By Anna Lambias
“What about the children?” is one of the most oft-used battle cries in the anti-cannabis crowd’s vocabulary. But what do they cry when there aren’t any children in the mix?
Enter Laguna Woods for Medical Cannabis, a marijuana collective started by a group of seniors in a luxury retirement community in South Orange County. Incorporated in 1999, the average age of Laguna Woods’ 18,500 residents is 78. Ninety percent of this population lives within the age 55-plus gated community of Laguna Woods Village, formerly known as Leisure World. The rest of the city’s four square miles contains three additional senior residential communities.
Far from an enclave of long-haired hippies, Laguna Woods is made up of such traditionally conservative folks as retired judges, lawyers, doctors and business executives who want resort-style living.
Some of them would also like to alleviate the pain from arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cancer and other ailments with the help of medical cannabis. In 2008, the Laguna Woods City Council actually voted to allow dispensaries that met certain requirements to operate within city limits. Among the requirements were that operators only set up shop in locations zoned for office/commercial purposes.
But when no dispensary was able to find a suitable space or willing landlord, a group of Laguna Woods retirees took matters into their own hands. They have already started growing plants—some inside their homes, some in private atriums and some in relatives’ garages, says 63-year-old Lonnie Painter, a former chef who prefers cannabis to the opiates he was given for ocular arthritis and degenerative disc disease.
“We are modeling our collective after WAMM (Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana) in Santa Cruz,” says Painter. “We grow and provide marijuana on a donation basis, each according to their ability and need.”
Although, like many, the residents find the state Attorney General’s guidelines regarding cultivation and dispersion confusing, they say they’ve met with their own attorneys and are hyper-conscientious about going above and beyond abiding by the law. People interested in joining must be over 18, have a doctor’s recommendation, fill out an application, provide personal references, submit to a background check and sign confidentiality and etiquette agreements.
Once a new member is approved, they go through an orientation process, and are offered support the first time they smoke. “Often, all they know about marijuana are stories about that killer, weed,” says Painter. “We sit with them so they’re not scared.”
Getting people high is not the goal here, says Bill Schwied, an 88-year-old retired doctor and member of the collective who says he’s never used cannabis medicinally, but does advise people to talk with their doctors about it.
“These are retired seniors who are often on five or six different medications in an effort to manage serious chronic pain,” he says.
In fact, he points out, the collective closely follows ongoing research exploring novel ways to separate the psychoactive component of cannabis from the medicinal component that treats pain, inflammation and nausea.
A number of folks in the community would like to see the government take this research more seriously. Although there are currently 20-plus official members of the collective, Painter says there is no way to determine how many inside the community may be using cannabis from outside sources.
“When we had our first meeting, we thought two or three people might come by, and instead we got 50,” he says.
Subsequent meetings have drawn crowds of more than 200. Although residents have heard occasional rumblings from fellow citizens concerned about breaking the law, Schwied says that the “opposition has been zero.”
It appears that no one is interested in condemning sick seniors for just saying “yes” to medical pot. Multiple calls to Chuck DeVore, the conservative Republican state Assemblyman for the 70th District (which includes Laguna Woods), were not returned. Nor was there a response to repeated messages left for Lt. Bill Griffin of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees Laguna Woods. However, when Jim Amormino, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, was asked about the collective, his response was that he knew nothing about it. “I only get involved when there’s a problem,” says Amormino, “so I guess you could say it’s a good thing that I don’t know.”
Of course, nobody is really making the collective’s job any easier. Painter says it took two weeks for the Sheriff’s Department to return his calls when he first sought advice on legalities, and when officials finally did respond, they said they couldn’t answer any questions because it might look like an endorsement.
And what about the children? When asked how his family feels about his cannabis-related endeavors, Schwied starts to chuckle.
“All I can tell you is that my family is way ahead of me,” he says. “They just say ‘Go, Grandpa, go!’”