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."
Most medical marijuana dispensaries refrain from suggestive advertising – and some even feature multiple sclerosis patients or car accident victims who use cannabis for chronic pain.
But the California Organic Collective dispensary in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley touts bikini-clad counter attendants in ads that depict a buxom nurse holding a red, nipple-shaped stethoscope to her breast.
The Reserve dispensary in Sacramento County employed a model in a metal-studded brassiere and Old West gun belt to promote a super-potent "Green Ribbon" strain packing 25 percent of marijuana's psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
"They claim to be offering medicine, yet they're using marketing techniques reminiscent of some of the lowest standards of the beer industry," said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association.
At the "HempCon" medical marijuana trade show this month in San Jose, the event's own marketing director took exception when she passed a booth for a magazine called Cali Chronic X. It featured seminude models posing suggestively with pot and exotic smoking accessories.
"I don't know why we have to mix marijuana with porn," protested Shawna Webb, a communications professional who uses medical cannabis for pain from a ruptured disk.
Webb said sex is the wrong image for the industry, particularly as California's four U.S. attorneys are targeting pot dispensaries for prosecution and threatening their landlords with property seizures under federal drug laws.
But Jeffrey Peterson, publisher of Cali Chronic X and a performer known as "the 420 comic," said he is making a stand against what he sees as prudish advocates who deny pot's popularity as a recreational drug.
"How dare do these people, who think they represent the cannabis culture, single out the edge of this culture – because we are the cannabis culture," he said.
Near Peterson at the San Jose trade show, Leslie Henck, a Bay Area go-go dancer, wore a bikini as the spokesmodel for a company selling joint-rolling machines. "You don't have to look unhealthy to need medical marijuana," said Henck, 19, who says her recommendation for pot helped her deal with anxiety.
"Sativa Grace," a model for Cali Chronic X, came to the show dressed as a tawdry Alice in Wonderland. Sativa's real name is Andrea Frye. The 21-year-old, who works in an adult novelties store, said she is empowering women.
"Hey, I may have sex appeal," she said, "but I can smoke all day like a guy."
Sahagun, a.k.a. Chacha Vavoom, started 420 Nurses as Los Angeles lit up with neon marijuana leaves from hundreds of new dispensaries. She sold outfits with hot pants sporting green medical marijuana crosses for women seeking pot modeling jobs.
"We went out with our cute uniforms, and I noticed a big response," Sahagun said. "I knew there was a fire there."
She said her "nurses" earn $10 to $25 an hour working in dispensaries or passing out business cards for doctors recommending marijuana – or $100 to $1,000 a day for promotional photos and videos.
At the "Kush Expo Medical Marijuana Show" in Anaheim this month, the 420 Nurses were joined by the Ganja Juice girls and a bikini troupe for an Orange County dispensary sponsoring the Expo's "Hot Kush Girl" contest. A whooping, largely male throng cheered as 21 women competed for signature edition bongs and cash prizes.
"The marijuana industry is male-dominated, and dudes love to look at hot chicks," said Ngaio Bealum, Sacramento publisher of a marijuana lifestyle magazine called West Coast Cannabis.
Bealum, who bills his publication as the "Sunset magazine of weed," said he doesn't run sexually suggestive ads.
And Bic Pho, marketing director for the Yerba Buena Medical Cannabis Club's six San Jose dispensaries, junked ads with bikini models after deciding they projected a bad image for medical marijuana.
"I just didn't feel it was appropriate. So we stopped," he said. Now the dispensaries advertise a damsel, fully clothed, in pirate's attire.
"We went with a pirate theme," Pho said, "just something to remember us by."