I'm a terrible waitress. I know this because I’ve been fired from every waitressing job I’ve ever had, and this is not a great thing if you’re an unemployed actor who needs a rent-paying gig that offers both flexibility (for auditions) and enough cash to keep you afloat (between acting jobs). It was 2006, and I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. But then a major TV network flew me from New York to Los Angeles to screen test for a sit-com pilot, and I landed at LAX with $500 to my name and a certainty that THIS was the gig that would finally put me on top. No more scraping by, living week to week, this was IT. Capital “I” capital “T”: IT.
Instead of boring you with details, let’s jump ahead to six months after the screen test, and I’m splitting a burrito with my dog for our daily meal. I had to face it that “IT” wasn't happening, and I needed a job if I wanted to eat more than beans and cheese. So I put the word out to friends that I needed a non-waitressing gig for cash — ASAP. My friend’s new girlfriend at the time and I used to occasionally smoke weed together, which kept me sane but also from realizing that she was crazy, and she knew of a place that was hiring. I thought, As long as I don’t have to bring people food, I’m good.
I guess I was too stoned to put two and two together, and math isn't my forte even when I’m sober, so it wasn't until I pulled up to the run-down Craftsman house, smack-dab in the middle of Hollywood, that it hit me that I was interviewing to actually work at a Medical Marijuana Dispensary. I was nervous. What’s a nice Jewish girl from Philly doing working in a Medicinal Marijuana Dispensary? The answer: I like to have a place to sleep that’s not outside. Inside the dispensary, the smell of marijuana was so overpowering that it seemed I could get high by just breathing. I was led to the “back room” by a lovely Asian man with movie-star good looks and was asked if I wanted some tea. All around me were lawn-sized trash bags filled to overflowing with weed. Like, TONS of weed. It was the kind of visual you’d see on news stories about busting drug rings and "confiscating hundreds of pounds of marijuana." But it was right in front of me and very, very real. Bongs that looked like they came from outer space lined the shelves. Half-smoked pot pipes sat out on the coffee table, where Starbucks to-go cups were being used as ash trays. I had never seen so much marijuana in one place, let alone one room, in my life. It was overwhelming.
The interview consisted of the owner of this “collective,” as it was called, asking me if I was a "people person" and did I want to "give back" to the community? It felt more like I was being interviewed for a job at a day care center or nursing home than a pot store — this guy was serious about helping people. He brought me to the "floor," which was a room with a long glass jewelry display case-looking counter that contained samples from the hundreds of large mason jars filled with different strains of pot that sat in cubby holes around the room. I was told that this was where the "patients" purchased their "medicine," and that that was what I needed to call it. Legally, we did not "sell pot." We sold "medicine," and people were not stoners they were "patients." Oookaaaayyy …
I also had to get a prescription if I was going to work there, so the owner set me up with the doctor they used. The appointment was about 10 minutes long and consisted of him asking me if I had PMS — “What woman doesn’t?” I said — and if I had anxiety. I told him I was an actress in LA. So … yeah.
Once armed with my new Medical Marijuana Prescription Card, I started training. There was so much to learn! It reminded me of a song that a friend wrote in a punk rock band in college, about working in the cheese section at a gourmet food store. It was called, "I Know Way Too Much About Fucking Cheese.” That’s what I felt like. For example, I learned there are essentially two kinds of strains: Sativas and Indicas, and they’re used for different purposes.
Sativas are cerebral and energetic, giving more of a “head buzz." This type of high is most associated with fits of uncontrollable laughter while stuffing your face with pepperoni pizza, long talks about which Darren in "Bewitched" was better, hearing lyrics in songs you’ve never heard before, and being “totally blown away” by almost anything. Medical benefits of ingesting Sativa include: reducing nausea, stimulating the appetite, fighting depression, energizing, promoting creativity, relieving headaches and migraines, relaxing muscles, and reducing pain.
Indicas generally have more of a physical than a cerebral affect. You may be lethargic and unwilling to take out the trash, do dishes, or attend family Bar Mitzvahs. You may want to sit and think deep, intellectual thoughts about which Darren in "Bewitched" was better, while enjoying the sensation of not being able to feel your legs. This is the best sort of high for easing pain, promoting sleep and relaxation, relieving anxiety and spasms, and reducing seizures and nausea.
Don’t even get me started on my personal favorite, the Indica/Sativa hybrid. This gives you a great head high coupled with a strong body feel, and I found it fabulous for talking to your mother long distance or severe cramps, which can be remarkably similar.
Armed with this knowledge, I started work, where I came into contact with the largest cross section of people I’d ever met. There were the guys with gold teeth and tags still hanging on their baseball caps who wanted the “dankest kush in the house,” the Armenian dudes who offered to do body work on my car, the senior citizens who needed to help themselves or their spouses with side effects of cancer or glaucoma treatments, the veterans with PTSD, the teenagers with ADD who wanted to be able to focus on their SATs, and, of course, people who just want to P-A-R-T-Y.
I had my favorite regular patients. For instance, there was the guy who was my age and a show-runner for a very (then) popular TV show. He had just gotten married when he was diagnosed with bone cancer. It turned out he was allergic to the barbiturates that were supposed to help him with the side effects of chemotherapy, and the only thing that made it easier for him to eat was marijuana. I always stuffed extra “medicine” into his little glass 1/8-oz. jars and told him to grab a bonus “edible” (i.e. Pot Brownie or Magic Rice Krispie treat) on his way out the door.
Some of these edibles managed to make their way into my bag and home with me, too. I’m not proud of this, but I "sampled" a lot of the medicine from the dispensary. And by a lot, I mean 2006 was a blur. Some I bought with my employee discount, some … I did not. Mostly I smoked on the job, because if you could have a coherent conversation with a patient and ring them up correctly, you were allowed to medicate in the back room while you worked. I took full advantage of this. Anything that would make me not care that I was 35, single, and making $12 an hour after having been in an award-winning film and testing for nine sitcoms yet was unable to pay my phone bill was okay by me.
The owner and managers of this particular collective were truly good people, treating employees as well as patients with respect and gratitude. We had regular morning meetings about what our "intentions" were for the day, and about how we could better and more creatively help patients. They also made sure their employees were happy and well fed — and stoners love their food. And although getting a bunch of medicated people to decide on what to eat for lunch occasionally took until dinner, all meals were on them, and I gained about seven pounds over the year and a half that I worked there. I also got to introduce my new coworkers, who were of multiple ethnicities, to the joys of Jewish Deli, which resulted in several serious knish addictions. In LA, you can go entire days without talking to another human, but this job forced me to get out of the house, interact with people whose lives were very different than mine, and learn, in the process, to let go of a lot of judgment I didn’t even knew I carried with me.
On the flip side, I was smoking WAY too much weed. I realized this when hanging out with a friend, hitting the bong about three times more than he did, and not even getting high. At five feet tall, my tolerance felt like a football player's. He was concerned, as was I. And although working at a dispensary made me popular at parties, it wasn’t doing great things for my motivation. More than a year had passed, and I was in the exact same place, both physically and emotionally. Plus, around this time, the Feds were cracking down on the Medical Marijuana Dispensaries, busting them randomly. We were instructed on what to do if the Feds came in and arrested us: Jump onto the other side of the counter, sit down on the floor, and claim we were patients. What? Jump over the counter? So I quit or, more accurately, stopped showing up. I supported the cause but not enough to risk calling my parents for “bail money." I knew I had to change my life, and part of that was giving up smoking pot and trying to get on stage again. I needed to remember what brought me to LA in the first place … and it wasn’t to sell “medicine." So I did.
The past six years have brought a lot of change and growth, personally as well as nationally: Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in Washington and Colorado. Federally, however, marijuana policy is disparate to not only state law but also the American idea that we of take care of our own citizens. The result is a sort of bi-polar justice system that can result in tragic circumstances in which innocent people are arrested and others stranded without one of the only things that help them battle illness and disease.
I've since moved back to New York and am making my living as an actor and writer again. I also decided that it was time to share my stories about the Collective with the world, so I'm co-writing a web series with Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank (of The Exonerated, both the play and film) called “Good Medicine." I currently have a Kickstarter campaign going until today — 12/17 — at 4:20 p.m., so if you'd like to see fictionalized versions of these stories in greater detail, please click this link and help us grow the show!
Shari Albert is probably best known for appearing in the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film 'The Brothers McMullen,' but she's also been in other movies and TV shows, including 'Royal Pains,' 'Ugly Betty,' 'King of Queens,' and 'Law & Order.' She's written for LA Weekly and The Huffington Post, and you can follow her on Twitter @ThatShari (and the Good Medicine project @GoodMedicineTV).