Thursday, April 15, 2010

Medical marijuana: A broken system

Twelve years after it was passed by voters with hope and empathy for
people in pain, Oregon's medical marijuana program is broken.

Marijuana activists say the law is turning innocent citizens into
criminals. Criminal justice officials say the program is turning illegal
drug dealers with large-scale marijuana farms into quasi-legitimate
business people the law can't touch.

That's primarily because the law allows physicians to sign
authorizations so patients can obtain medical marijuana cards — but
the law doesn't provide a way for most of those patients to actually
get their marijuana.

Under the law, cardholders can grow their own or designate a grower. But
many, especially the elderly, can't grow their own and don't
know anyone who will grow marijuana for them. And that puts them in the
same place as any teenage kid hoping for a high — they're
looking for a dealer.

"Somehow, patients need a place to get it without going to the black
market if they can't grow it themselves," says Madeline
Martinez, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — NORML. "The law
says it should be treated like any other medicine. We don't have
access to that medicine that we need, except on the black market."

Martinez started the Cannabis Café in Northeast Portland as a service
to those cardholders, she says. There are only two marijuana cafes in
the country, both in Portland, and Martinez says hers provides free
donated marijuana and a place to smoke it — for those who pay a
total of $60 for a $35 NORML membership fee, a $20 café membership
and a $5 cover charge.

"People get ripped off all the time," Martinez says. "They
look for somebody because they're desperate. They give drug dealers
money and never get their pot."

State police confirm that they get calls from cardholders reporting just
that scenario, but they don't have the manpower to follow up.
According to Lt. Michael Dingeman, longtime director of the Oregon State
Police drug enforcement section, many of those calls involve a slightly
different twist — cardholders designating established growers to
provide for them, but who never see their marijuana.

Dingeman says many growers are simply using the cardholders for cover,
and selling their crops on the black market. In fact, some county
sheriffs estimate that as much as one half of the illegal street
marijuana they're seeing is being grown under the protection of the
state's medical marijuana program.

All this is set against a backdrop of increasing public acceptance of
marijuana, a growing population of people who use the drug — both
legally and illegally — and one and possibly more state ballot
measures looming that could dramatically alter Oregon's political
and social landscape.

As of last month, 36,403 Oregonians held or were waiting final state
approval for medical marijuana cards. In the last year alone, close to
21,000 new applications for cards have been approved by physicians.
That's a far cry from the numbers anticipated when the medical
marijuana ballot measure was approved by voters in 1998.

"The way (the ballot measure) was sold was basically there's
this grandmother with cancer who can't keep any food down because
she's so nauseated with chemo, and there's this drug that can
(help)," says Josh Marquis, Clatsop County district attorney.
"The problem is it's being abused by people who just want to
smoke a doobie."

It certainly isn't old ladies and cancer patients anymore. Fewer
than 10 percent of the Oregonians who are cardholders are suffering from
cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and the other ailments that were
given high profile 12 years ago. In fact, the heavy majority of
cardholders have pain relief listed as their condition (see

Operators of clinics where patients can see a doctor who will recommend
them for a state-issued medical marijuana card say the average age of
their patients is closer to 45 than 75.

But many in law enforcement don't think the primary abuse of the
state's medical marijuana laws comes from recreational smokers. They
worry about the cover the medical marijuana program offers illegal
growers and dealers.

Cornelius resident Robin Sawyer figures cops are estimating low when
they say 50 percent of black market marijuana is grown under protection
of the medical marijuana act. Sawyer is not a police officer, just a
51-year-old truck driver who had a frustrating one-year experience with
medical marijuana.

A few years ago, a truck Sawyer was driving was hit by a train in
Montana, leaving him with a variety of neurological ills. Pharmaceutical
pain relief left him addicted to morphine. In 2008, he decided to apply
for a medical marijuana card.

Ten minutes with a doctor who reviewed his medical records at a Portland
medical marijuana clinic cost him $180 and yielded an authorization for
his card.

"The doctor walked up to me and said, `You're qualified,
congratulations,' " Sawyer recalls. "It became apparent that
people who hold cards seemed to be in some exclusive pot club."

That, Sawyer says, was the easy part. As a cardholder, he spent a year
unsuccessfully trying to get marijuana to relieve his pain. He talked to
other card holders; he even posted online for a grower to help him. And
he spoke to a number of growers — just not growers interested in
providing him with marijuana free of charge.

Some growers said they'd use his card, and maybe give him a small
amount. But all, he says, made it clear that they were in business to
sell marijuana on the black market, and that's where most of their
crop would go, for upwards of $200 an ounce.

"These guys don't want to grow for medical marijuana. They want
to grow for money," Sawyer says.

A few acquaintances eventually gave Sawyer a small amount of marijuana
but he found it didn't seem to help his pain. At the end of a year
he didn't bother to renew his medical marijuana card.

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