By Peter Hecht
Published: Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

John Wade, 43, a San Francisco commercial lighting specialist, takes a quick hit from a marijuana cigarette on the golf course to steady himself before putting.

Sarika Simmons, 35, of San Diego County, sometimes unwinds after the kids are asleep with tokes from a fruit-flavored cigar filled with pot.

And retiree Robert Girvetz, 78, of San Juan Capistrano, recently started anew – replacing his occasional martini with marijuana.

“It’s a little different than I remember,” he says. “A couple of hits – and wooooo. … ”

As California voters prepare to decide in November whether to become the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, a new Field Poll conducted for The Sacramento Bee reveals that weed already is deeply woven into society.

Those who use the drug, and their reasons for doing it, may be as diverse as the state itself.

Forty-two percent of adults who described themselves as current users in the July poll said they smoke pot to relieve pain or treat a health condition. Thirty-nine percent use it recreationally, to socialize or have fun with friends.

Sixty percent say marijuana helps them relax or sleep. Twenty-four percent say it stimulates their creativity.

Historically, marijuana use in California remains lower than during peak years of the late 1970s. But voters’ approval of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act – which made the state the first to legalize medical marijuana – is changing the social dynamic, according to poll results and interviews with users in 15 counties.

“It’s certainly likely that post-Proposition 215, it has become more mainstream and the base of users has broadened,” said Craig Reinarman, a UC Santa Cruz sociology professor who has studied marijuana in society.

Other measures back the Field Poll findings:

• More than 400,000 Californians use marijuana daily, according to the state Board of Equalization. And state residents consume 16 million ounces of weed a year, from legal and illegal sources.

• More than 3.4 million Californians smoked pot in 2008, according to the latest research by the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health.

And, in the Field Poll, 47 percent of registered voters said they have used marijuana at least once in their life. That exceeds the registration of any political party in the state.

Breaking stereotypes

Marijuana use in California extends well beyond any stoner stereotype.

“I don’t walk around in Bob Marley T-shirts or have a marijuana flag in my room,” said Kyle Printz, 44, a Marin County software engineer.

Printz occasionally smokes pot after writing computer code – “and dealing with zeros and ones all day long.” He said, “It alters your state of mind a bit and does help you relax.”

Deborah Pottle, 56, a disabled former state corrections officer from Modesto, has a physician’s recommendation for marijuana for her back injuries and a precancerous condition. She prefers cannabis in lozenges and brownies and melds pot flakes into spaghetti sauce and high-protein meals.

“I find it better by a long shot than … trying to keep pills down,” said Pottle, who sees marijuana only as a medical remedy – not recreation.

Nationally, more than 100 million Americans have tried marijuana, and 10 states – led by Rhode Island, Vermont and Alaska – have higher per capita use than the Golden State.

But in California, a proliferating industry of medical cannabis dispensaries, offering exotic strains such as “Blue Dream,” “Train Wreck” or “Green Crack,” helps supply a vast market, including many people who never venture inside a pot shop.

According to the state Board of Equalization, California marijuana dispensaries – intended to serve bona fide medical users, including AIDS, cancer and chronic pain sufferers – produce up to $1.3 billion in marijuana transactions for people reporting a vast range of ills.

“I’m sure there are people who suffer from any number of maladies that seek therapy from marijuana use,” said Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness. “But for at least as many, I think it’s a ruse for healthy people who enjoy the effects of marijuana.

“That’s how they obtain it without hassle.”

Illegal trafficking persists

Ngaio Bealum, editor of West Coast Cannabis, a 50,000-circulation lifestyle publication that bills itself as the Sunset magazine of weed, says the dispensary evolution and sophisticated growing techniques are changing California’s pot culture.

But he said illegal marijuana trafficking lives on to satisfy the demand.

“The old-school weed man still exists, but he’s had to step his game up,” Bealum said. “Now when you go to the clubs (dispensaries), you’ve got 50 different kinds” of pot strains. “The weed man now has to offer a few different kinds – and start making brownies, too.”

California decriminalized marijuana use and possession 34 years ago. People caught with less than an ounce face a misdemeanor that carries a $100 fine. Those with medical recommendations now can legally possess up to 8 ounces.

Bealum says readily available weed – and the reduced stigma and penalties – make people less wary of consequences.

“As the boomers get older, those guys realized it is really no big deal,” he said. “And the younger kids don’t think it’s a big deal, because their parents used to do it.”

The July Field Poll shows plummeting support for tougher marijuana laws and increased backing for softer penalties. Yet marijuana arrests continue to rise.

In 2008, California authorities cited 61,388 people on misdemeanor pot offenses and 17,126 for felonies such as illegal trafficking, cultivation or possession for sale. Total arrests were up by nearly one-third since 2003.

According to the Bee-commissioned poll, current marijuana use is most prevalent in the Bay Area and Northern California, including North Coast and Sierra Nevada counties with pot-receptive climates and cultures. Use is lower in the Central Valley and lowest in San Diego/Orange counties.

And, following previous trends, reported pot use is higher among whites than African Americans, Latinos and other ethnic groups.

All ages and lifestyles

Marijuana has found niches in the California lifestyle with young people starting their careers, affluent baby boomers and urban professionals.

Ryan Issaco, a 21-year-old San Jose college senior bound for law school, says he gets marijuana from friends with medical cards or from acquaintances who bring weed from North Coast pot-growing regions to the Silicon Valley.

He lights a water pipe and explores “different avenues on the issues” with companions. “I love to talk politics when I’m a little high,” Issaco said.

Californians age 40 to 49 – people who grew up a decade or more removed from the hippie era and the Summer of Love – are most likely to have used marijuana at some point in their lives, the poll showed.

Though current use is highest among people between 18 and 29 and earning less than $40,000 a year, pot also is finding a significant foothold among many reaching their prime career earning years.

Steven Keegan, 40, a Los Angeles sporting goods designer, earns more than $100,000 marketing to Fortune 500 companies. He says he smokes pot before a typical weekend day spent with his girlfriend at L.A.’s Zuma Beach.

At bedtime, he relaxes with “Woody Harrelson” – a popular cannabis strain named for the actor, an outspoken booster of marijuana use.

“I can come home from work and if I’m up at night thinking about various projects, I’ll just take a hit and … I can go to sleep,” Keegan said.

John Wade, who does lighting and production for weddings and corporate events, uses his “one hitter” – a miniature pipe that looks like a cigarette – to sneak smokes at Giants baseball games, on ski lifts – and on the golf course.

“You don’t want to smoke too much because it can make the game worse,” he said. “But I’ve taken a hit and gone off and had a couple of good holes. I seem to be able to focus on my putting better.”

According to the Field Poll, the overwhelming majority of current pot smokers prefer to use it at home or a friend’s house. Smaller numbers say they enjoy it at parties, concerts or outdoors.

Simmons, of San Marcos, sometimes retreats to a patio to relieve stress once her three daughters are asleep and won’t notice.

“I don’t even like the smell of it on my hands or body,” she said. “I’m very discreet about it.”

Some share ‘medical pot’

Dawn Sanford, a call center data entry worker from Sacramento, said she rarely buys marijuana herself. But she reaches out to friends with a ready supply or a medical recommendation.

Sanford has never seen a physician for a pot referral but suffers occasional panic attacks. Sometimes, she said, she calls a female friend who uses marijuana for anxiety to ask, “Can we do this please?”

The potential for pot purchased at medical dispensaries to be diverted for recreational use is prompting efforts to prevent patients from reselling or giving away pot.

Purchasers are limited to 2 ounces a week at Harborside Health Center, which serves 48,000 medical users through its Oakland and San Jose dispensaries. The Oakland outlet alone handles $20 million a year in marijuana transactions, according to the center.

Harborside bans cell phones or money exchanges on dispensary premises. It looks for people whose approach – such as buying up particular pot strains or purchasing in multiple quantities – suggest they may be planning to resell it.

“We’ve trained our staff to identify transactions that may be suspicious,” said Harborside Director Steve DeAngelo. “When you have dual markets, one legal and one illegal, existing side-by-side, you’re going to have the issue of diversion.”

Many marijuana users have friends who bring home dispensary pot as easily as picking up the groceries.

So in Riverside County, Annette Drennan, 30, an amateur astrologer who is taking a class on meditation, enjoys smoking with her boyfriend – a pot patient – because “when I get stoned I can really feel the present.”

Sociologist Reinarman said, “The line that separates recreational use from medical use is blurred” by the infusion of medical pot into California’s popular culture.

“There is no contradiction from people who sometimes use it for pain or sometimes use it for sleep or sometimes use it because it is fun and or stimulates their creativity,” he said.

The notion offends Lanette Davies, who runs Sacramento’s Canna Care dispensary, which serves 5,000 registered marijuana patients.

Davies believes many illicit marijuana users may be self-medicating for undiagnosed medical conditions. But she said, “I don’t support people using strictly for recreation. If you want to take Vicodin simply because it feels good, that doesn’t make it OK.”

While many dispensaries pitch exotic pot strains, such as “Grandaddy Grape Ape” and “Brainstorm Haze,” as if they were prize-winning vintages of wine, Canna Care rejected the common name of one popular variety. It changed “Green Crack” to “Green Lady” to avoid an appeal to recreational users.

“We will not put up ‘crack,’ ” Davies said.

Marketing approaches vary

Pot marketing is booming with the burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

MediCann, a California physicians network that has overseen referrals for more than 200,000 patients, portrays medicinal marijuana use as a mainstream experience.

Its “typical stoner” ad campaign features photos of real estate agents, marketing executives, veterans, community volunteers, professors and plumbers who find relief for anxiety, arthritis, nausea, sleeplessness or back pain.

By contrast, an advertisement for Los Angeles’ Grateful Meds dispensary appears to pitch mind-altering rewards.

“The place where patients are high-spirited!” says an ad in a Los Angeles pot culture magazine. With depictions of semi-nude women, the advertisement offers free joints or pot brownies for each new “patient.”

“This is what we’ve come to,” said John Redman, executive director of Californians for Drug Free Youth. Such appeals attract young adults and make a drug culture attractive to teens, he said. “How is it that we as a society cannot look at that?”

Redman contends depictions of pot as a cool and natural alternative to other drugs are akin to the Joe Camel ads that were blamed for drawing kids to cigarettes.

According to national drug survey data, one-third of current California marijuana users are 18 to 25. Twelve percent – nearly 425,000 – are ages 12 to 17.

Lure surprises some

The complexity and lure of the contemporary pot market surprises even some veteran users such as Wade, who started smoking as a teenager.

As a grown-up, he cited occasional hives and rashes to get a physician’s recommendation. That entitled him to shop dispensaries featuring scores of marijuana varieties. They include cannabis sativa plants – said to produce a cerebral high; indica plants – considered body relaxants; and crossbred plants said to offer both medicinal effects.

Some strains pack a greater psychoactive punch than Wade was ready for. “I found them too strong,” he said.

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