LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. - Joe Schwartz is a 90-year-old great-grandfather of three who enjoys a few puffs of pot each night before he crawls into bed in the Southern California retirement community he calls home.
The World War II veteran smokes the drug to alleviate debilitating nausea and is one of about 150 seniors on this 18,000-person gated campus who belongs to a thriving - and controversial - medical-marijuana collective, operating in the middle of one of the largest retirement communities in the U.S.
The fledgling collective mirrors a nationwide trend as more senior citizens turn to marijuana, legal or not, to ease the aches and pains of aging. But in Laguna Woods Village, in the heart of one of the most conservative and wealthiest counties in California, the marijuana-smoking seniors have stirred up a heated debate with their collective, attracting a crackdown from within the self-governed community.
Many members of the 2-year-old collective keep a low profile, but others grow seedlings on their patios and set up workshops to show other seniors how to turn the marijuana leaves into tea, milk and a vapor that can be inhaled.
The most recent project involves getting collective members to plant 40 seeds from experimental varieties of marijuana that are high in a compound said to have anti-inflammatory properties best suited for elderly ailments. The tiny plastic vials, each with 10 seeds, are stamped with names like "Sour Tsunami."
Under California law, people with a variety of conditions, from migraines to cancer, can get a written doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana and join a pot collective to get what they need or grow their own supply. All the members of Laguna Woods Village's collective are legal users under state law, but the drug is still banned under federal law.
Lonnie Painter, the collective's president and perhaps most activist member, worries daily about his high-profile position within the community of pot users. The 65-year-old grandfather supplements painkillers with marijuana tea for osteoarthritis and keeps marijuana-collective applications on a desk in the living room, a few feet from the Lego bricks his grandson plays with on his visits.
"We've got people who don't like it here, they don't like marijuana and they still have that 'communism' and 'perversion' and 'killer weed' attitude," said Painter. "What I get more worried about is myself getting put in jail. If you were just a patient you'd be safe, but if you are active and involved in any way in making it available for others, the federal government can come and scoop you up."
In the first two years of the collective's life, however, Painter and other members have had more trouble from their fellow residents than from the government.
When things first got under way, Painter and three others were growing about two dozen plants in the Laguna Woods Village community garden.
But the Golden Rain Foundation, the all-volunteer board that governs the community, cracked down and prohibited the cultivation of marijuana on all Laguna Woods Village property. The vote followed the report of the theft of two marijuana plants, tangerines and a rake and shovel from the community garden, according to meeting minutes of the Community Activities Committee's Garden Center Advisory Group.
The foundation adopted the policy late last year after a lengthy legal review.
"We thought that it was not proper. It sets a precedent. Our gardens are for flowers and vegetables, and that's all, and it's been that way since 1964 or 1965 when this was started," said Howard Feichtmann, who was chairman of the advisory group.
Those with medical-marijuana recommendations can still grow a small personal supply in their homes.
Susan Margolis, who sat on the Garden Center Advisory Group, said the debate has divided people along generational lines in a community where the average age is 78 but new residents can move in at 55.
"This did stir up a lot of feelings," said Margolis, 67, who said those opposed to the public pot plots had valid safety concerns. "There are a lot of people that have never used marijuana and there are younger people who have used marijuana who say, 'Come on now, this is just ridiculous.' "
After the vote, the collective had to rip its plants out and has struggled to produce the pot it needs.
At first, the senior citizens tried to run their own grow site by creating a greenhouse in a rented facility off-site, but they lost thousands of dollars of crop when someone plugged a grow light into the wrong outlet, giving the plants 24 hours of light a day during the critical flowering period instead of 12 hours. Then, they gave seedlings to a grower operating a greenhouse in Los Angeles, but the place was busted by police, and the plants were confiscated and destroyed.
Now, a collective member recently started growing for the group in two off-site greenhouses whose location Painter and others declined to provide. The all-organic supply is distributed to members on a sliding scale, from $35 an ounce to about $200 an ounce based on ability to pay and need. Many members grow their legal limit on private patios or in space-age-looking indoor tents.
Schwartz is among those who grow in their private homes.
"I'm not very good at it, but it grows nicely," said Schwartz, who is also recovering from a mild stroke. "Look, whether it's a legal thing or not a legal thing, it helps you."
by Gillian Flaccus Associated Press Jun. 12, 2011 12:00 AM
Seniors' medical-pot collective stirs debate in community
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