LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. -- Joe Schwartz is a 90-year-old great-grandfather of three who enjoys a few puffs of pot each night before he crawls into bed in the Southern California retirement community he calls home.
The World War II veteran smokes the drug to alleviate debilitating nausea and is one of about 150 senior citizens on this sprawling, 18,000-person gated campus who belongs to a thriving -- and controversial -- medical marijuana collective operating here, in the middle of one of the largest retirement communities in the United States.
The fledgling collective mirrors a nationwide trend as more and more senior citizens turn to marijuana, legal or not, to ease the aches and pains of aging. But in Laguna Woods Village, tucked in the heart of one of the most conservative and wealthiest counties in California, these ganja-smoking grandparents have stirred up a heated debate with their collective, attracting a crackdown from within the self-governed community.
Many members of the 2-year-old collective keep a low profile, but others grow seedlings on their patios and set up workshops to show other seniors how to turn the marijuana leaves into tea, milk and a vapor that can be inhaled for relief from everything from chemotherapy-related nausea to multiple sclerosis to arthritis.
The most recent project involves getting collective members to plant 40 seeds from experimental varieties of marijuana that are high in a compound said to have anti-inflammatory properties best suited for elderly ailments. The tiny plastic vials, each containing 10 seeds, are stamped with names like "Sour Tsunami."
Under California law, people with a variety of conditions, from migraines to cancer, can get a written doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana and join a pot collective to get what they need or grow their own supply. All the members of Laguna Woods Village's collective are legal users under state law, but the drug is still banned under federal law.
Lonnie Painter, the collective's president and perhaps most activist member, worries daily about his high-profile position within the tiny community of pot users. The 65-year-old grandfather supplements regular painkillers with marijuana tea for osteoarthritis and keeps stacks of marijuana collective applications on a desk in the living room, just a few feet from the Lego bricks his 7-year-old grandson plays with on his frequent visits.
"We've got people who don't like it here, they don't like marijuana and they still have that `communism' and `perversion' and `killer weed' attitude," said Painter, who has shoulder-length gray hair, a white goatee and wears several gold necklaces. "What I get more worried about is myself getting put in jail. If you were just a patient you'd be safe, but if you are active and involved in any way in making it available for others, the federal government can come and scoop you up."
In the first two years of the collective's life, however, Painter and other members have had more trouble from their fellow residents than from the government.
When things first got under way, Painter and three others were growing about two dozen plants with names like Super Silver Haze in the Laguna Woods Village community garden. Photos show his 800-square-foot plot overflowing with marijuana plants taller than a grown man butting up against the staked tomatoes and purple flowering clematis of other gardeners.
But the Golden Rain Foundation, the all-volunteer board that governs the community, cracked down and prohibited the cultivation of marijuana on all Laguna Woods Village property. The vote followed the report of the theft of two marijuana plants, tangerines and a rake and shovel from the community garden, according to meeting minutes of the Community Activities Committee's Garden Center Advisory Group.
The foundation, which maintains the 3-square-mile community's 153 acres of golf courses, seven clubhouses and other amenities, adopted the policy late last year after a lengthy legal review.
"We thought that it was not proper. It sets a precedent. Our gardens are for flowers and vegetables, and that's all, and it's been that way since 1964 or 1965 when this was started," said Howard Feichtmann, who was chairman of the Garden Advisory Group. "We thought that's what it should remain and not get involved with medical marijuana or anything else that is considered on the fringe."
Those with medical marijuana recommendations can still grow a small personal supply in their private residences.
Susan Margolis, who sat on the Garden Center Advisory Group, said the debate has divided people along generational lines in a community where the average age is 78 but new residents can move in at 55. She estimated that up to 10 of her younger neighbors take medical pot for ailments but said many older residents are fiercely opposed.
"This did stir up a lot of feelings," said Margolis, 67, who said those opposed the public pot plots had valid safety concerns. "There are a lot of people that have never used marijuana and there are younger people who have used marijuana who say, `Come on now, this is just ridiculous.'"
After the vote, the collective had to rip its plants out and has struggled to produce the pot it needs for its members.
At first, the senior citizens tried to run their own grow site by creating a greenhouse in a rented facility off-site, but they lost thousands of dollars of crop when someone plugged a grow light into the wrong outlet, giving the plants 24 hours of light a day during the critical flowering period instead of 12 hours. Then, they gave seedlings to a grower operating a greenhouse in Los Angeles, but that ended just as badly: The place was busted by police, and all the plants were confiscated and destroyed.
Now, a fellow Laguna Woods Village resident and collective member recently started growing for the group in two off-site greenhouses whose location Painter and others declined to provide. The all-organic supply is distributed to members on a sliding scale, from $35 an ounce to about $200 an ounce based on ability to pay and need. Many members also grow their legal limit on private patios or in space-age looking indoor tents designed to coddle the growing weed.
Schwartz, who signed up as an Army linguist in World War II, is among those who grow in their private homes. He is currently nursing along six seedlings that sprout from a large tub on his patio, where he enjoys summertime meals with family and friends.
"I'm not very good at it, but it grows nicely," said Schwartz, who is also recovering from a mild stroke. "Look, whether it's a legal thing or not a legal thing, it helps you. I am 90 years old and I don't mind talking about it."
That's an attitude echoed by Margo Bouer, a collective member who recently had to move outside the gates of Laguna Woods Village and into an assisted-living home with her ailing husband. Bouer, a 75-year-old retired psychiatric nurse, smokes tiny amounts of weed from a pipe about once a month to help with vomiting and severe nausea caused by multiple sclerosis that has already put her in a motorized wheelchair.
"I was really uncomfortable about this," she said of the first time she used pot. "But I don't have any nausea now. It helps me live -– and I wasn't ready to go on living much longer."