Tour buses parked inside the gates of Laguna Woods Village, a retirement community in south Orange County, are typically scooping up seniors for a day of Indian resort gambling.
Not on this Wednesday.
At 10:30 a.m., a big white bus was waiting to whisk 14 seniors off on a new adventure: a shopping trip at a medical marijuana dispensary.
“I don’t want a buzz,” passenger Kay Nelson insisted, shaking her silver head. “I want relief from pain.”
Nelson has been a member of the Laguna Woods Medical Cannabis Club for two years. She uses a vaporizer and oils supplied by the senior-run collective to ease her chronic backache.
“I wouldn’t be walking if it wasn’t for cannabis,” Nelson said.
Moments later, the petite 75-year-old climbed the tour bus stairs unassisted and settled into a plush green seat, a bit nervous for her first visit to a marijuana store.
Along for the short journey was a fashionable 65-year-old who’s battling leukemia and a part-time New Yorker who suffers from glaucoma. Laguna Woods Mayor Shari Horne, who’s a medical marijuana advocate and patient herself, was on the ride. And there was fireball Vincette Wilson, who puffed and passed around the pink vape pen she’d won during a game of “420 bingo.”
Wilson led the bus in a cheer as they pulled up to Bud and Bloom dispensary in Santa Ana – the only city in Orange County that allows cannabis shops.
While many consumers and entrepreneurs in California’s marijuana industry have their sights set on Jan. 2, when the state will allow sales to start for the larger recreational market, Bud and Bloom is doubling down on serving serious medical patients.
“We believe that cannabis is a very, very powerful, healing medicine,” shop co-owner Aaron Herzberg said.
Bud and Bloom has upcoming events that focus on veteran, minority and LGBTQ patients. That passion for engaging the community – and tapping into new customer bases along the way – is why the 8-month-old shop paid for the Laguna Woods bus, which it plans to charter from the community of 16,000 at least once a month.
“I don’t want a buzz. I want relief from pain.”
Wednesday’s bus was timed to coordinate with Bud and Bloom’s new weekly clinics, where licensed pharmacist Kent Crowley meets one-on-one with patients to help them develop treatment plans.
“We’re getting more and more older geriatric patients,” said Crowley, who’s known as Dr. Kent. “And greater than 60 percent of all patients come in for treatment naïve to cannabis.”
Some of the Laguna Woods visitors already knew about cannabis compound ratios and proposed state limits on levels of THC, the mind-altering compound in cannabis. Others had never heard of THC and didn’t know how to get a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana.
Crowley assured them it’s impossible to overdose on cannabis, though people can have bad experiences if they’re not educated on dosing and managing some conditions. He also said he’s been able to help serious pain-management patients reduce their opioid intake by switching to CBD, a non-addictive compound in marijuana that doesn’t make consumers high.
That message hit home for 65-year-old Renee Scherer, who once used painkillers to ease a nerve condition that’s left her with 54 screws in her back, a plate in her neck and the need to use a cane when walking. The condition also used to require her to use opiates to deal with the pain.
Scherer said she was having serious side effects until last summer. She hadn’t tried marijuana since she smoked in the early ’70s. But she said she woke up on July 4, 2016 and said, “This is a good day to start.”
After a year of cannabis-infused edibles and vape pens she bought through the Laguna Woods collective, Scherer said her pain is manageable and she’s completely weaned off opiates.
“I know in Laguna Woods we have an opioid problem,” Mayor Horne said. “This is a gateway off of that.”
Horne noted that changes to state marijuana laws will soon phase out the local collectives residents have come to rely on.
In 2008, Laguna Woods became the first city in Orange County to pass a law allowing for dispensaries. But none have opened and, in April, Horne joined a city council vote to ban shops for the time being due to potential increases in public safety costs.
“Someday we’re going to have a dispensary open in the city,” said Horne, who visited Bud and Bloom in part to see what a modern, licensed shop looks like.
Bus tripper Brian Grode said he’d seen ads for Bud and Bloom on Laguna Woods’ local TV station and had been curious to check it out.
As the 59-year-old filled his shopping basket with infused chocolates and topical gels to ease his osteoarthritis and the degenerative disc in his back, Grode said he was pleasantly surprised at the shop’s prices – a major concern for seniors on a fixed income, since insurance won’t cover medical cannabis. He also got wide-eyed at the variety of products available.
“In the old days you could only buy a joint, and now…” his voice trailed off as he scanned the shelves of medicated drinks, concentrated waxes and flowers packed in tiny mason jars.
Lynn Jarrett, 76, had never tried cannabis before she boarded the bus Wednesday. She has a condition that causes electric shock-like pain in the nerve that runs along the left side of her face. Traditional medication so far isn’t working. Hoping to avoid surgery, she began tentatively exploring the idea of turning to cannabis.
She started telling a friend about her medical woes when she was heading into a funeral a couple weeks ago. The woman surprised Jarrett by pulling a vape pen out of her purse. And, a few minutes later, a friend sitting one pew up told Jarrett he’d been using cannabis since he went through chemotherapy in 2008.
A couple members of Jarrett’s bridge club happened to be on the bus Wednesday, helping give her the confidence to buy some cannabis capsules.
Until Wednesday, fellow bridge club member Cynthia Rosenfeld had only smoked and used edibles from the collective to treat severe arthritis.
“Cannabis alleviates the pain right away,” she said.
She walked out of Bud and Bloom with her first vape pen and tinctures tucked into a white paper bag.
Just before 2 p.m. in Santa Ana, Kandice Hawes, who coordinated the outing as ambassador for Bud and Bloom and director of the local chapter for marijuana rights group NORML, got the last few stragglers back into the bus.
Minutes later, as the bus merged onto the busy 5 Freeway and passengers settled back into their velvety seats, a few riders dozed off. But others carefully opened their white bags to examine and share what they’d bought. And others passed along tips they’d picked up, including that the shop offers 20 percent off for seniors every Monday.
“I’m going to have to switch my golf day,” Grode joked.
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