana is a kinder product than alcohol in many ways. Kinder to those around you, and your body. It’s not without its negatives, it can cause your heart to race and the dreaded paranoia. Smoking it can lead to lung scarring, and becoming dependent on it (similarly with alcohol) can be a destructive lifelong issue.

However, if you are a patient looking for relief, I believe marijuana should be an option. I am in favour of the medics helping a patient navigate it, but I don’t agree with limiting the administration of the drug to the very small list of conditions that qualify patients for medical cannabis in Ireland. The dosage is important, due to different people’s sizes, physiology, metabolism, underlyings, and mental health. Kylie was a great budtender, but for someone like me with more medical problems than the box-set of Grey’s Anatomy, she was out of her depth.

I don’t know if Ireland, even the ‘New Ireland’, is ready to follow Germany in proposing the full legalisation of cannabis. But we should at least address the overly conservative restricted list of illnesses allowed access to cannabis-based products in Ireland.

Every single day, I take hard white pills the pharmacy compounded out of god-knows-what to stay alive. I live with life-limiting medical issues and medication side effects. If I could take government-allowed medical cannabis to make my life even a little easier to bear, I would do it in a spliff second.

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