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Back In the Closet

California medical cannabis patients are increasingly being forced to hide behind closed doors as bans on dispensaries and home cultivation sweep through the East Bay.

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The pain started for Randy Barrett when he was thirteen years old. He was whipping a three-wheeled motorcycle around the hills of Martinez. Back then, riding ATVs was "just part of life," he said. "This was the Seventies and Eighties. We had dirt bikes; we had three-wheelers — the ones with a big old front rubber tire. I was driving around in the dirt and hit a patch of concrete in the road that caught the front tire and shot me forward."

Barrett's chest bent around the handlebar and he "flew off and flipped and landed in someone's front yard," he said.

He didn't go to the hospital. He went home and told his mom. '"Just walk it off,'" Barrett recalled his mother saying. '"It's going to be okay. Just go to bed.' That was just how it was back then."

Barrett walked it off, and went to bed. The teenager healed and eventually forgot about the motorcycle accident, until decades later, when, in 2010, a doctor told him that he had dislocated some ribs and vertebrae in his back and neck during the childhood incident. "The doctor told me to take my shirt off and asked, 'Did you get hit in the chest before?' I said, 'Not really.' He said, 'Really? There's this mark right across your chest. It looks a bar had hit it.' The motorcycle accident — that was it."

The former Safeway truck driver is now 42 years old, married, and has a six-year-old son. He's also a stay-at-home dad with chronic neck and shoulder pain. And like millions of Americans, Barrett was prescribed Vicodin for his pain. "But it turned me into a jerk," he said. "I was always angry and uptight."

By this time, however, Barrett was already open to alternative therapies. Back in 2004, he had developed stomach cramps and soon thereafter began drinking Pepto-Bismol every day for relief. Doctors diagnosed him as having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and so he began ingesting large doses of the antacid Prilosec. But the resulting lack of digestive fluid wrought havoc on the rest of his bowels, he said. Later that same year, doctors put him on Bentanyl, Tagament, Latadine — bowel, ulcer, and allergy medications, respectively.

"Nothing ever seemed to work," Barrett said.

Then one day that year, Barrett was hanging out with a buddy, carping about his cramps, when his friend passed him a joint. The relief was immediate. "Within a few minutes my stomach cramps were gone. I was in shock," he said. "I just thought smoking weed got you high back then. Then I started reading about how it helps with all this stuff."

But Barrett didn't try to get a doctor's recommendation for marijuana — which has been shown in human trials to treat similar bowel disorders — until four years later in 2008. Barrett's doctor, however, quickly turned him down. The physician worked for Contra Costa County and wouldn't write a recommendation for medical cannabis. "But he said, 'I'm glad you found something that works,' and smiled real big and stuck his hand out," Barrett recalled.

Barrett got a printed copy of his diagnosis for IBS, took it to the medical cannabis clinic MediCann USA in Concord, and got a recommendation to use marijuana. He then started driving to Oakland once or twice a week to purchase small amounts of different strains of medical pot and edibles, seeing what worked best. He hit every dispensary in Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley. Harborside was the best, he said, but he hated driving his 1994 Ford Explorer that far. The cost of gas was astronomical, and that was on top of a month's worth of medication (about an ounce) — which cost $400 to $500.

So that same year, Barrett decided to buy some cuttings of pot plants at Harborside. He put six of them in the soil outside his Martinez home, but the crop quickly failed. The next year, in 2009, he got some seeds, "but none of them germinated," he said. A friend took pity on him and gave Barrett six female plants. That crop did well, with buds the size of his thumb, he said. But, he said, "Those got ripped off from me, actually."

So Barrett turned his aboveground Doughboy swimming pool into a greenhouse. In 2010, he succeeded in growing a crop of Sour Diesel. Ditto for 2011, 2012, and 2013. None of the neighbors complained, and he figures that growing weed costs him only $5 an ounce.

Barrett convinced his mother, father, and sister to also obtain medical pot recommendations, since they were already using cannabis for insomnia, anxiety, and pain. Barrett's dad had both hips replaced and is still trying to get off Vicodin.

Barrett, in fact, used pot to get off Vicodin in 2012. Clinical trials have shown that smoking cannabis significantly reduces chronic pain for people taking opiates and allows them to ingest fewer pills. He also quit smoking tobacco. He learned how to create concentrated cannabis extracts, and was planning to help treat his great aunt's lung cancer with CBD oil, which has anti-tumor properties, according to cell and animal studies.

Barrett knows he should be prepping the garden this time of year. Cannabis goes in after the last spring rains, grows through the summer, and flowers as the sunlight wanes in fall. But Barrett has stopped preparing. On April 16, the Martinez City Council voted to ban all outdoor medical marijuana cultivation.

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