LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. - Joe Schwartz is a 90-year-old great-grandfather of three who enjoys a few puffs of marijuana 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 country's largest retirement communities.
The fledgling collective mirrors a national trend as 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 two-year-old collective keep a low profile, but others grow seedlings on patios and set up workshops to show other seniors how to turn marijuana leaves into tea, milk, and a vapor that can be inhaled for relief from everything from chemotherapy-related nausea 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.
Under California law, people with a variety of conditions, from migraines to cancer, can get a doctor's written recommendation for medical marijuana and join a 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 supplements regular painkillers with marijuana tea for osteoarthritis and keeps stacks of marijuana-collective applications on a desk in the living room, just feet from the Lego bricks his 7-year-old grandson plays with on his 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.
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.