I on LA by Erika Schickel

Erika Schickel

Biased reporting from Los Angeles

4/20 at the pot shop


April 20th is the Day of the Stoner. Urban legend has it that in 1971 a group of San Rafael High School students gathered together after school to search for an abandoned cannabis crop in the nearby woods. This industrious purpose, like so many undertaken by the stoned, fizzled under inertia, and they just used "4:20" as code for blowing out. The term made its way into the popular vernacular and today (because stoners need to take a break from their hectic lifestyles) we celebrate it as an unofficial national holiday.

These are good times to be a pothead. Even though cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug, and is still technically illegal, we are in the halcyon (if somewhat confusing) days of legal-ish Medical Marijuana here in California. This means, for the moment, nice ladies like me don’t have to go tromping through the woods (or the urban jungle) looking for weed like some kind of middle-aged Keanau Reeves in Danskos. We can just go to the corner pot store like the respectable, tax-paying adults we are, purchase it with our credit cards, and transport it responsibly back to our homes for our private enjoyment -- which, if you ask me, is the fucking awesomest thing ever.

My first pot buy was in 1977 when I was thirteen. I bought a nickel bag off a darty-eyed Puerto Rican named Jesus, who stood in front of the Azuma on East 86th Street muttering, “Smoke, smoke, smoke…” to every single person who walked by. I slid him my allowance and he retrieved his stash off the tire of a parked car. I rolled that nickel into a third-trimester joint that I smoked all by myself on the fire stairs of my mother’s high-rise.

Jesus was my gateway dealer. From there I bought Thai stick at the Band Shell, Acapulco Gold through a hole in a tenement wall in the East Village, oregano in Washington Square Park (back in that Kodachrome era when pot and oregano looked alike). For a brief, glorious time in the‘80’s, I could call a guy named A.J. and get an eighth of Sativa delivered to my walkup by a preppy with a briefcase -- it was as easy as ordering up Kung Pao chicken from the Hunan Cottage.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I began my first and only long-term relationship with a drug dealer. Michael was a lissome Brit of dubious sexual orientation who had the two key qualities of a good dealer: he was always holding, and he was always at home. He was also non-threatening and didn’t sell anything stronger than hash. It was a nearly perfect business relationship. The only problem was, Michael insisted upon acting like we were friends hanging out, which meant I had to smoke him out from the baggy I had just bought from him, before I might politely get the fuck out of there and go smoke my pot with my real friends.

The big buzzkill with buying pot, of course, was that it was illegal. You never knew if the man was listening in on your cordless phone call, or waiting around the corner with his big, drug-sniffing dog ready to nail you for that pinner in your pack of Marlboros. The drive home with the stinky snack bag of weed in the trunk was truly a white-knuckler. Even though I have never bought more than an eighth (Scarface, I’m not), every transaction was laced with the PCP of paranoia, because at any moment I could theoretically ruin my life and end up in the clink.

Back in my youth, ruining my life had a certain appeal. Doing something illegal carried a jolt of excitement and rebellion. But the older I got, the older it got. I outgrew the risk, if not the habit. When I was forty-five, my friend Danny rolled his eyes at me over lunch, called for the check and marched me over to his pot doctor for a prescription -- then he drove me to his favorite dispensary.

California Patient’s Alliance (CPA) is discretely located within a nondescript office building on Melrose Avenue. Only a small green cross on the door and a faint note of skunk in the air advertises its business.

Danny and I were buzzed into a reception area that was so bland and pleasant it could have been a chiropractor’s office. Barry, the proprietor, who was about as scary as a Golden Retriever, checked my prescription and ushered us into the inner sanctum, the showroom.

It was dimly lit with two long, glass showcase counters. Spotlights pinpointed the different strains for sale, which were stored in adorable glass containers that looked like they came from Martha Stewart’s spice rack. There were hairy Indicas, crystalline Sativas, hashes, edibles, topicals, oils, lollipops and lozenges. This place was the Tiffany’s of toke, the Cartier’s of Cannabis. Barry let us sniff the different artisinal strains, describing the notes of moss and strawberry as if he were the sommelier at Le Cirque. I stood there, staring at Danny with a stunned look -- Danny just grinned back at me.

I felt as though I had been wandering in the dark woods alone and frightened for thirty years, searching for the crop, and had stumbled into Shangri-La. I was suddenly in a friendly, reasonable, safe world where "Purple Haze" came in a handy, airtight prescription bottle and I had been magically transformed from a common criminal to a patient. I was no longer a miscreant, but garden-variety self-medicator just like everybody else out there washing down their Xanaxes with a lively Grenache. The stress, guilt and fear from all the risks I had taken over my life vaporized and the relief and joy I felt was so profound that I became utterly verklempt. A single, grateful tear spilled down my cheek. “I know, I know,” Danny said, patting my shoulder, “I cried the first time, too.”

The spell was broken by Barry, who was ringing up my purchase, “Would you like to join our frequent buyer’s club?” he asked. And then, like someone who had held the hit a little too long, I exploded into a fit of laughter that practically put me on a ventilator. Oh Capitalism, sometimes I just can't help loving you.

This is why I can assure you all that legalization is inevitable. But for now, this semi-legal state is under constant threat, especially in an election year when people have a stake in seeming less high and more mighty. So if you are one of the many thousands of Medical Marijuana prescription holders in California, I suggest you celebrate this day at your local dispensary while you still can. Because with the ever-changing cannabis laws, by 4/20 of next year we may well all find ourselves wandering around in the dark woods once more.

More by Erika Schickel:
A girl in no man's land: Singing for Johnny Mercer
Cat down: A mountain lion is slain in Santa Monica
Thrift shopaholic
The Trees Fall (and sometimes rise again)

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