Oregon: Medical Pot a Growing Presence


January 25, 2010 – Next to the federal courthouse in downtown Medford, medical marijuana patients pass in and out of a nondescript building where cannabis is smoked, grown and exchanged between patients.

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In the lobby, something that looks like driftwood sits on a desk. It’s the stump from a massive marijuana plant that produced 16 pounds of dried bud in a growing climate that many growers say rivals Northern California.

It’s no accident that Southern Oregon NORML moved into these offices, where its volunteers have windows that overlook the courthouse parking lot used by judges and sheriff’s deputies unloading prisoners for trials.

“The fact that the federal courthouse was here is the icing on the cake,” said Mel Barniskis, information manager.

SO NORML is one of eight businesses that have sprung up in the Rogue Valley in the past two years to help patients with the complicated process of getting a medical marijuana card and connecting with a grower who can provide the medication allowed under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act of 1998. In 2006, Senate Bill 1085 increased the number of plants and quantity of dried marijuana a patient could possess to six mature plants, 18 immature seedlings and 24 ounces of usable cannabis.

Cannabis advocates hope setting up SO NORML’s operation next to a courthouse sends a message that the medical benefits of marijuana are more widely embraced, laws are relaxing and the stereotype of “Reefer Madness” is fading away.

Jackson County has the third-highest number of medical marijuana cardholders of the 36 counties in the state at 2,931, according to the latest figures from the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. Both Jackson and Josephine counties have the highest number of cardholders per capita in the state.

Barniskis said SO NORML, where the smell of marijuana is sometimes evident upon entering the lobby, makes every effort to follow the law and get along with its neighbor, the federal government, which still classifies marijuana in the same category as heroin. The federal government in October agreed not to arrest patients who comply with state laws allowing medical marijuana.

“We have to be operating within the law or we’re the biggest idiots in the world,” Barniskis said. “We’re not the biggest idiots in the world.”

Marijuana-related establishments such as SO NORML are part of a growing cottage industry allowed under Oregon’s medical marijuana law. But both advocates and opponents of medical marijuana want to change the law, which many think is vague and lacks adequate oversight.

Marijuana proponents’ goals range from fully legalizing the drug to classifying it as a prescription medication available at drugstores.

Opponents, particularly law enforcement, want more restrictions and regulation, saying current laws open the door to more cannabis production, which they fear will lead more people into a world of drugs.

Medford Deputy Police Chief Tim George said lax marijuana laws have led to a boost in pot seizures.

His drug unit confiscated 5 pounds of dried marijuana in 2008 and 108 pounds in 2009. “We expect our numbers to be off the charts in 2010,” he said.

George criticized current laws that allow a cardholder to possess up to 24 plants and 24 ounces of processed marijuana, the most of the 14 states that have medical marijuana laws.

Medford Police Chief Randy Schoen said marijuana clinics such as SO NORML generate very few complaints, but if problems arise he will consult with the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office to help determine whether they are operating within the law.

He said he would wait until a specific case arises before commenting on the legality of these operations. “We have our opinions whether it is legal or not,” said Schoen.

In addition to SO NORML and three others in Medford, medical marijuana clinics have opened in Ashland, Rogue River and Grants Pass. Not all have been without incident.

Brenda Thomas, manager of the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation in Grants Pass, was arrested in November after law enforcement agents alleged she and others had 200 pounds of marijuana.

SO NORML’s offices are just a few blocks from the Medford police station, and Barniskis said she and the rest of the staff welcome the police and anyone else who wants to take a look at their operation.

Far in the back of the building, SO NORML has a smoking lounge for people with medical marijuana cards, who can exchange marijuana to find out which strain provides the best treatment for a variety of medical problems. This is one of the few areas that are off-limits to the general public.

She said the operation is self-policing, booting out any member who tries to sell marijuana or does anything that conflicts with the law. About 350 members pay a $100 annual fee, or $35 if they are considered low-income. Some 250 growers are part of the organization, many of whom also have medical marijuana cards.

Sometimes problems do arise, she said. A grower might tell a patient that the plants got ripped off, only to turn around and sell the marijuana for top dollar on the black market.

“You’re always going to have somebody abusing the system,” Barniskis said. “We as an organization are attempting to weed that out as much as possible.”

Local police agencies have been cracking down on medical marijuana growers who exceed the limit allowed by law. On Monday, a marijuana grow site was raided in Gold Hill for allegedly containing 80 pounds of processed marijuana, far more than the legal limit of 12 pounds for the site, which had two registered growers. Police arrested Tommie Dean McIntosh, 37, on manufacturing, possession and distribution of marijuana, as well as being a felon in possession of a handgun.

Medical marijuana users face other dangers, as well. On Friday night, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Department reported that two armed men staged a home invasion robbery at the home of a Cave Junction man, stealing his medical marijuana and leaving the man with a fractured skull and two broken fingers.

Barniskis said law enforcement needs to better understand how pot is smoked, ingested and grown before concluding that the six mature plants and 18 immature plants allowed per patient are too much. Indoor operations produce only a few ounces per plant, while outdoor grow sites can develop several pounds of marijuana from a single plant. Outdoor cannabis sites are subject to thievery, bug infestations and mold that can kill a crop, she said.

A marijuana cardholder herself, Barniskis said some patients get better relief from ailments by taking tinctures or eating marijuana, rather than smoking it. But eating marijuana requires more plant material to get the full medicinal benefit, she said.

Barniskis ingests about an ounce of marijuana a week to treat neuropathy, which has caused extreme pain, swelling and bruising in her feet. A former 9-1-1 dispatcher in Alaska, Barniskis said she’s tried traditional pain medications to no avail.

Ingesting marijuana is more preferable for Barniskis than smoking because it doesn’t produce the buzzy head high.

Patients often try different strains of marijuana to treat different ailments. Barniskis likened choosing the right strain of marijuana to finding the right medication for a headache. And discovering the most effective dosage is like adjusting to high-blood-pressure medication, she said.

Getting a medical marijuana card isn’t always a certainty, Barniskis said. SO NORML asks potential patients to look over the list of approved health problems that can be treated with medical marijuana. If they don’t have a malady that fits, they are told they won’t qualify.

“You can’t get a casual pot card in Oregon,” she said.

If a potential patient does appear to qualify, he is told to go back to his regular doctor. If the regular doctor won’t sign the recommendation for the card, there are up to 24 local doctors who will review medical history before signing the form for a fee. One Medford clinic charges $175 for a consultation.

Rita Sullivan, director of the treatment recovery program OnTrack Inc., said the biggest problem she has with Oregon’s medical marijuana laws is monitoring.

The marijuana laws also make the drug more available locally, she said.

Sullivan said prescription drugs have been a problem for those with addictive behavior, but recent Oregon laws now mean these medications are more closely monitored.

She said marijuana appears to be effective in certain medical situations. The list of medical problems that can be treated with marijuana seems acceptable, but “severe pain” is the most common complaint and can be the most subjective, she said.

In some instances, OnTrack clients have tried to use medical marijuana after getting a state-issued card.

Sullivan said that in general her organization doesn’t allow it because these clients have shown a propensity for using other drugs.

“We don’t want to play Russian roulette with the people who do use drugs,” she said.

On occasion, OnTrack has allowed clients who have advanced AIDS to use marijuana if they are very ill, but it is a very uncomfortable decision for her organization. “It puts these people in a tough spot,” she said.

Mark Huddleston, Jackson County district attorney, said he hasn’t received any criminal cases so far involving clinics or businesses related to medical marijuana in this county.

He believes most people involved in Oregon’s marijuana program are following the law, though he thinks the way it is written invites abuse and doesn’t have enough monitoring.

“Enforcement is difficult under the medical marijuana act,” he said.

Medical Marijuana Cardholders
Jackson County has the third-highest number of medical marijuana cardholders and second-highest number of cards per capita of the 36 counties in the state, according to the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.

Number of cardholders Per number of residents

Josephine 2,014 1 out of 40

Jackson 2,931 1 out of 68

Lane 3,002 1 out of 115

Multnomah 4,466 1 out of 160

Total cardholders in Oregon; 26,274

Number of applications denied in 2009; 991

Main reason for needing medical marijuana is severe pain; 23,346

Local outlets that offer services for medical marijuana patients

* Southern Oregon NORML, 332 W. Sixth Ave., Medford; 541-779-1448
* Medical Marijuana Patient Services Smoke Shop, 1252 W. McAndrews Road, Medford; 541-301-8706
* Voter Power, 1708 W. Main, Suite B., Medford; 541-245-6634
* Southern Oregon Alternative Medicine, 836 E. Main St., Suite 6, Medford; 541-779-5235
* Ashland Alternative Medicine, 180 Clear Creek, No. 103, Ashland; 541-488-2202
* The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, 558 Northeast F St., Suite 1, Grants Pass; 541-244-4000
* The Herbal Resource Center, 204 Madrone St., Rogue River; 541-582-2222
* Herbal Pain Management Center, 201 E. Main St., Rogue River; 541-582-9150

By Damian Mann. Source.


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