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Clinics held in Durango make it easier to get a state permit for the use of medical marijuana

Suffering from cancer? Smoke some marijuana. How about from multiple sclerosis, AIDS, hepatitis, glaucoma, nausea or chronic pain? You too can light up a joint to help numb the agony. And if you have a friend in need, sell them some weed, or better yet, give it away.

It’s all perfectly legal under Colorado’s medical marijuana law, passed by voters in 2000.

But while marijuana is becoming a drug of choice for some medical conditions, the federal government, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, doesn’t recognize the weed as legally legitimate.

This contradiction is shaping a national public-policy debate between conventional and alternative medicines, and over the issue of whether a state has a right to trump federal drug laws.

It may come as a surprise to residents that the Colorado Department of Health is legally obligated to issue permits for qualifying patients to cultivate, possess, use and sell marijuana.

Under the constitutional amendment, cardholders can legally possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants, three in vegetative state and three in the mature budding stage.

Since 2000, the health department has issued 1,672 permits under the law. The program has been received well by the public “and is slowly growing,” says Ron Hyman, health department registrar for vital statistics.

Several clinics that help facilitate this process have sprung up along the Front Range and a new chapter arrived in Durango this fall.

“We were called by someone in your area who wanted to help a friend get legal access to cannabis for relief from chronic seizures but was forced to travel 400 miles to Denver,” explained Paul Stanford, executive director of The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation (THCF), based in Portland, Ore.

“That didn’t seem right, so once there were enough appointments our staff drove over [to Durango] and we had a great turnout. We’re planning another clinic in November.”

Colorado is one of 13 states that allow use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Advocates such as the hemp foundation say marijuana is a safe alternative to conventional medications, such as morphine, which are expensive, highly addictive and have multiple side-effects.

“A lot of our patients are on really debilitating narcotics like Oxycotin or morphine that just knock them out to the point they can’t function any more,” Stanford said. “With cannabis they can control their pain without getting high by eating capsules of the leaf, or through new devices that use vaporization.”

THCF promotes, defends and assists in the implementation of medical marijuana laws that exist in the states of Hawaii, California, Nevada, Colorado, Rhode Island, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Virginia.

Stanford dedicated his career to debunking myths about medical marijuana laws and is often at odds with federal law enforcement agencies that oppose the trend.

But, he says, detractors like the DEA are fighting a losing battle because public perception is shifting from cannabis as the forbidden foliage towards an accepted holistic herbal remedy.

“It’s been a grassroots effort,” he quipped of Durango’s successful effort to open the clinic. “But, seriously I think we’re seeing a generational change take shape where citizens are sophisticated enough to realize the medical benefits of cannabis.”

However, critics, including the American Medical Association, Food and Drug Administration and the federal government, disagree. They argue that conventional medicines are just as effective and safer than pot, and that medicinal marijuana laws are a propaganda smokescreen meant to eventually legalize the drug completely.

“Federal law states that there is no such thing as medical marijuana — it does not exist,” stated Mike Turner, a special agent with the Denver office of the DEA. “If we did come upon someone [with pot] claiming medical marijuana they could be arrested, but whether that would happen would be on a case-by-case basis.

“In Colorado it is not on the radar screen, but that could change if we saw clinics showing up everywhere like is happening in California.”

The agency focuses its limited resources on large drug trafficking rings, he said, “not someone smoking socalled medical marijuana, but technically they are in violation of federal law.”

“Legalize it, don’t criticize it.” — Peter Tosh

Colorado’s populace seems to agree. At a hotel conference room in Durango this September, a retired heart surgeon with THCF waited to see 35 patients seeking a state permit for marijuana use.

Appointments are required, and applicants must follow strict guidelines to comply with the law. Prospective patients are first screened over the phone to determine if they meet the requirements.

Documentation is required from a physician not affiliated with THCF that a patient suffers from one of the conditions warranting medical marijuana under the state law. These include chronic pain, seizures, glaucoma, AIDS, cancer, severe nausea and hepatitis. Medical records must be faxed to THCF for review by their medical staff.

Stanford said that it is not necessary for patients to inform their doctors that they are seeking medical marijuana for treatment.

“We leave that up to the patient. We find that about half of our patients do not want to let that information out because it would be on their medical record,” he said.

THCF recommends that patients simply inform their doctors that their medication is not working and want to see a specialist who needs their medical records. Doctors routinely fax medical records to other doctors as a professional courtesy. Or, a patient can obtain his or her own medical charts and fax them personally to the clinic physician, Stanford said.

Once the THCF physician receives the medical records he reviews them and if the patient qualifies he is given an appointment. At the clinic an exam is conducted, paperwork is filled out and an educational film is shown. The clinic physician writes out the prescription, then sends the originals to the Department of Health, which issues the registration card.

“Once our doctor gives the recommendation for medical marijuana, it is a done deal. The permit is automatic according to the law,” Stanford said. The cost for this service is $290 per year. Of that, $90 is the health department’s fee, paid annually for renewal.

The prescription or “recommendation” from THCF costs $200 and is also required to be updated yearly. Medical records verifying the condition must be updated every three years from a doctor not affiliated with a medical marijuana clinic.

Prescription filled

Under the state marijuana provision, cardholders can grow their own marijuana legally. Also, the drug can be sold between cardholders within the quantity limits of the law. In addition, patients can specify they require a “caregiver” to provide the drug for them, explained Hyman of the state health department.

Caregivers do not have to have a medical marijuana card, he said, but must be listed on the patient’s card to legally grow, sell and possess the drug. This is critical if patients are found with the drug by law enforcement.

Without the paperwork shown upfront, the marijuana can be confiscated and the person charged until valid documentation is provided.

Police reaction

Montezuma and La Plata county sheriff’s departments and district attorneys report that they will respect the state medical marijuana laws if patients are in compliance.

“If they are following the state law, and they have their card, then there is nothing we can do because the state does allow it,” said Montezuma County sheriff Gerald Wallace. “So they must be careful to stay in compliance with the statute or they can be charged like anybody else.”

He has seen only one case in the county involving medical marijuana. Wallace cautioned that possessing a card does not give users the right to drive a vehicle while on the drug.

“They could be charged with driving under the influence, just like with other medications,” he said. Use of marijuana in public is prohibited as well, he said.

A provision in the law allows law enforcement to verify with the health department a particular person’s status regarding a medical marijuana permit.

District Attorney Jim Wilson, representing Montezuma and Dolores counties, echoed Wallace’s policy.

“If they provide proof they are a treatment provider or a cardholder allowing use of marijuana then we do not prosecute the case,” Wilson said, adding that officers are educated on the law.

The DEA, on the other hand, does not recognize medical marijuana as legitimate.

“Medical drugs need to go through years of testing and receive approval from the FDA so that the public has a reasonable expectation that it is safe. Marijuana has not gone through that process,” said Special Agent Turner.

“I don‚t think the public is fully aware of the dangers of marijuana. If you have to smoke something to get a medical result, that should tell you there is something not right there.”

Cases do come up, he said, but are not common or a priority. At any rate, the final decision to prosecute a medical marijuana case is with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Gaouette, of the Denver office, said pot possession cases for the small amounts allocated by the state for medical uses are not generally prosecuted.

The Colorado U.S. Attorney’s office has never taken a case involving medical marijuana, he said.

“But if someone were growing a marijuana crop on the back forty with hundreds of kilos and then they produced a marijuana card, that could be a case we would take a look at.”

For more information or a prescreening call The Foundation for Hemp and Cannabis at 259-0837 or 1- 800-723-0188.

Their website is www.thc-foundation. org.

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From -November 2007.