In 2009, as Los Angeles' booming medical marijuana economy inspired an emerald city of weed, Vanessa Sahagun found a business opportunity as "Chacha Vavoom," maven of the 420 Nurses.
Chacha and her "nurses" became a pot culture phenomenon. They savored bong hits on YouTube, modeled skimpy outfits to promote marijuana dispensaries – and stirred young men at medical pot shows teeming with sexual imagery.
"I was proud I was opening up a market creating 'green jobs' for these ladies," said Sahagun, 25.
But now, the sexual marketing of medical marijuana — with racy promotions that often trump the beer industry's swimsuit models — is at the center of an uncomfortable debate in the medicinal cannabis community.
Fifteen years after California voters legalized use of medical marijuana amid images of ailing AIDS and cancer patients, pot dispensaries featuring "bikini budtenders" suggest a different message: pot as a recreational pleasure.
"I've often said how offensive it is that we have naked girls with cannabis leaves or mini-mini-mini-skirts," said Lanette Davies, a Sacramento dispensary operator who condemns others in the industry for marketing sex. "That has nothing to do with medication."
Davies, whose family runs the Canna Care dispensary, said some in the industry "believe there is more money" marketing to recreational marijuana users. "That's not what people voted in. That's not why we're supposed to be here," she said.
Ryan Landers, a Sacramento AIDS patient who leads a medical marijuana policy group called "the Compassionate Coalition," said trade shows featuring "Hot Kush Girl" contests and spicy ads "make my job a hell of a lot harder to convince people what we're doing is true and real."
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