Weed or wonder cure?
Despite law, medical marijuana users still face hurdles, stigma

by Jeff Mannix

It’s a drug from the wrong side of the scientific divide. With an unacceptable pedigree, it is unqualified for membership in the Pharmaceutical Club by virtue of its dirt-poor upbringing. But thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people a day are finding relief and cures for life- and mobility-threatening ailments from the Cannabis plant – otherwise known as marijuana.

On Nov. 7, 2000, Colorado passed Amendment 20 to the state constitution, permitting the use of marijuana for the treatment of specified, debilitating medical conditions. Regulating the lawful use of cannabis was turned over to the Colorado State Board of Health, then the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which in turn established the Medical Marijuana Registry Program within the Department of Vital Statistics. As Amendment 20 was written, starting June 1, 2001, it would be legal for any patient or primary caregiver in lawful possession of a registry identification card to engage or assist in the medical use of marijuana. The Registry reviews medical records of applicants, charges $90, then issues on tamper-proof paper a certificate with a registration number. The patient’s name, address and part of his social security number is typed on one half, and the other half is reserved for listing a “caregiver."

In Denver, two nonprofits can facilitate the application process, including the physician referral: CannaMed and the THC Foundation. Neither the state nor the nonprofits offer further resources.

With the passing of Amendment 20, many patients across the state with conditions unrelieved by pharmaceuticals began to seek – albeit warily – information on the palliative and curative properties of marijuana. “To date,” says Ron Hyman, Director of the Colorado division of Vital Statistics and the Medical Marijuana Registry Program, “we have reviewed 6,369 permits for use of medical marijuana and issued about 5,000 or so certificates.” Eighty-one certified patients live in La Plata County.

Hyman said his office takes confidentiality seriously. “We’re dealing with medical records here – and have no opinion about the politics … we offer no resources for patients other than instructions to keep in compliance.” He said his office does give presentations on compliance to law enforcement agencies, if asked. No law enforcement agency in La Plata County has requested training. According to Hyman, verification of patient status by law enforcement is possible only during business hours and only by fax, eliminating possibility of instant identification on location.

Scott Carr, director of the THC Foundation in Denver, explains that the average age of medical marijuana patients is 39, and 70 percent are males. Severe pain accounts for 87 percent of all registered medical conditions. According to his organization’s policy manual, qualifying medical conditions include: chronic pain, chronic nausea, AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, hepatitis, chronic muscle spasms, seizure disorders and gastrointestinal disorders, to name a few.

The newly minted medical marijuana patient runs the gauntlet for a certificate, then oftentimes has no one to turn to for the medicine. Under law, patients are allowed to grow six plants or possess two ounces in dried form. Most turn to the streets at first, where marijuana is estimated to be a $36 billion annual U.S. industry, eclipsing both wheat and corn. The patient buys it legally from someone selling it illegally, unless the seller wishes to be listed on the patient’s certificate as a caregiver and be in possession of no more that the patient is permitted.

“That’s where I come in,” says Aamann Degarth, who is listed on the registry certificates of 12 patients. “I assess, counsel and supply the form and dosage of marijuana for each of them individually.” Medical marijuana is available not only in its common, smoked form, but in food, concentrated oil and tinctures. Degarth shops for his patients at legally established dispensaries lucky enough to avoid being raided, and from time to time equips and empowers a grower in order to refine and standardize his product. Neither the patient nor the caregiver can quite get over the facile connotation of user and dealer, as law enforcement reminds them at every turn. (he is iconic; I interviewed four caregivers, he’s the highest profile, and you have a head shot of him. He’s now in Hawaii, fled Colorado in front of a bust of his grower, who was growing more than legal.)

Jim Schrant, DEA Agent in Charge, covers western Colorado, including Durango, from offices in Grand Junction. He and his agents have participated in marijuana busts in La Plata County with the assistance of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, Durango Police Department and the Southwest Drug Task Force. “The federal government does not recognize the medical use of marijuana,” Schrant recites. “Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the most addictive and harmful of all drugs, and possession of any amount will be prosecuted to the full extent of federal law, punishable by one year in prison and $1,000 fine,” declaims Schrant. “I have no opinion about the medical use of marijuana; it’s against federal law, and that’s all I need to know.” Schedule 1 drugs include opiates, heroin, morphine, depressants, stimulants and hallucinogens.

Lieutenant Pat Downs heads up the Southwest Drug Task Force from the La Plata County Sheriff Department. He’s been a sheriff deputy for 21 years. “Colorado has a medical marijuana law, permitting properly licensed residents to grow, distribute and use marijuana for medical purposes,” Downs says, “and we uphold the laws of Colorado and will not cite or arrest properly credentialed individuals in possession of marijuana.” When SWDT assists in raids of marijuana growers, Downs says that state agencies pull back if the grower has authority as a permitted caregiver. In effect the DEA makes the arrest, with local agencies falling back into a support role, as Downs describes, to protect arresting officers.

Lieutenant Don Baker, of the Durango Police Department, said although he is sworn to uphold the laws of Colorado, federal law preempts all other laws. “We enforce the laws of Colorado, but federal law is a higher authority, and we are obligated to enforce it as well. States can make state laws more stringent than federal law,” Baker continues, “but we cannot weaken or ignore federal laws. Possession of marijuana is against the law of the land, and we will cite offenders, confiscate evidence, then turn the cases over to the district attorney and the courts and let them decide.”

However, district Attorney for the Sixth Judicial District Todd Risberg says he will not prosecute medical marijuana cases. “It’s the law; it’s in the state constitution,” he said. “As a state prosecutor, I enforce state law, and we have far more important things to do. And as for marijuana cases generally, in Colorado possession of an ounce is a misdemeanor and a low-priority offense involving only a $100 fine.”

Policy this confusing gets laid at the feet of politicians, and on Feb. 25, 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would no longer raid or prosecute the distribution or use of medical marijuana. A number of high-profile raids in California have been executed by the DEA since that time, but the mood is hopeful that President Obama will live up to his word, and sick people will no longer have to take their medicine in front of an opened but curtained window.

Testimonials abound with nearly miraculous relief from the use of therapeutic marijuana. Reclaimed lives are in the offing, yet lawmakers and law enforcement can’t seem to get beyond the reputation of an illicit drug. Medical marijuana may be permitted in Colorado and 13 other states, but using, growing or distributing what has been indisputably proven to help patients is at the same time somehow illegal. And nobody seems to agree about how state law and federal law coexist. Every patient interviewed for this article insisted on anonymity. They feel better, they’re once again happy to be alive, but they feel like criminals.

“Ironic,” says a 60-year-old Pagosa Springs businessman who insists his life with Crohn’s disease was restored to normalcy with medical marijuana, “when we review the literature to learn that prescription drugs are by far the most abused, addictive and have side effects in many cases that worsen the quality of life of the patient.”



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