What legal cannabis in California could mean for New Zealand

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In September, we get to vote on whether to legalise personal possession of cannabis in New Zealand. For a glimpse into what that might look like, Harrison Christian reports from California, where the legal pot business is booming – bringing good times (and some bad) to the masses.

At a pot dispensary in San Francisco, customers wait in an area resembling a swanky hotel lobby until a cannabis consultant beckons them to a marble counter.

Here, there's an exchange about their needs and preferred method of consumption. The customer is shown a menu with a staggering range of options: there are transdermal patches, body balms and disposable vape pens; sparkling drinks, chocolate-covered goji berries and watermelon-flavoured gummies.

Still deeper in the menu are extracts, tinctures, gel capsules and pomegranate tea bags – all of them, to one degree or another, are infused with cannabis

Then there are the actual flowers of the plant, green and frosty in their photos: Granddaddy Purple, Mimosa, Platinum Kush Breath, and Key Lime Pie.

California legalised cannabis in defiance of federal law two years ago, officially re-embracing a substance that humans have revered and persecuted for thousands of years. Californians can have a jar of laboratory-tested marijuana delivered to their door, a la UberEats, or chat with a consultant about whether to infuse their smoothies or bathwater with it. Meanwhile, New Zealanders are still sitting in car parks, waiting for black market dealers to toss them sorry-looking vegetable matter in tinfoil tubes. That might change after a referendum in September, but for the time being, the  novelty of legal cannabis will attract and fascinate the Kiwi traveller.

A thriving cannabis culture is nothing new in San Francisco, which has long been America's most liberal city. Pot dispensaries have been around since California legalised medicinal cannabis in 1996. Back then, you needed a medical card to buy marijuana, but you could get one with something as innocuous as a sore elbow.

What has changed since recreational cannabis was legalised is its proliferation into mainstream society. Where they were once seedy establishments in bad parts of town, dispensaries have opened in upscale neighbourhoods, with the signage and decor of boutiques rather than head shops. Their counters are bustling with tennis mums who buy high-THC vaporiser cartridges with minimal self-consciousness. Cannabis used to be a staple of the counterculture; now everybody's doing it.

The Apothecarium, with three locations in San Francisco and one in Las Vegas, is a winning formula in a market that's undergoing a correction after a boom of new companies. Competition is intense, says the dispensary's chief marketing officer Eliot Dobris, especially on the product side: "Many vendors have closed and many more will." Dobris says the buyer who picks what goes on the Apothecarium's menu "hears from a new vape pen company every single day".

The Apothecarium has three locations in San Francisco and one in Las Vegas.
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The Apothecarium has three locations in San Francisco and one in Las Vegas.

Cannabis companies are also heavily taxed at the state and federal level, and obtaining a licence is a rigorous and expensive process. Black market prices might be as low as one-tenth of dispensary prices. Last year, California law enforcement officials told The New York Times that legalisation had not stamped out the state's black market and in fact, illicit farms and shops were expanding. There was an oversupply of cannabis, with some businesses unwilling to jump through the legal hoops to legitimacy, they said. Most of the cannabis crop grown in California had continued to seep out of the country illicitly, following historical trafficking routes.

San Francisco is a city where notes of marijuana in the air are more common than tobacco smoke, which has evaporated under strong anti-smoking laws. Smoking weed in the street is technically against the law, but people do it anyway, often because their landlords have banned it on their properties. The New Zealand government's draft bill for legalisation would enforce the same rule, limiting consumption to private residences and licensed coffee shops.

The Government's draft law, released in December, would also restrict the purchase age for cannabis to 20 (in California it's 21) and ban all marketing and advertising on cannabis products. California has allowed advertising, as long as it isn't aimed at an underage audience – the dedicated cannabis section in the free newspaper SF Weekly is bursting with blueberry gummies and cannabis-infused bath bombs.

San Franciscans are enthusiastic supporters of legalisation, whether they enjoy cannabis or not. Many view pot as the least of the city's worries, and it's easy to see why.

A walk through the Tenderloin, a gritty neighbourhood that hosts large numbers of the city's homeless, is like visiting an open-air psychiatric ward. The footpath is crowded with tents and trolleys laden with the baggage of transient living. Heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl are sold and used openly in the streets. People are screaming, at each other or at no-one in particular. Some of them lie face-down on the pavement like dead bodies. It's a confluence of multiple crises – mental health, addiction and housing – that spans several city blocks.

There's an array of different ways to legally ingest cannabis in San Francisco.
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There's an array of different ways to legally ingest cannabis in San Francisco.

It's not clear whether medical cannabis will help to curb America's opioid epidemic. A widely publicised study last year found lower fatal opioid overdoses in medical cannabis states compared with other states in 2010. But a more recent analysis found the opposite association. Some of the scientific literature on pot is contradictory and confusing, which makes national conversations about its use more difficult.

Because medical marijuana cards have become obsolete in California, the line between medicinal and recreational users has blurred. Benny, one of the cannabis consultants at the Apothecarium, says a large number of his customers are buying weed for medical reasons, from anxiety relief, to helping offset the side effects of cancer treatment. If Dennis Peron, the godfather of medical marijuana, is to be believed, "every cannabis user is a medical patient whether they know it or not".

There's something on the menu for everyone: a person suffering from insomnia or a lack of appetite might be directed to Extreme Cream, a sedating indica-dominant strain. Blue Dream, a sativa-dominant daytime strain, might be put on the counter for someone suffering pain or depression.

Humans have played God with the cannabis plant, breeding variations as dramatic in their differences as those of the domestic dog. Cannabis connoisseurs test their product like a fine wine: the smoke might taste fruity, spicy or woody; the flowers might have a note of jasmine, cheese or pistachio. Cannabinoids and other organic compounds are present at varying levels in each strain, producing effects ranging from sleepiness to caffeine-like stimulation.

A sample of the products on offer at the Apothecarium.
Harrison Christian
A sample of the products on offer at the Apothecarium.

The percentage of the mind-altering cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis has exploded, from 4 per cent in the 1990s, to 20 per cent today. While growers selectively bred cannabis for its psychoactive effects, cannabidiol (CBD), which mitigates THC and is responsible for many of the plant's therapeutic properties, fell by the wayside. 

Some of the cannabis concentrates sold in dispensaries have been clocked at 80 per cent THC. It's like taking a leap from beer to grain alcohol – enough to send the ill-prepared user into an incoherent stupor. Eating cannabis products can be more humbling than smoking them, producing effects that are more intense and long-lasting. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd learnt this the hard way when she covered Colorado's legalised pot scene. Dowd ate a marijuana chocolate bar and spent the next eight hours in the foetal position on her hotel bed, believing she was dead.

California saw an increase in emergency room visits for "marijuana overdoses" post-legalisation, but many patients were said to be inexperienced users who were in fits of paranoia and not in any real danger. Unlike alcohol and other drugs, nobody has ever died from taking too much pot.

There's also a phenomenon in San Francisco known in the medical community as "noodling". It goes like this: cannabis tourists fly in from Kansas and other non-legal states. They arrive at a dispensary with suitcases in tow – often, they've come directly from the airport. They smoke a joint of high-THC marijuana and their legs start to wobble, or "noodle". The tourists are hungry, tired and dehydrated from travel. They collapse and have to be taken to the emergency department. Dr David Smith, a local physician who specialises in addiction medicine, says the tourists consume cannabis that is "a lot more potent than they're used to and then they noodle; they fall down, hit their heads, piss their pants and end up in the ER". The problem is so common that Smith has been training staff at two dispensaries on how to "handle the noodlers". 

Customers browse the menu at the Apothecarium.
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Customers browse the menu at the Apothecarium.

In 1967, Smith founded a free medical clinic in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury, as hundreds of thousands of hippies descended on the neighbourhood for the Summer of Love. Cult leader Charles Manson and his followers were among the 81-year-old's clientele. The hippies came from all corners of white middle-class America, dancing to the Grateful Dead and living by the philosophy that drugs and chemicals could improve the human experience.

The walls of Smith's office are a collage from that heady time: there are psychedelic rock posters and photos of the doctor with Hunter S Thompson and George Harrison. The clinic opened with the intention of treating STDs, colds and lacerations, but unknowingly launched the field of addiction medicine when it started seeing people with adverse reactions to drugs. Marijuana was the least of the clinic's problems – as the Summer of Love waned, it was replaced with the unrestrained abuse of speed and heroin.

Smith says the number of cannabis users in California hasn't increased after legalisation, but the amount of problematic marijuana users has, and he suspects potency is to blame.

It's widely accepted that cannabis can interfere with the developing brain: there's an association between cannabis use from a young age and mental illness. But authorities have struggled to convince the American public that weed can be addictive, too – perhaps because of lingering distrust over the fear-mongering approach to drug education in past decades. The proportion of cannabis users who become addicted is 9 per cent, and among teenagers it's 17 per cent. Marijuana Anonymous offers a 12-step programme to recovery at meetings across the world, including in New Zealand.

Addiction specialist Dr David Smith, 81, at his office in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco.
Harrison Christian
Addiction specialist Dr David Smith, 81, at his office in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco.

Duncan*, a long-time member of MA, says there are people who can take or leave cannabis, and people who can't, just as some drinkers become dependent on booze (alcohol's rate of addiction is 15 per cent).

"I think the main reason I became addicted was the way my brain processes THC," says the Bay Area man, who was introduced to cannabis at 18. "I got that euphoria, and that's a very powerful reward, powerful enough that I was willing to ignore a lot of dysfunction in my life so I could keep getting that feeling. Eventually I wasn't getting that high any more and I was just medicating withdrawal symptoms."

Duncan says he eked out a marginal existence for years, stoned on the couch,  watching the National Geographic channel.

He didn't realise how dysfunctional his life was until he got clean. "The reason people get clean is because their life doesn't work. Whether cannabis is legal or illegal, it probably doesn't matter."

Smith is the medical director of an adolescent addiction treatment programme called Muir Wood, where he sees young people who are dependent on high-potency cannabis products like hash oil. He observes a pattern in the teenagers: they start turning up to school stoned. Their grades deteriorate and they drop out. They begin stealing from their parents to fund their addiction. When they stop using, they go through "significant physical withdrawal".

But Smith still thinks legalisation has had a net positive effect in California. He remembers a time when a black man caught possessing marijuana on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets could go to jail for 10 years. Now there's a dispensary on that corner, and it seems to make a whole lot more sense.

The United States' historically punitive approach to cannabis possession disproportionately affected people of colour. It's a problem that persists in New Zealand, where Māori are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested and convicted for minor drug offences than other New Zealanders.

In California, "there's been a decrease in racial disparity in the application of the law", and police have been freed up to focus on more serious crime.

"As California goes, so goes the nation," is a common saying about America's most populous and culturally influential state. The West Coast's approach to pot – one of harm reduction rather than persecution – is an enticing model after America's "war on drugs" proved a costly and damaging failure.

Smith's work with noodlers and hash-smoking teens is part of it. While the "uncontrolled social laboratory" of legalisation has left the health system playing catch-up, he still prefers it to the draconian laws of yesteryear. But he's eager to point out that cannabis is no panacea, as dispensaries might have their customers believe.

It's a complicated substance that will always resist oversimplification. From Haight Ashbury – the epicentre of a pot legalisation movement that has rippled outward for decades – Smith will await the result of our September referendum with interest.

"It would be good if New Zealand could have the good of what's happened here in California, but not the bad," the doctor says.

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