In California, Pot Not Just for Stoners and Sick Anymore

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

By Peter Hecht

MICHAEL PAUL FRANKLIN / MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS | Robert Girvetz, 78, of San Juan Capistrano, says he enjoys smoking marijuana from a vaporizer. A former user, he says he recently traded his occasional martini for pot.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — 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 her children 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 Field Poll 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 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 University of California, 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 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. That exceeds the registration of any political party in the state.

Better than pills?

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 longshot 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,” Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness said. “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.”

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 eight 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.

Highest in 18-29 group

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

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.

While 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 the beach.

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

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.”

Help from her friends

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 never has 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 two 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 cellphones or money exchanges on dispensary premises. Workers at the facility look 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,” Harborside Director Steve DeAngelo said. “When you have dual markets, one legal and one illegal, existing side-by-side, you’re going to have the issue of diversion.”

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.