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By Fred Dickey

Originally published May 27, 2012

Upon first meeting Michael Dunstan, you might think: This guy voted for every Bush on the ballot. He’s as straight an arrow as ever flew from a corporate bow. He could wear a three-piece suit as comfortably as a shark wears its skin.

To reinforce that image, he’s a 58-year-old retired PR executive living in Valley Center, where he scans hazy vistas and watches underfoot for rattlers. It’s bucolic intense. He’s a squire, of sorts.

But then the picture grows cloudy when you learn he is a devoted smoker of marijuana. It doesn’t fit the image, so there must be a back story.

There is, and it dates back to an intersection near Sacramento on Christmas Day 2006. Dunstan was driving in his BMW convertible when he made a turn that suddenly stuck him in traffic. He glanced left and in the distance, he saw what remains a freeze-frame in his mind to this day.

He saw a woman driving toward him at high speed. Then he saw her — and this is the image that sticks — reach around to the back-seat floor with her head fully turned. Then, nothing.

Her car T-boned his vehicle, smashing it across several lanes. Dunstan was thrown into the steel frame of the convertible top. He suffered a concussion, several broken ribs, amnesia that lasted two months and a mouthful of knocked-out teeth.

It wasn’t his first bad accident. He had suffered a serious neck injury and a broken shoulder that resulted in an implant. Pain on top of pain.

As a result of these bone-crushers, he became married to powerful painkillers. It was a union with drawbacks: the mental haze, the constipation, the energy drain and the unsettling knowledge that he was a prisoner. He wanted out.

Acting on a doctor’s advice, he decided to try marijuana in place of prescribed drugs. It wasn’t a new acquaintance. He was a student at UC Berkeley back in the day when it was Berserkley and marijuana haze on campus could cause a smog alert. Nuff said.

He went cold-turkey on the pills and turned to weed. For a month he fought painkiller withdrawal, with its joint aches, its gut tension and the bands squeezing his skull, but he never turned back.

“Painkillers are like a hammer. They try to clobber pain and overpower it, with the risk of addiction and even death. Marijuana, on the other hand, dulls the edge,” he says. “It’s more of a pain soother than pain killer.”

Dunstan extols the pot experience like Sarah Palin does ’copter hunting.

“Instead of trying to overpower pain, marijuana is like a glove that covers it. It makes pain manageable. On top of that, there’s no fear of addiction or side effects. If I smoke too much pot, I might get sleepy. That’s all.

“When I inhale, it takes only a few seconds to feel the flush of warmth rushing to my head. Within the first two puffs, I’m really starting to slow down and relax. I can feel comfort enveloping me. It’s like wrapping up in a warm cocoon. It floods the senses with the sensation of being high instead of focusing on pain.”

Marijuana prices have been spiking, Dunstan says, and have trended up since closure of many storefront outlets due to legal pressure. He says prices will go even higher as supply shrinks. The cost of an ounce ranges from $180 to $420, depending on potency. In Dunstan’s estimation, the average daily medical user will go through an ounce a month.

California law requires a medical recommendation or evaluation (not a “prescription,” because marijuana in not a legal drug). This can cost as little as $25 from walk-in “clinics” offering quickie exams that would make a visit to the school nurse seem like Mayo Clinic surgery.

There is conflict between California and the federal government on marijuana enforcement.

In effect, state law is playing chicken with federal law, and they are on a collision course with folks like Dunstan in the middle. California is willing for you to have it, but the feds say you could go to jail for using it, and especially for selling it. Every time Dunstan takes a toke, he knows he is violating federal law. That doesn’t set well with him.

“I’m mad as hell about this. Good, solid citizens are being made criminals, all because they want to treat their pain without the approval of Big Brother and Big Pharma,” he said. “I offer this warning: Suppressing the rights of people in California will only backfire for the federal government. If they really want to rumble with older disabled people, then … bring it on. I’m as mad a citizen as they’ll find.”

The effect of the legal confusion and pressure is that storefront pot marts are disappearing throughout the state and freelance suppliers are acting like rumrunners of old, driving back streets to their customers with one eye on the rearview mirror.

Dunstan’s middle-aged North County merchant/delivery man, who gives his name as Jerrod (which I don’t believe for one moment), describes his occupational hazards, which include robbers as well as federal agents.

“It’s crazy out there right now. It seems every delivery driver in Escondido has been robbed. And when we’re robbed, we can’t report it to police. We’re sitting ducks.”

He says robbers call for deliveries, and when the pot distributors drive up to the specified house, the robbers pull guns and relieve them of cash and dope. The drivers are fearful of going to the cops because of what they believe are DEA agents lurking around police stations. Maybe a little paranoia, but it’s real to them.

So, after hearing the ardent testimony of true-believer Dunstan, what do I think of medical pot? I don’t know. My personal physician says he’d never recommend it or have anything to do with it, and he’s the guy I trust to thump my chest.

I’ve never personally tried pot except for nibbling on a brownie. That wasn’t because of inhibitions or moral compunctions. Back when I was young and would have been eager, I had quit smoking and had a fear of relapse by inhaling anything again. Anyway, beer was working for me, and so was wine (when I could afford the good stuff), so I was content.

For medical purposes, I guess I’ll stay a Tylenol man and hope that’s what I can remain. However, I do respect the power of pain to open the eyes wider.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

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