Oakland, California, once known for its steel and shipbuilding industries, now stands as the epicenter of the movement. Here, as long as one can procure a written note from a doctor asserting that he or she has a chronic condition that might be remedied via the use of cannabis, it’s open season. Proceed to a local dispensary, and begin the fun of openly shopping for what was, once upon a time, quite illegal. Asthma, glaucoma, and arthritis will get you in the door; but back pain, anxiety, migraines, or fibromyalgia will do in pinch.
The days of buying sub-par product from shady drug dealers are a thing of the past. Legitimately powerful marijuana is available at a host of dispensaries boasting names equal parts hippie and hilarious: Ananda Collective, Purple Trees Co-op, Mrs. Herbs. Award-winning strains of raw, cooked, juiced or baked weed line the shelves. Get that Purple Kush, that Bubba Gum. Maybe that Afghani Kind.
Anyone paying attention, of course, knows that many of the clients receiving “medical marijuana,” are in anything but desperate straits. “The truth is,” says Shane Mahoney, an Oakland denizen who chooses not to frequent his local dispensaries, “the majority of people who get cards are just doing it under the guise of needing medical help. Basically, it’s an easy way to smoke.”
It’s also an easy way for the city to make a killing. In November, Oakland voters will be asked to approve a 5 percent city tax on all profits reaped by the cannabis clubs. In neighboring Berkeley, a proposal for a 15 percent of the bottom line looms on the ballot. Some dispensaries, like Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, bring in more than $20 million annually—thus, the fiscal rewards could be significant, indeed.
So why does this matter? Well, as we slog through a deep recession, particularly in a state recently staring bankruptcy in the face, a new source of regional income and jobs for the hordes of unemployed seems promising. But it is the quasi-legal, highly profitable, status of the marijuana plant that intrigues me more. Being an ex-pornographer, I can’t help but be reminded of another grey-market economy close to my heart. After all, what’s more “kinda legal” than sex work?
Think about the parallels: random federal raids continue to menace Mendocino pot growers, despite their state-issued cards; similarly, fuzzy “community standard” laws leave adult filmmakers in constant jeopardy of being prosecuted (John Stagliano, the godfather of gonzo porn, just escaped conviction from a trial that could have landed him 32 years of jail time). In hard-line states like Texas and Arkansas, pot enthusiasts can face jail time for simple possession. Likewise, prostitutes nationwide must deal constantly with the hazards of their hazily-defined profession, facing violence from johns and brazen disrespect from the law enforcement community.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the sex industry shares an intimate connection with the world of drugs, both illegal and legal. During my five-year stint as a director in the adult film world, I observed marijuana used routinely on set by actors who hoped to enhance their performance, or simply gain a modicum of pleasure in an often-demanding job.
Personally, I never begrudged them their indulgence. After all, marijuana, though technically illegal at the time, seemed far more sex-positive than Viagra, and a hell of a lot healthier than cocaine, the drug most frequently associated with porn.
“Marijuana wasn’t part of my experience around sex work,” comments Jodi Sh. Doff, a former exotic dancer in New York City. “Pot made me hungry and paranoid, and neither was conducive to making money half-naked. I worked in strip clubs, where cocaine enabled me to booze it up way beyond my normal limits without getting sloppy or passing out. Cocaine disengaged my heart from my head. For me, that’s a big requirement when I’m working, my heart has to go someplace else entirely.”
Hmm… I wonder if the marijuana doctors of the state of California could be convinced to issue a marijuana card for reasons of PTSD—Post Traumatic Sex-Industry Disorder? And yet, at this point, the answer's probably no, as hard-liners seem stubbornly tied to issuing letters of recommendation only for traditional ailments: anorexia, chemotherapy, and so forth. Legalized marijuana, prescribed for those who perform legalized sex work, may still be several years away.
But that doesn't stop various sex workers from using the plant as they see fit. Theirry Schaffauser, an escort and adult film actor in the United Kingdom, sometimes employs marijuana with clients who smoke to feel more relaxed sexually.
“I don’t want to say that I need to use drugs to work, because it doesn’t correspond to my reality,” Schaffauser says. “But it has been helpful with clients who had issues with their sexuality and felt very anxious.”
What seems true, then, is that marijuana, now accepted in over 14 states as a legitimate tool for overcoming anxiety and headaches—temporary states that are notoriously difficult to define—can have an equally normative effect on someone engaged in sexual behavior that may be difficult or traumatic.
Jayme Waxman, an educational pornographer for Adam & Eve Video, agrees that marijuana can have a favorable effect on sexuality. Yet, she has a slightly more nuanced take on the use of marijuana within the context of the sex industry.
“This is a hard one,” says Waxman, who has directed couples-oriented films like Personal Touch and 101 Positions for Lovers. “I think (marijuana) can be a great way to enhance sexual sensations, and can really help people experience sex on a deeper level on their road to personal pleasure. And if that helps actors feel it more, then great. But I don’t think anyone should have to alter their physical being to get their job done. This is work, and if it were office work, would we be encouraging co-workers to come in stoned or drunk?”
Essence Revealed, a former high-end exotic dancer in New York, agrees: though not a prohibitionist, she stops far short of championing the use of marijuana for sex workers. “At work, I always made sure to be sober because a ‘hustlah needs ta count her cheddah!’ ” laughs Howard. “I also found dancing more mentally challenging than anything else. I needed to be able to hold a conversation, figure out what angle would work on the customer, keep scan of the room for any big spending regulars, etc. I promised myself that if it got to a point where I felt like I needed to drink or get high to do the job, then it was time to quit.”
For now, there are no clear answers—or well-defined laws—when it comes to the matter of how two of the country’s most profitable grey-market economies will continue to mingle. As marijuana slowly gains decriminalized status, sex workers and their clients remain entrenched in a business that doubtlessly could benefit from being exposed to more healthful influences. But is legally prescribed cannabis the answer? More succinctly put: Is Purple Kush the proper vehicle for instilling some heart in a business, which rents theirs by the hour? Can you smoke your way to compassion, or calmness?
If Prop. 19 is passed, it will usher in an era of legalized recreational-use marijuana. Will cannabis clubs begin to outnumber the strip clubs? If so, perhaps weed will become bigger business than porn. I see sex workers switching teams, preferring focused horticulture to afternoon trysts.
Or maybe the opposite will manifest: Imagine demand for erotic films skyrocketing, infusing the sagging porn industry with ample cash as a constantly-high, over-titillated citizenry searches vainly for a sexual outlet, their libidos grown to gigantic proportions by dint of regular dips into strong, government-issued fat-sacks.
Weed’s going mainstream, and by the looks of it, the government will be taking a bite of the profits. The only question is, how long will it be before Uncle Sam sinks his tax-hungry teeth into the sex industry?