My husband and I didn’t know quite what to expect as a petite woman in neon green scrubs escorted us to a small tent.
Waiting at a folding table was a gray-haired plastic surgeon from Los Angeles in a white lab coat. Large headphones covered his ears, and he was snacking on nuts.
“What is your condition?” he asked without making eye contact. His pen was poised above a medical marijuana referral form.
I was about to experience firsthand a process the state is working to reform: how Californians get medical marijuana cards.
I didn’t intend to test the system, which has remained largely unregulated in the 20 years since voters approved medical marijuana. But it was my first week on the job as the Register’s first “pot reporter,” and I was intent on covering High Times magazine’s Cannabis Cup.
I knew going into the San Bernardino festival that a “medicating area” would be restricted to medical marijuana cardholders. Within minutes, however, we discovered that all 300 vendors showing off the latest cannabis industry products and even the food trucks were in that cordoned-off area. The rest of us were limited to attending a concert that wouldn’t start for hours and a sparsely populated seminar room.
Then we noticed The Green Doctors, a Venice-based business that had set up a mobile clinic just inside the festival.
Out front was a sign suggesting ailments that might merit a medical marijuana referral. It included migraines, which I’ve suffered from since high school, and insomnia, which my husband battles after 20 years in the nightlife industry.
We asked a clipboard-wielding man who was buzzing around the entrance how much it cost to get a card. He said $20 for the exam and $25 for the card.
We handed over our driver’s licenses and each received a two-page form. It had some biographical questions. Then there was space to list health conditions we’ve had for six months that we felt might be helped by the use of cannabis.
Soon, we were at the table with the doctor. Within a minute, he had signed referrals for us both.
He didn’t ask follow-up questions about our conditions. And the doctor didn’t offer advice as to how we might treat those maladies, such as what type of cannabis would best ease my migraines or how much my husband should consume to help him sleep.
Broader concerns about the industry’s vetting procedures inspired portions of Senate Bill 643, authored by Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. The bill, one of three being rolled out as part of the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, requires the state Medical Board to prioritize discipline of physicians who have repeatedly recommended “excessive cannabis” or cannabis without a “good faith examination.”
My husband and I didn’t realize when we left the doctor’s table that our “exam” was over.
We were ushered to a second roped-off area in front of another tent. We expected more medical questions or maybe a physical check. We waited. Then we waited some more.
The crowd of mostly young men in the holding area was getting restless. The scent of marijuana and lure of music from the medicating area kept reminding those still on the outside what they were missing.
After nearly two hours, it was our turn to head into the second tent.
Lucy Khalil, general manager of The Green Doctors, was waiting with a white lab coat on. She told us it was $80 for a three-month referral or $160 for a year. She also encouraged us to splurge for a $25 photo ID card, assuring us it would be the best thing to show police if we were ever stopped.
We told her we had been quoted a price of $45 out front. She insisted we must have misunderstood the man with the clipboard due to his accent.
My husband decided it wasn’t worth it and asked for his ID back. Khalil said fine, but it would still be $40 for the exam.
Dozens of online Yelp reviews and a Better Business Bureau complaint by people claiming to have been customers of the Venice Beach shop raised “bait and switch” concerns, claiming sidewalk hawkers quoted them a price of $40 that more than doubled before they had cards in hand.
Khalil later told me The Green Doctors has never engaged in misleading pricing or promotion practices.
McGuire’s bill, which took affect Jan. 1, includes a ban on deceptive advertising.
Khalil pointed out that her clinic has to pay to participate in events such as Cannabis Cup. She declined to share the cost or how much money The Green Doctors made during the five-day festival.
My husband and I had a choice. We could each be out $40 and two hours or spend another $40 and step into the heart of Cannabis Cup.
We forked over our debit card. Khalil handed us our driver’s licenses, a list of potential cannabis side effects and certificates with gold foil seals. She quickly secured paper wristbands and set us free to enter the medicating area.
Inside, dispensaries were offering free bong hits and marijuana-infused gummy bears. I didn’t partake, instead collecting quotes and story ideas.
A Santa Ana dispensary owner I spoke with later laughed when I told him how much we had paid. He showed me the website HelloMD, where a video chat with a doctor can get you a 12-month card for $49.
He also chuckled about the exam process, saying it’s essentially just a formality at this point. Whether California voters approve recreational marijuana use as expected in November isn’t as big a deal as some suggest, he added. “It’s basically already legal.”
Khalil noted that state law leaves referrals to a physician’s discretion. “This is just about a doctor’s opinion,” she said.
And to be fair, patients share similar stories about how easy it is to get prescriptions for painkillers and other drugs that can be much more addictive.
This article was first published at OCRegister.com.