Like Caldwell, Sara views her job as providing a form of health care. “It’s like when someone’s sick, you bring them chicken soup,” she says.
She knows what she’s doing is illegal, but she says she doesn’t feel remorse about it: “I am not dealing nuclear arms or weapons. I am not selling crack or another addictive substance. I am providing comfort medicinally in a way that should be legal.”
Yes, some of her customers eat her treats just to get high, but Sara believes they usually do so because of an underlying problem. “If they do it before they go out, is it because they have ‘social anxiety?’ ” she says.
Other buyers—she calls her medical customers “patients”—have cancer and want the effects of THC without having to smoke it. A woman dying of lung cancer orders Sara’s lollipops to stimulate her appetite, which disappeared with chemotherapy.
Another client was the daughter of a Navy SEAL who had late-stage cancer and died this winter. “He had never done a drug in his life,” Sara says. “She brought him a half dozen cookies and said, ‘I know you’re fundamentally against it, but I think it could bring you relief.’ She sent me a heartbreaking letter saying that for the first time in several years she had her daddy back for the afternoon. He was relaxed, and he was able to enjoy his family without being in utter, excruciating pain. That’s why I do what I do.”
Last summer, the Drug Enforcement Administration formally rejected a nearly decade-long effort to reclassify marijuana, which remains in the most heavily restricted category of the Controlled Substances Act. DEA administrator Michele Leonhart stated that among the reasons for rejecting the petition was that marijuana “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”
But a growing body of medical research supports the therapeutic benefits of marijuana.
“Eventually it’s going to be recognized as a wonder drug of our times,” says Lester Grinspoon, associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine. “Marijuana is much less expensive than the pharmaceutical products it will replace; like penicillin, it’s remarkably nontoxic; it has no side effects, unless you consider being a little high a side effect; and it has such versatility.”
Grinspoon, a longtime marijuana advocate, and others say the drug can be used to treat a list of conditions such as glaucoma, migraines, nausea and vomiting (whether caused by chemotherapy or other problems), Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, mild to moderate depression, and chronic pain.
Some patients are turning to marijuana to assist with end-of-life care—“palliative” is becoming a medical-marijuana industry buzzword—and three of Sara’s customers have died.
“It’s really a blow,” she says. “You just wish they could have found you faster. If it was legal, who knows—maybe they could have lived their lives in less pain. And we wouldn’t have to be secretive and sneaky about it.”
Dealers say they’re not worried that the dispensaries will take a piece of their business. “There are not enough distributors for all of the buyers,” says a former DC dealer. “People are always looking for new contacts and new sources.”
Sara isn’t accepting new customers, though she doesn’t mind if her current patients and friends buy her treats in bulk and distribute to their own networks. “For now, very few people know who I am, and that’s perfect,” she says.
Ultimately, the types of customers Sara serves may end up shaping marijuana policy in the District and elsewhere.
In the meantime, some see signs that anti-pot attitudes are changing. “In the past, even people who enjoyed using it would never talk about policy in public because it was such a contentious issue,” says Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, a DC-based non-profit. “Now they’re willing to talk about policy, and that’s a real indicator of where things are.”
And perhaps, say some proponents, where things are going. The medical-marijuana debate encompasses many issues, among them local and national politics, public-health policy, and alternative medicine, says Scott Hawkins, the business adviser helping dispensary applicants. He says that because the DC government is so bent on doing it right by creating a strictly regulated program, it could become a national model: “This little hamlet of DC will be known as the prognosticator of the entire country.”
Sara, meanwhile, dreams of “going legit”—giving up her illicit business and selling her products openly. Showing off photos of Halloween treats she baked—spiders made of pretzels, caramel, chocolate, and sprinkles—she laments that she can’t advertise them. But she already has a financial backer in place for when the dispensary owners in DC are ready to hire bakers to create their edibles.
“Can you imagine?” she says. “I could do wedding cakes!”
Alexandra Robbins’s latest book, “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” was published in paperback in January. Editorial intern Ali Eaves contributed reporting to this article.
This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.