Oregon Medical Marijuana: A Broken System- Hazy Pot Rules leave Patients, Police Upset


April 15, 2010 – 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 chart).

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.

Every 15 minutes, Portland physician Sandra Camacho-Otero writes an authorization for an Oregon resident to get a medical marijuana card.

Last year, Camacho-Otero wrote authorizations for 8,760 Oregonians to get medical marijuana cards — far more than any other Oregon physician (see chart).

Camacho-Otero’s work is the most extreme Oregon example of a physician specialty that exists in only a few states. She is employed by a medical marijuana clinic, the biggest such clinic in Oregon — The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation (THCF) in Southeast Portland. Her job, perfectly legal, illustrates how far Oregon’s medical marijuana program has come from what voters thought it would be.

The list of local doctors who work in medical marijuana clinics includes moonlighting surgeons, retired general practitioners and at least one pathologist.

Five days a week, Camacho-Otero sees between 35 and 40 patients for about 15 minutes each, reviewing their medical records and deciding if, based on their history, they meet the loose Oregon guidelines for receiving medical marijuana cards.

Most, she says, aren’t suffering from cancer, AIDS or multiple sclerosis — the maladies that were most frequently mentioned when Oregonians approved a medical marijuana program back in 1998.

Marijuana advocates say that’s a sign that, as people have become accustomed to legal medical marijuana, more have found they can benefit from it. Studies show that as many as one out of three Americans suffer from chronic pain, and some activists say they can foresee the day when one third of Oregonians use medical marijuana.

As for her job, Camacho-Otero says prior to moving to Oregon three years ago, she had never thought about medicinal marijuana. In Puerto Rico, she worked as a nuclear medicine specialist in a hospital, having to deal with the administrative overload that most doctors complain about. At the THCF clinic her hours are regular and the work not nearly as stressful.

Camacho-Otero is not passionate about reforming marijuana laws, but she does believe she is providing a public service.

Most of her marijuana clinic patients, Camacho-Otero says, have already been to conventional physicians, chiropractors and acupuncturists in search of pain relief. She’s convinced that for some, marijuana provides that relief.

“As a medical provider, whatever works to improve the quality of life for the person in front of you, if it works, why not?” Camacho-Otero says.

A prosperous industry

While nobody keeps an exact count (no state agency is required to), state officials estimate there are about 15 medical marijuana clinics statewide and four or five in Portland. The THCF clinic is by far the largest, servicing about half the state’s medical marijuana clinic patients, according to owner Paul Stanford.

Stanford is a hard-core marijuana activist, and behind a looming ballot measure to legalize marijuana in Oregon. He’s also at the nexus of the burgeoning marijuana business in Oregon.

Stanford owns and runs six medical marijuana clinics (and 37 traveling clinics) in nine states, with his headquarters here in Portland. He says his clinics have approved more than 110,000 people for medical marijuana cards. Most have paid $150 to $200 for their clinic visits. That computes to nearly $20 million in revenue.

From that, Stanford has to pay his overhead, starting with the doctors such as Camacho-Otero. Most work for him only part time, and receive $1,000 to $1,200 a day. Still, it’s a good business and a sign, Stanford says, of how much prosperity there is to be had should marijuana become legal and taxed.

Sandee Burbank, executive director of Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA), which runs another Southeast Portland clinic, says she employs five local doctors, “and every week I have more calling, wanting to work.”

Burbank says that in addition to helping patients get authorization for cards, her staff spends on average 90 minutes educating each patient about the dangers of mixing cannabis and pharmaceuticals, and teaching them how to take medical marijuana in different forms, such as tinctures placed under the tongue.

In an attempt to keep money out of the mix, Oregon law says that medical marijuana cannot be sold. Nevertheless, money is very much a part of the medical marijuana landscape. Stanford says the dozens of horticultural shops that have sprung up to sell supplies such as indoor grow lights represent a larger business than the clinics.

Initiatives would change law

Supporters of ballot measures that would change Oregon’s medical marijuana laws say money — tax money — is one of their major selling points.

The measure most likely to make it on to the November ballot would establish nonprofit dispensaries throughout the state to sell marijuana to cardholders.

Independent marijuana growers would be licensed by the state to provide the cannabis, with the idea that competition among the growers would lower the price of the marijuana sold to the stores. Dispensaries and growers would pay 10 percent of gross sales to the state and provide discounted marijuana for low-income cardholders.

John Sajo, director of nonprofit advocacy organization Voter Power, helped draft the initiative, and he projects that in the first year after passage, dispensaries and growers could be sending between $10 million to $40 million back to the state, which would use some of that money to oversee the growers and stores.

Sajo says based on the growth rate in the number of medical marijuana users — and in recent years those numbers have been skyrocketing — as much as $1 billion could make its way into state coffers over 10 years.

Stanford’s initiative, to which he has pledged $150,000 to help pay signature gatherers, is considered more of a long shot to make it on this November’s ballot.

It would make marijuana legal and allow its sale through state-run stores modeled after liquor stores. It, too, would give the state the power to license growers.

Stanford projects that his measure would bring in about $150 million in additional tax revenues a year, and save an additional $75 million in prison, court and police costs now spent on pursuing marijuana-related crimes.

He foresees Oregon farmers profiting the most, as they become the first in the country to legally harvest marijuana.

“It’s just going to make Oregon’s economy boom. We’ll be the Anheuser-Bush of cannabis,” Stanford says.

Stanford says he’s getting a head start by spending $200,000 a year on his own marijuana garden for cannabis that he either uses or gives away. He says the garden is an investment — should either of the ballot measures pass in November, he says he will be poised to take advantage of the market with new strains of cannabis he is developing.

But the prospect of marijuana dispensaries and legalization has some looking south, to California, where poor and in some cases nonexistent oversight has led to what everyone on the marijuana scene agrees is a mess.

In Los Angeles alone, until recent federal intervention, an estimated 1,000 marijuana dispensaries had been operating in open competition with each other, with sidewalk hawkers beckoning pedestrians to come inside for quick approval by a doctor and an afternoon toke.

Proponents say that won’t happen in Oregon, should the measure pass. The state health department would have broad powers to monitor and regulate the growers and the dispensaries. But Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, for one, still doesn’t like the idea.

“I don’t have a high degree of confidence that the state bureaucracy will do that,” he says.

Growers get by police with ‘stay out of jail’ cards

Lt. Curt Strickland, interagency narcotics team commander for Douglas County, says it is not unusual for one of his officers to stop a vehicle, find as much as six pounds of marijuana inside, and do nothing about it.

The reason, Strickland says, is Oregon’s medical marijuana law, which allows growers to transport up to a pound and a half of marijuana per cardholder. If a driver can produce four cards and say he’s growing for himself and three others, he’s free to transport up to six pounds — a lot of marijuana.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Strickland says. “But we know they’re transporting it for sale.”

The only place in the process where police have a chance for making an arrest, Strickland says, is when the marijuana is actually being sold. And Douglas County marijuana farmers have figured out a the way to avoid that — drive south and sell their pot in California.

At the large marijuana farms that have begun to dot the Southern Oregon landscape, growers have begun to work cooperatively, according to law enforcement officials.

Each grower can raise enough for a maximum of four cardholders, but four growers working at one site can have 16 cards, which allows them to be tending six mature plants and 18 immature plants per card. At 24 plants per card, and 16 cards, that’s a grow site with 284 total plants, all legal.

All supposedly destined for medical marijuana cardholders free of charge. Medical marijuana law says designated growers can’t charge for their crop, or even the time they spend tending it.

“If you fly over Douglas County it’s the most common thing in the world,” Strickland says. But he isn’t buying into the idea that all those growers are altruistic in nature.

The trick for marijuana farmers, Strickland says, is getting enough cardholders to designate them as their growers. Some, he says, advertise on Internet social networking sites for cards, offering an ounce of pot a month for the right to grow 24 plants.

“If people have their cards and a modicum of common sense, it’s hard to catch them,” Strickland says. “And a huge percentage of them are growing for sale.”

Grower gets fulfillment from helping others

Jay Freeman wants it known that there are a lot of medical marijuana growers who do follow the law and who provide marijuana to cardholders for free, as the law allows.

Freeman, who moved to Northeast Portland last year from Seattle, suffers from back spasms. A physician prescribed muscle relaxants that made him sleepy, but didn’t do much for the pain.

So Freeman visited Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse, a Southeast Portland marijuana education center that also serves as a clinic. A short visit with a physician there cost him $200, and after he sent another $100 to the state, Freeman had his medical marijuana card.

He went online looking for a grower but found, as others have, that growers on the Web seemed more interested in securing cards to enlarge their operations. Freeman decided to grow his own, and he learned how by attending meetings at local headquarters for two other advocacy organizations, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation. These contacts allowed Freeman to plug into a local marijuana support network that advocates say is steadily growing.

Indoor growing, Freeman says, has not been that difficult. He grows the limit of six plants and gets a few ounces from each plant, more than he needs. The excess he gives away, through contacts on a social networking Web site he set up last year for medical marijuana cardholders and growers, www.budbook.org.

Freeman, 25, says the street price of marijuana these days is somewhere between $200 and $250 an ounce. Yet by his last count, 197 members from his Web site have given out free marijuana to cardholders. The Web site itself has attracted more than 2,200 members.

“To be able to grow a plant that medicates a person, that a 60- or 70-year-old woman (uses to) relieve her pain, makes a young grower feel so good inside. It’s unlike anything I have ever experienced,” Freeman says.

By Peter Korn  Source.


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