After a major traffic accident nearly crippled him, Anthony Schiozzi spent years searching for pain relief.
He tried surgery, but it didn’t work. A second surgery could happen soon, but doctors don’t believe it will end the chronic pain that has made it difficult for the 39-year-old former security guard to walk, bend over or sleep. Next, he tried Oxycontin and muscle relaxers – still no luck.
Video: California was the first state to allow medical marijuana. Now, two decades later, voters are expected to be asked whether to legalize recreational use of the drug. The legalization measure most likely to qualify for the statewide November ballot is the product of months of negotiations between groups with varying interests, from drug-law reformers, to growers and distributors, to famous financiers and politicians. Here’s a primer.
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Schiozzi then reluctantly tried medical marijuana after his surgeon suggested it. It worked. The pain caused by permanent nerve damage in his back and right leg was alleviated enough to allow him to move around the house again.
On Jan. 7, Schiozzi was happy to learn that his local city council voted unanimously to allow commercial cultivation, distribution and delivery within Coalinga. The city of fewer than 17,000 became the first to open its doors in Fresno County, where politicians have fiercely opposed medical cannabis despite the state government shifting to the “pro” side.
On Feb. 4, Schiozzi was enraged as he watched Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims and concerned Coalinga residents ask the council to reconsider. Their point: marijuana is a dangerous drug that should not be sold like medicine.
“How dare someone tell me that I don’t have a right to take something my doctor prescribes,” Schiozzi said later in an interview. “I’m against psychotropic drugs for children, but that doesn’t mean I go into these parents’ medicine cabinets and yank out the Ritalin.”
Mims’ plea worked. The council backed off its full steam ahead approach to marijuana. The issue likely will go to a popular vote.
I’ve met people from all walks of life at the dispensary. Veterans, old people, cancer patients – the cancer patients are probably the number one users.
Coalinga bends to pressure
Why the switch after a unanimous vote less than 30 days earlier?
“So, our council is made of weak individuals,” Coalinga Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Keough said in an email. “As a result of an angry mob at our previous meeting ... another ‘old time’ member suggested we put it on the ballot.”
He continued: “Personally, I think if we governed based on mob rule we would be in pretty bad shape, but at the same time I am fine with putting the decision to the ballot.”
Keough said he supports allowing dispensaries because the city needs the money generated from taxes on medical marijuana and “what someone puts in their body is their choice.”
Mims disagrees with this logic.
“I truly believe this is not about providing a medical service to the citizens of Coalinga,” she said in an interview. “It’s all about the money.”
Mims believes the dispensaries will cause a lot of problems for average Coalinga citizens, including children.
She pointed to California Outcome Measurement Service youth treatment statistics for Fresno County from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015. The county admitted to local hospitals 1,852 children between the ages of 5 and 18 for treatment – 69 percent of which were there for marijuana abuse.
The typical client for fiscal year 2014-15 is a male marijuana user, between 15 and 18 years old at admission, whose age of first use was 12-14.
A California Outcome Measurement Service on youth drug treatment in Fresno County
Mims added that marijuana is still federally illegal and “a drug with no recognized medical benefit.”
John Tilley, a Coalinga resident who joined Mims at the recent council meeting, said he was concerned that his city council would allow something that violates federal law. He added that most of the throngs who showed up at the meeting were against the dispensaries.
The Coalinga-Huron Recreation and Park District Board of Directors drafted a resolution, approved 4-0 with one member absent, opposing the dispensaries and presented it to the council. They noted health risks, increased crime and increased availability to teens and those not legally allowed to possess marijuana if the dispensaries are allowed.
The Coalinga-Huron Unified School District board did the same, again with a 4-0 vote with one member absent. It included much of the common concerns, as well as a few unheard claims.
Two stuck out.
“Whereas, daily marijuana users are up to seven times more likely to commit suicide, 60 percent less likely to finish high school, five times more likely to develop psychosis and eight times more likely to use illegal drugs later in life.”
“Whereas, marijuana dispensaries are magnets for robbery and other forms of violent crime.”
No sources were attributed after these statements.
Quality of life vs. quality of life
Dispensaries also cause logistical problems, Mims said. As all transactions require cash, the storefronts will be targets for robbery or burglary. People constantly visiting the dispensaries also cause traffic issues for nearby businesses, which have complained to the Sheriff’s Office.
“We watched some of these places,” Mims said. “We did not see people with cancer or terminal illness. We normally saw young men in their 20s riding skateboards and bicycles.”
Mims said the dispensaries created “quality of life” issues for surrounding businesses.
Schiozzi used similar language to say precisely the opposite.
“I will never be able to go back to work,” he said. “I walk with a cane. I have to get hand controls for my car. I would like to have kids, but I don’t know how much I can interact with them when I can’t bend down to pick up a garbage bag.”
He continued: “Marijuana improves my quality of life. I can function, sleep – go out and do something with my life.”
He understands the concerns others have.
“I didn’t smoke pot,” he said. “I never even took aspirin. I was a gym rat before the accident.”
Schiozzi used to lift weights and was 190 pounds before his accident. Now, he is around 145.
It was his wife, Aryn Schiozzi, who took a job in Coalinga as a kindergarten teacher when Schiozzi no longer could work, who convinced him to try pot. The relief he found convinced him to step forward as the poster boy for medical marijuana in the city.
“People aren’t getting an accurate picture of the medical marijuana user,” Schiozzi said.
He believes the pot is much safer than opiates commonly used for pain.
“If I pumped enough of those in – sure, I’d get relief,” he said. “I’d also sit on my couch and drool all day. And I’d trash my liver.”
Schiozzi said he has a congenital liver disorder that makes opiates a dangerous option.
I don’t care how much the city makes. This is about my quality of life.
The Goshen option
Schiozzi, who lives across the street from Keough in the small town, drives over an hour to the CannaCanHelp (CCH) dispensary in Goshen – a difficult prospect for someone whose permanent nerve damage makes it difficult to use his right leg. He used to buy from people in Fresno, but buying marijuana out of some guy’s trunk “felt shady.”
He thanked the staff at CCH for helping him through his pain. They recommended strains that helped with his particular pain without actually making him feel high.
Weston Hardin, an operations manager for the dispensary, said Schiozzi’s experience is common for the nearly 10,000 registered patients served since CCH opened in 2008.
“When a patient comes in for the first time, we will profile them,” Hardin said. “Some are using it for psychological reasons, pain, terminal illness – marijuana can affect each of those things very differently.”
What works for Schiozzi might not necessarily be effective for another patient, Hardin said.
“We had one patient who had 17 seizures a month,” Hardin said. “He was injured while deployed in the Middle East. His life was shattered.”
He went on: “He doesn’t want to get high, but the marijuana has kept him seizure-free for six months.”
Hardin praised the veteran’s doctor, who kept an open mind during the process. The patient no longer is taking most of his prescribed seizure medication.
“That’s a rewarding feeling,” Hardin said. “Me, this guy and his doctor can sit in the same room and talk about what’s best for his illness. We’re all on the same team.”
Hardin flatly dismissed many of the concerns raised by Mims and other law enforcement officials during the medical marijuana debate.
“We have never had any issues,” Hardin said. “About five or six years ago we had a robbery, but that was it.”
We have the same risks as any other business. Our risk is no higher than a gas station that handles a lot of cash transactions.
Weston Hardin, operations manager of CannaCanHelp marijuana dispensary
Hardin acknowledged the cash-only worries, but he said his company has been proactive about its own security.
“Our patient check-in systems make it impossible to even get in the parking lot without ID and us taking a picture of their license plate,” he said. “We take the criminal element out of it.”
Tulare County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Teresa Douglass said a community outreach officer in Goshen visits CCH and other neighboring businesses to make sure they feel safe.
Dispatch records show that deputies responded to a few motion alarm alerts and one break-in at the dispensary since December 2014, but nothing was stolen. No violent crimes were reported in that span, Douglass said.
Barrier to acceptance
Hardin believes the biggest problem facing his growing industry is public stigma.
“The biggest hill medical marijuana has to climb is ideological,” Hardin said. “People think that it’s wrong morally, so they’re never going to be on board. It’s the ideology behind what ‘makes it wrong’ that is actually wrong.”
For Schiozzi, this “ideological hill” has a very real incline.
“The sheriff and others trying to end medical marijuana will make people like myself – who are honest, law-abiding citizens – into criminals,” he said. “I’d have no choice but to go to drug dealers if they’re successful.”